In 1881 the Waipapa Reef was the scene of NZ's worst civilian maritime disaster when the SS Tararua sank with the loss of 131 lives, only 20 people managed to survive. A lighthouse was erected on the point after the disaster & is now one of the most popular places to visit in the Catlins but also in part because it's a well know spot to see sealions.
When we arrived there was a massive "meat ball" happening right down below us. A "meat ball", or baitball as it's sometimes known, is a huge school of small fish that have formed into a tightly packed spherical formation to try and avoid being eaten by the hundreds of birds feeding from above & other larger fish from below. The mass of fish swung this way and that as they tried to escape the frenzy of the diving birds. Most of the birds were sooty shearwaters, also known as mutton birds here in New Zealand, with gulls, terns & shags feeding on the fringes. It was all very exciting, & extremely noisy.
Down on the shoreline the spotted shags (parekareka) that were finished with feeding were gathering to prod, preen, dry out & talk (squawk) about their catch.
Some shags dropped in from overhead, others arrived rather abruptly by surf.
And there in amongst all the melee were the sealions, four of them, cast in the sand looking like giant sea-slugs slumbering on with not a care in the world. If you haven't come across sealions before, they can be quite intimidating as can be seen by these visitors (below) that were standing well back from them. DOC (Dept of Conservation) recommend that you keep a 10 metre distance but there's always someone who will push the envelope......(he's the one with a missing foot! ;) )
This guy below was my favourite, doesn't he look just so darn cute snoring away with his sand scull cap on to keep the sun off his head.
Just behind the sealions the white fronted terns (tara) were bringing home their catch for their fledgling chicks that were waiting on the rocks. They were demanding little blighters & the parents were very particular in getting to the right chick before letting go of their hard earned haul. Any hesitation and a gull stepped in to sort it out!
This chick did not belong to this bird, no matter how much it begged the adult ignored him. The adult kept looking around trying to locate it's chick and then flew on to another rock where a gull promptly grabbed the fish.
After all the animal & bird activity the lighthouse became a second priority but a look over my shoulder confirmed that we needed to high tail it out of there as a southerly front was fast approaching.
The 44 foot high lighthouse tower is built from kauri & totara (native NZ trees) and is one of the last timber lighthouses built in NZ, Kaipara Heads in the North Island being the other & also identical to Waipapa. In the 19th century timber lighthouses were cheaper to build and also the timber was able to withstand the fierce coastal environment. The lower cavity wall is filled with local stone for ballast.
Until the lighthouse was automated in 1976 there was a small community of lighthouse keepers' houses & out buildings located on the plateau behind the lighthouse. It would have been an isolated & windswept place to live.
With the weather front nearly upon us, we had one more stop to do further back along the road. A visit to the Tararua Acre, a cemetery & memorial for the Tararua shipwreck victims which is located over the sand dunes from the reef where the ship went down. It was a short walk across private farm land to the fenced off acre. Sheep grazed in the dunes & paddocks surrounding the site.
Big fat raindrops joined us for the walk (run) back across the paddock to the car & by the time we got back to the fifth-wheeler it was pelting down, the temperature had plummeted & a strong wind was blowing. It didn't ease up for 24 hours. Such is the weather in Southland.
"A nasty misty mizzle, a steady dripping drizzle"- the person who wrote that in the Clutha Leader newspaper in 1890 knew a thing or two about the Catlin weather.