Words and photos by: Will Henry

My first trip to New Zealand, in 1987, was on the way back from an extended, debaucheryladen trip through Australia. I had been in West Oz, in Fremantle during the America’s Cup, and was witness to a victoriously chubby Dennis Conner becoming an American hero, bringing the cup back to US soil with great fanfare. Little did I know at the time, the machinations of that sailing race were to drastically change the face of New Zealand’s coastal landscape for decades to come and would eventually be the reason for my not-so happy return to the country this year. Not that I don’t love New Zealand – who wouldn’t adore this place? – but I wonder why here, of all places, a surfing wave would be threatened? Isn’t this the home of Raglan, ASR Ltd., and more surfers per capita than sheep?

Fueled by successes in sailboat racing since that America’s Cup (in which the Kiwis almost wrested the prize from Conner which they have won many times since), New Zealand’s boat manufacturing industry has recently experienced unprecedented growth, and along with it, boatloads of frenzied day-trippers exploding out of harbors and marinas every time the sun comes out or the fish are biting, or sometimes even just if the beer is cold. Yachting is booming in New Zealand, making a lot of people rich, and those rich people want more places to park their boats. Therein lies the reason for the potential demise of one of the world’s greatest surfing waves: Whangamata Bar.

Whangamata is a surfer’s town. There is a small main street with a couple of markets, a post office, a few restaurants, and an equal number of surf shops. The wave built the town, and nearly everyone who lives here rides a board. The town sits next to a natural estuary, flanked by a crescent of brilliant white sand, and at the estuary’s mouth of is one of the best-shaped sandbars I have ever laid eyes upon. Behind the sandbar lies a channel deep enough for boats to safely pass into the estuary and tie up to one of the nearly 200 moorings currently inside the harbor. Opposite the estuary is a mountain covered in lush green vegetation, providing a backdrop that befits a town known for its wild and natural beauty.

Paul Shanks has lived in Whangamata since the ’70s, when he moved there with his wife to escape the hectic life of the city and get in as many days at Whanga Bar as possible. Paul is now the President of the Surfbreak Protection Society, a Kiwi-based nonprofit whose main focus at the moment is to keep Whanga Bar from disappearing. On the other side of the issue is the Marina Society, a group of boaters and investors who want to see more boats in the estuary, and more money in their pockets. Shares in the Marina Society are selling for about US$50,000 per berth – but the going rate for berth space this close to the open ocean could be valued as high as US$150,000 – so a lot of people are buying up 10 or more berths in the hopes of cashing in big by selling off when the marina goes in.

When we arrived in Whangamata (which thankfully was timed perfectly with a head-high swell), none of the locals seemed to have any clue as to what actually was being planned for the estuary. We heard a different story from everyone we asked, which proves that when there is money to be made at the expense of a community, those who are going to make it like to keep the facts hidden far below the surface. Most surfers didn’t seem to think new development would affect the wave. Had we flown all the way here for nothing? It wasn’t until we shared a few tinnies with Paul that the truth became apparent: the Marina Society was doing one hell of a job of pulling the wool over the locals’ eyes.

The facts are actually quite straightforward. Currently, the estuary is in a near-natural state, except for the occasional deepening of the entrance channel, and pollution from local sewage (a whole other issue which I won’t get into here). Boats moor in the deeper parts of the estuary, and not much has been altered by the hands of man since the Maori called this place their own. The new marina, however, intends to remove tons of material from inside the estuary to create more space for boats, and berths so that people don’t have to row their dinghies to and from shore when they want a bag of groceries or to load up on beer and ice for a day’s fishing. It all sounds peachy to the boaters, and even to some of the surfers, but when you examine the delicate dynamics of a tidal estuary sandbar, any expert will tell you that if you mess with the estuary, you mess with the sandbar. And why mess with perfection?

“It’s like digging a hole in the sand at the beach,” stated Shanks. “What happens when you dig a hole? It fills up with sand as soon as the next wave rolls in. It’s common sense. So where is the sand going to come from when they dig this hole in the estuary? It’s going to come from the Bar, and then this town will have lost its wave.”

Studies have been conducted by independent researchers but Marina Society representatives have refused to accept the facts. Almost every scientist who has looked at the marina proposal say it will have drastic consequences to the Bar and even to the beach, but the boaters couldn’t care less – after all, most of them don’t surf … most of them don’t live in the town.

The Marina Society had been trying to get approval for the marina for over a decade, and until last year, every attempt had been shot down due to the project’s negative environmental impacts. But then, when the marina seemed to be a dead issue, sudden approval surprised everyone. Turns out local regulations had mysteriously changed to allow for the marina proposal to be submitted again, before anyone had a chance to dispute it. The scenario reeked of corruption, but no one was able to pin anything on anyone.

Whanga Bar’s future is not hopeless, however. The local Iwi, or Maori tribe, has gotten involved. In April, they blocked the first attempt by earthmovers to extract sand and mud from inside the estuary by standing on the equipment. The Surfbreak Protection Society is still fighting it, too, taking it to New Zealand’s Parliament and trying to uncover the corruption. But once again, it’s a case where big money is at stake, and the bad guys have a lot more of it. Surfbreak’s Mike Gunson summed it up during our visit: “They have one of the best waves in all of New Zealand at the mouth of that estuary, and already a safe harbor for boats, not to mention numerous other harbors nearby. So why change anything? The answer is money.”

For now the fate of Whangamata lies in the hands of local government and citizens, most of whom don’t see eye to eye. And the local surfers don’t seem to realize what they might lose should this project see completion. “They won’t know it until it’s gone,” said Shanks, “and by then it will be too late to do anything about it.”

Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Save the Waves organization, Will Henry travels the world to report on threats to beaches and surf spots.