McAdventures: Surat Bay

Surat Bay, Southland, New Zealand

We really enjoyed our time in the NZ South Island earlier this year.  It’s such a beautiful place so we have quite a number of pictures of share!  Instead of cramming it all into one post, I thought I’d write several posts, which would allow us to give attention to a few of our favorite spots.  One of those spots is Surat Bay. 

A chance to hang out with some old Aotearoa locals

We had just spent a few days in Dunedin, a city in NZ’s South Island, and we were heading to our next AirBnB in the Catlins region, which is along the SE coastline of the island.  We decided to check out Surat Bay since we would be close by and because it is a known hangout spot for New Zealand sea lions!  Here’s a fun fact: Did you know that prior to human settlement less than 1000 years ago, the mammalian population of NZ essentially consisted only of mammals that could fly here (bats) or swim here (marine mammals)?  Compared to the diverse population of native fauna we have in North American, this seems crazy to me – no native squirrels, rabbits, dogs, cats, bears, etc?!   

The lack of predators here meant that native birds like the kiwi were able to survive in their geographically exclusive Very Cute But Pathetically Flightless (Or Otherwise Ill-Equipped to Live with Predators) Birdy Paradise.  When the Māori arrived from the Pacific Islands to NZ around 700 years ago, their arrival not only increased the mammalian species count up by one (humans are mammals too!) they also brought with them some other mammals, like rats and dogs.  The European settlers that came several hundred years later also brought animals with them – including  cats, agriculture animals, more rodents, etc.  The arrival of people also impacted the land.  Before the arrival of humans, about 80% of the land of NZ was covered in bush (forest) and now it’s estimated to be about ~30%.   As you might imagine, the introduction of  non-native animal species along with deforestation has significantly impacted the survival of many native flora and fauna.  NZ is trying to address this with conservation programs and population control of non-native species, which has worked for some animals but sadly has not worked for others.   If there is a silver lining, it’s that except for the odd ones that people try to smuggle in to the country or are kept in zoos,  NZ does not have any snakes.  The scary snakes are in Australia. 🙂 

Anyway, since sea lions are one of the few mammals that were endemic in NZ before humans settled here, we were excited at the prospect of having an opportunity to see these NZ locals!  

 The signs at the entrance to the bay remind visitors to not interfere with the wildlife and to stay at least 10 m (~ 33 ft) away from the animals.  Luckily, I was prepared for this! Before we left the US I purchased a point and shoot camera with a 30x zoom, which has allowed me to take amazing photos of wildlife without having to get too up close and personal with them. 

The signs also warn visitors that sea lions are not particularly afraid of people and may charge at them.  At the time I read this I thought, “Well, I won’t be getting close enough to them for THAT to happen.”

Keep reading on to see how wrong I was!

 Are we still on Earth?

When we visited it was early January on a windy Saturday afternoon.  With the wind at our back, it took us about an hour to walk to the other end of the bay.  With the wind blowing the sand across the ground, the surreal landscape, and the fact that we saw almost no one during the few hours we were there, I felt like I was on another planet.  The pictures truly do not give it justice. ​

The experience of walking across this beautiful beach would have been enough to have made this a memorable part of our South Island trip.  However, we got lucky that day and we saw many sea lions! One of our first sightings was this sea lion, who was napping peacefully on the sand right near the walking path into the bay. 

Just having a nap…
Looks like a cozy little spot.

We walked not more than 10 minutes before we encountered the next sea lion, who we almost missed because he was half-buried under the sand and he looked like sea debris.  I’m assuming it was a male because he was very large.  However, although he was very big, he was surprisingly fast.  How do I know?  Well, because he tried to chase me! I had been trying to get a picture of him (at an appropriate distance) by standing above the beach on a sand dune in some tall grass.  Apparently I wasn’t doing a very good job of being sneaky because he spotted me and began waddling very quickly in my direction.  I initially assumed he would only take a few waddles towards me but then it became obvious he was determined to charge me so I had to run away.  Being chased by a marine mammal had never been an item on my bucket list, but now I feel like I could call myself a quasi-expert. 🙂

As we continued our walk down the bay, we saw a few more single sea lions as well as several couples.  In several instances, what we thought was just sea debris on the beach was actually sea lions napping. We saw one swimming in the ocean and another  rolling and twisting on the beach.  It reminded me of our dog (RIP Joe!), who used to roll around like that after having had something tasty to eat.

They roll around in the sand to cover themselves as the sand reflects the sun and keeps them cooler.  

At the end of the bay, there are some cliffs that are fun to explore and are a nice spot to stop and snap some photos.  

The long walk back and a surprise!

Although I had enjoyed our walk to the end of the bay, walking back to our car was not as pleasant because  we had to walk facing the very strong wind.  Getting sand in your eyes is no fun and I ended up needing to wrap an extra shirt we were carrying  over my eyes because I had forgotten my sunglasses.

When we got back to our rental car, it became apparent that our sea lion adventure had used up all our luck because we found ourselves with a flat tire. When I saw the flat, my heart sank because earlier that day I had hit the curb when we stopped to visit a cafe.   My next thought was “holy $&#!, we are in the middle of nowhere and we don’t have any cell service.”

Remember that I talked about how Kiwis are awesome folk in our first post? Well, several Kiwis came through for us that day, including the owner of a nearby backpacker’s lodge who lent us her landline phone multiple times to call roadside assistance, the very helpful agent at the road side assistance office in Auckland, and the tire shop owner in a nearby town who tried to help us after hours on a Saturday evening.  

If you’re wondering how the story ends, we put a donut on the car (luckily we do know how to do a few useful things like change out a flat) but the closest tire place did not have the appropriate replacement tire in stock. We ended up just driving about an hour to our AirBnB with the donut.  Our sweet AirBnB hosts lent us one of their cars to use until we were able to get the tire patched on our rental.   AND although I felt like I was 100% responsible for the flat tire, I was later vindicated when we found a nail in the tire while we we getting it patched!