Stingrays, Starfish and Dolphins at Lochmara

… And back to the top of the South Island! Yes, we are back in Picton, a place that appears to still be taking our breath away as we travel the highway between forested mountains, to then reveal an elevated view over the harbour town and out to ocean and mountains of the Marlborough Sounds. But you didn’t think we were going to leave the South Island just yet, did you?

Instead of hopping straight on the ferry to the North Island, we park up by Picton Wharf and head down a jetty to where the Lochmara boat is docked. With the glassy water stretching out to lush mountains emerging from low-lying cloud during this beautiful morning, who would want to leave the South Island?

A journey into the Marlborough Sounds

Our skipper, Shane, greets us and takes us on a 15-minute journey across the water and into one of the bays hidden from Picton’s view. As we leave the boat, we are pretty sure that we have stepped onto paradise. Instantly, there’s a change of pace here. Everyone is just doing their own thing, whether it’s relaxing at the Lochmara Cafe or preparing on the kayaks (free to use). There’s so much to do here that there is a map of 24 different sights and things to do around the property. Walks, sculptures, flying fox (zipline), pigs, chickens, hammocks and kayaks: just to name a few. Because we are quite the suckers for wildlife, we are grabbing a mask and snorkel and getting in the water!

Follow the leader

Khia, one of the marine biologists at Lochmara who arrived with us on the boat, advised us to take the short walk into the next small bay to swim with stingrays! Indeed, it is a short walk through a section of dense forest absolutely alive with the sound of cicadas. We have to shout at each other to be heard over their vigorous clicking noises. Somehow, we have picked up a doggy guide called “Lochy” who leads the way.

What a snorkelling sensation! What a snorkelling sensation!
Lots of these guys! (Don't worry, you can't feel their stings) Lots of these guys! (Don't worry, you can't feel their stings)
Another fact you didn't know about Robin: he is an expert at synchronised swimming with fish Another fact you didn't know about Robin: he is an expert at synchronised swimming with fish
Hanging out with this little fella Hanging out with this little fella

Going for a snorkel!

We arrive at a small bay with a sign saying “Hammockville”. Tree ferns are joined together by hammocks overlooking a bay with a jetty and underwater observatory – a good sign for marine life, right?

Masks, snorkels and wetsuits on, we lower ourselves from the jetty into the water. New Zealand’s water are not exactly “tropical paradise” warm, but the wetsuits just take the edge of the chill. We find that swimming in shallower water is gives us better clarity to see the likes of starfish and sea urchins clinging to rocks below. Khia arrives at the underwater observatory in preparation for opening and throws some food into the water for us (not to eat, obviously, but to entice wildlife). Sure enough, a huge school of fish take the bait, circling us in the process. We are super close to these yellow-eyed mullet making pretty patterns in the water.

Snorkelling with the stingrays

The fish stick around for a while after that, soon to be joined by jellyfish (the kind whose sting cannot penetrate our skin, thank God), and some smaller species of fish that like to hang out on the surface. Finally, the black shadow on the seafloor getting closer and closer indicates that the stingrays are coming! Perhaps five of six of them swim underneath us and hang about in the shallow waters – perfect for watching!

After about half an hour of swimming with stingrays and even being joined by a couple of pied shags (seabirds), we get out, dry up and catch a stingray feeding and underwater observatory tour. Now we can experience the wildlife out of the water!

Sun and stingrays: the perfect combo!

Stingray feeding

With a bucket of fish heads in hand, Khia leads the tour and invites us to get our feet in the water. She leaves some smelly fish heads in the water to entice the stingrays in, while she tells us more about these creatures including their strong sense of smell. With patience, one of the smaller stingrays arrive, which we are encouraged to touch and feel its super slippery skin.

Underwater observatory

From there, we finally get to the see the seafloor from the underwater observatory, a glass-bottom (and sides) boat held stationary by the jetty. We take the steps down into its depths into a narrow room lined with windows looking into the artificial reef open into the ocean (except for one caged area at the end holding blue cod and crayfish). The yellow-head mullets are now circling the observatory to avoid the dives of the shag, which we get a unique view of swimming underwater! The observatory holds all sorts of starfish and anemone. Khia tells us more about what we are seeing down here, while giving us time to hang out for a while and see what underwater incidents occur.

Giving the stingrays a pet Giving the stingrays a pet
A wriggling starfish from the Touch Tank A wriggling starfish from the Touch Tank
Ending the day with a dolphin dance! Ending the day with a dolphin dance!

Starfish, sea urchins and anemone in the touch tank

After watching some creatures of the deep behaving, we emerge back into daylight to have a fiddle in the Touch Tank. A long tank fed with fresh seawater lines the side of the jetty.

“Don’t be afraid,” Khia says. “Just get your hands in there.” You heard the lady! We pick up some wiggly starfish, some not-so-wiggly starfish, all-sorts of gooey sea anemone, hermit crabs and sea urchins. It’s pretty incredible to see these sea creatures that always appear so stationary to be moving and eating up-close.

An unexpected visit from the bottlenose dolphins!

Just when we thought that was our finally wildlife encounter of the day… Something amazing happens. A huge pod of bottlenose dolphins have literally come leaping into the bay! People are getting in the kayaks, standing from the bay to watch, and we happen to talk to the right person, a WWOOFer at Lochmara, who has a little motorised boat. Although it’s not what we expected when coming to Lochmara, we have just ended up with a dolphin viewing tour!

The bottlenoses hang around for quite a while, some enthusiastically jumping, while others mellowly rise to the surface. Ah, it’s an amazing way to end our wildlife encounter here at Lochmara.

From Paradise to Picton

While we have little time left until we take the boat back to Picton, we rest in the hammocks, listening to the squawks of the resident pet parrot. Yep, this really feels like paradise.

We could have done heaps more here at Lochmara, but you would never stop reading this blog post if we decided to do them all. With that, we hop back on the boat to Picton to check-in at the Tombstone Backpackers! We can’t wait for the free freshly-baked scones for breakfast!

Tomorrow, we’re visiting more of the Marlborough Sounds, but this time seeing a bird sanctuary. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Inside the depths of the Lochmara Underwater Observatory
Inside the depths of the Lochmara Underwater Observatory Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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