My Hometown: Waiheke Island

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From My Hometown, 7:00 am on 7 January 2024

After 27 years living on Waiheke, the island has a place not only in my heart, but in my bones.

It’s paradoxical, this bone-deep love for my island home – 10 parts blessing and an aching curse.

Before I fully wake each morning, I hear the songs of tui, kaka, riroriro, piwakawaka, silvereyes, and kingfishers. Riches.

While my morning coffee brews, my eyes taste the beauty of pink puriri blossoms and the finger-like prongs of nikau flowers. Kereru flu high into the blue, then suddenly drop, swooping low over the bush in my back garden.

Kaka in flight, Waiheke Island.

Kaka in flight, Waiheke Island. Photo: Rose Davis

White sand under my feet, I listen to the heartbeat of waves. Every beach has a different heartbeat: Whakanewha is slow and healing, Enclosure Bay a secret place of quiet ripples, while Onetangi glows bright, with a strong, steady swell that bursts into wild white froth on a stormy day.

When I go to Kennedy Point, my bones ache. Tears sting my eyes. I’m not alone – we stood together as an island community fighting to keep that bay a bay. Now it’s an outpost of Auckland city, a wretched concrete car park smothering waters where dolphins and orcas used to surface, blowing out plumes of mist. Now the marina barricades in the bay and families no longer play under the giant pohutukawa trees along the shore. The biggest pohutukawa, hundreds of years old, collapsed onto the sand a few weeks ago.

There’s the curse right there. This place is part of me. When it’s destroyed, my bones ache.

And then there’s the question of love and loyalty and bones. Do I belong here? Am I trapped in this beautiful paradise forever? If I drive from Matiatia for 45 minutes, I reach the end of the island. I’m restless, drawn to explore the world, but reluctant to leave this place and this tribe I have come to love too intensely.

Dolphins frolic at Oneroa, Waiheke Island.

Dolphins frolic at Oneroa, Waiheke Island. Photo: Rose Davis

One of the delights of living in a tight community of 9000 people is rubbing bumps on women’s bellies, cooing over babies, then watching boys miraculously grow into men and girls transform into women.

Life lays out its lessons clearly here: A fit 45-year-old is suddenly an old woman walking with a stick. Time passes fast, beauty fades, and death steals in from time to time. It’s part of life none of us can avoid.

Any time that anyone is at risk of breaking here, the community holds them close. My network of friends and sweet acquaintances here is as beautiful as a pod of dolphins. That love binds me to this island, just as deeply as my love for the bush, the beaches and the sea.

Will my bones finally rest here? Or will I find a new place that soothes me to sleep with ruru song and leaves that rustle like waves breaking as the wind blows?

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Mansions are replacing baches on Waiheke Island. Photo: Natalia Catalina, 123rf

More than a third of the houses on Waiheke sit empty, lifeless most of the year along the beachfront roads. Chris Luxon owns a multi-million dollar holiday home, so he can come and go when he pleases.

I had to scrap my dream of buying a house on Waiheke. With a median price of $1.75 million, it’s impossible to for a single mum like me buy a house, no matter how hard I might work. If I leave the island, I might not be able to afford to rent a house here again.

My love makes it hard watching the island lose its beauty as the years pass. Mansions replace baches and helicopters shatter the silence, so vineyards can bustle with wealthy guests.

New Zealand’s environmental laws don’t work to protect nature – and the island community is connected enough to care.

The law allows a steady barrage of assaults on the places we love, no matter how hard we fight. That means Ports of Auckland can dredge industrial-grade sludge from the downtown port area and shipping channel and dump the waste far out at sea, closer to Great Barrier Island than to the inner city suburbs where residents might support their destruction. Our community tried to stop them, but we lost.

Earlier this year, we lost a case against a 300 hectare kingfish farm being developed between Waiheke and the Firth of Thames and importing thousands of tonnes of feed each year. The densely packed fish farm is likely to pollute the Hauraki Gulf, like an outsized filthy fish tank. The sea could lose its oxygen content and suffocate all marine life in the area, but hey, money is all that matters isn’t it?

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A protest sign at Kennedy Point, 2021. Photo: Rose Davis

And we lost the long battle against the marina at Kennedy Point.

All this losing of the natural world we love is expensive. This community has donated millions over recent years to try to protect the island and the Hauraki Gulf. (And just to correct the widespread misconception, this isn’t the playground of the rich - the median income of $32,300 in 2018 was lower than in most parts of New Zealand.)

It’s hard work, begging for marine reserves for decades, without ever winning. Aucklanders love fishing too much for any government to risk losing their votes, though the few fish left are mostly undersized and some of the snapper have milky flesh, possibly from starvation. Ironically, marine reserves are the best way to boost fish numbers, so new generations of fishers can feel the thrill of a heavy weight thrashing on their lines. But marine reserves restrict where you can fish and if you’re short-sighted enough, that seems like something to fight if you’re dead keen on fishing.

It’s tragic snorkelling around Waiheke, and actually around most places in Aotearoa. The seas have become a desert-like wasteland. Fish are a rare sight and kina barrens cover the seafloor, as the marine ecosystem edges towards collapse due to overfishing.

A heron at Whakanewha, Waiheke Island.

A heron at Whakanewha, Waiheke Island. Photo: Sarina Oetgen

A starving mako shark recently cruised along the shallows at Onetangi, a favourite beach for swimming. The shark left its normal habitat, probably in search of food, leaving anyone like me, who loves snorkelling there, feeling uneasy.

The bodies of starved little blue penguins dot our beautiful bays.

Several colonies of red-billed gulls have disappeared. The large fish that used to force up huge schools of small fish have been wiped out, leaving the gulls unable to catch dinner.

The salt of the sea runs in my veins, the heartbeat of the waves washing over me. Diving under, I know a love and a happiness money can’t buy.

I expect the marine ecosystem will have to collapse before change begins. Every sign of that collapse makes my bones ache and tears sting my eyes.

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