The sea has been the region’s shaping force. On the western side the Tasman Sea pounds the coastline from Kaipara Harbour south to Port Waikato. Two inlets form huge shallow harbours, the Kaipara and the Manukau. To the east, the subtropical currents of the Pacific Ocean give the Hauraki Gulf the warmest coastal waters in New Zealand. To the north are sandy beaches and the headlands of Whangaparāoa and Mahurangi.
A city on two harbours
Auckland sprawls over an isthmus between two harbours: the Manukau and the Waitematā (also known as Auckland Harbour). Urban Auckland has hundreds of kilometres of coastline – and the region has 1,613 kilometres. The intricate series of bays, inlets and creeks mean that most Aucklanders live within 5 kilometres of the sea.
Salt water in the blood
According to historian Keith Sinclair, ‘the authentic Auckland experience is a summer’s day on a beach watching the yachts heading past Rangitoto. It is paddling a canoe up Meola Creek and landing on the reef and cooking fish on the rocks. … [It is] landing on an uninhabited island, and empty beach. It is Regatta Day – with more yachts than Sydney’s. That is what nostalgic Aucklanders think of in London’s damp and cold. The sun on their skin.’ 1
Waitematā Harbour (the name is sometimes translated as ‘sea of sparkling waters’) was once a river valley, formed of marine sediment deposited 15–20 million years ago. Rising sea levels over the last 10,000 years drowned the valley, leaving visible the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, which shelter the inner harbour and offer endless possibilities for exploration. The inner harbour is ringed by sandy beaches in the east, and mudflats and salt marshes to the west and north-west. Its sheltered bays and deep, navigable channels made it an important waterway for Māori before it became Auckland’s chief port. A finger of the Waitematā reaches down the Tāmaki estuary to within 1.2 kilometres of Manukau Harbour, at Ōtāhuhu.
The worst shipwreck
On a fine day on 7 February 1863 the HMS Orpheus – carrying naval stores – approached Manukau Harbour. Seeing it was off course to cross the bar, the onshore signalman motioned to change direction. But the warning was too late, and the ship ran aground. As the sea got heavier, it began to break up. Lifeboats were swamped. With the crew clinging helplessly to the rigging, the ship’s masts fell one by one into the sea. Of the 259 people on board, 189 drowned. It remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.
The Manukau is wide and shallow, with extensive mudflats and salt marshes. Its entrance is prone to swells and shifting sandbars – the cause of many shipwrecks. Despite its dangers, the harbour has long been a valuable link with northern and southern ports.
Fifty kilometres north of the Manukau is Kaipara Harbour, the third and largest harbour of the wider Auckland region. Like the Manukau, it has a dangerous bar at the entrance, and shallow tidal estuaries and mudflats.
Wetlands and rivers
Most swamps in the city have been drained for settlement. The most interesting surviving wetland is at Te Henga at the mouth of the Waitākere River on the west coast, which remains in its near-natural state.
In the 19th century the Ōruawharo and Mahurangi rivers in the north were important routes for shipping timber. The Wairoa River in the south-east was important for transporting dairy products.