Ben's interview

Where are you from and what is your passion?

Originally from France I have always had an interest in Nature and Outdoor sports. For me, being outside is the place to be. I love observing animals' behaviours with my binoculars who seem to be following me wherever I go.

Birds are my main passion and kayaking is the perfect activity to see animals without disturbance and impact to the environment.

Sometimes, you hear crazy stories like a seal smacking a kayaker in the face with an octopus or a seagull colony attacking them. Most of the time when this happens, it is because the kayaker(s) push too much the encounter and came to close. So, of course, you just need to read what Nature tells you.

The reason why I also moved and work here, is because I fell in love with Pohatu and the project Shireen and Francis Helps started more than 30 years ago. (to find out more visit Pohatu's trust page).

 

What does a normal day of work look like?

After a good breakfast and checking the forecast apps on my phone - I use mainly Windfinder and Windy - I go to Akaroa to pick up my “early bird(s)” (client(s) on an early sea-kayaking tour) from our office shop and we leave at 8am for Flea Bay.

If the wind forecast is a little bit dodgy, I like to call the bay to make sure that it’s possible to go kayaking. I drive everyone with our 9-seater Pohatu mini-van (takes between 25-30 min).

Once there the first thing I do is turning on the marine radio for safety. We don’t have cell-phone reception there.

After that, I gear up and make sure everyone has the right equipment to enjoy a nice experience. We provide a splash deck, lifejackets and paddle and even waterproof cases for phone or camera.

We head to the beach and set up the kayaks we need for the trip, then on the beach for some instructions on safety and lessons of paddling. When I’m confident that everyone is ready and trained, off we go for a fantastic sea kayak trip.

We are really lucky to experience something unique. For me this place is one of the best places to have a first sea-kayaking experience and at the same time having the chance to see wildlife without disturbance. Being in a remote place gives you the chance to only hear just Nature; it is really rare to encounter an engine boat.

I like to start my tour by checking on my people, asking if everything is alright and if anyone needs more advice. And hop, let’s go for a really pleasant adventure.

We have the chance, right at the beginning to see our first birds in the bay and that is a colony of Pied Cormorant (and not Shag). I like to explain the difference between the 2 families of birds. Exceptional swimmers, it’s pretty common to have them around the kayaks. If we have had perfect conditions for more than a week with no waves, we can be lucky to see our first kelp forest and maybe some fish, starfish or seals under the kayaks.

Kayaking in the middle of the largest Little Penguin colony on the New Zealand mainland can give you the chance to observe some of these really special birds.

The White-Flippered penguins are unique in the world and slightly different than its cousin from Australia and the rest of New Zealand. We can see fledglings sometimes on rocks but most of the time in cracks - I always try to make sure that the bird is healthy enough to survive at least a few days and looks relaxed. It can be juvenile penguins (2-4 years old, really tricky to tell the age of the bird) or adults. When it’s the moulting season, it is important to make sure that they have plenty of fat reserves.

It all depends on the time of the year you come here.

When I do the afternoon trip, I sometimes even see some adults (swimming in a raft of birds) who are coming from their long journey fishing out at sea. But they have to be careful and alert for a special bird who is more and more common out here: the giant petrels. These birds are nesting over the subantarctic islands and with their large wingspan, they like to come over our coast to look for food. They are called the vulture of the sea. Since I’ve started kayaking in this bay, I have seen an increase in viewing. I used to spot the petrels occasionally now it’s almost every day.

Kayaking in the first Marine Reserve on the east coast of the South Island can show you so much wildlife and it brings you so much happiness.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of them around the New Zealand coast (only 1%). Since 1999 it's been totally forbidden to go fishing, harvesting shell fish or seaweeds and even picking driftwood here at Pohatu, it’s a total untouched paradise - you can see that Nature is returning and abundant.

We also have the chance to encounter a really special dolphin, unique to the coast of New Zealand: the Hector’s Dolphin. When a pod is coming around the kayak(s) it gives you so much joy and you feel thankful for this short time with them. Sometimes they can be really playful and they are also curious and check you out, other times they only pass by but every encounter, short or long is always a fantastic moment.

After crossing the bay it’s time to talk about Pinnipeds, with one of the most familiar seals in New Zealand: the New Zealand Fur Seal.

Since 2000 the population has been growing pretty well and now the colony is stable and on every trip we see them being lazy or interacting on the rocks or in the water.

They’re amazing and sometimes they remind you of your dog you left at home. That’s why, Germans named them sea dogs.

We finally cross the bay back and safely land every kayak.
 

We do a big loop around the bay and generally spend an hour to an hour and half gently going around the marine reserve.

If I have a trip in the afternoon, we can leave a few or all the kayaks on the beach far enough away from the tide so it doesn’t drag them out.

We wash our gear in the small creek we have next to the kayak shed and put everything to dry up. Then off we go back to Akaroa trying to be back around 11:30 for my lunch and before starting a new journey for the afternoon Sea Kayaking at the beautiful Pohatu Marine Reserve.

 

What was your favourite experience kayaking at Pohatu?

First, Flea Bay is worth visiting on its own, it’s a little paradise in New Zealand.

After, it’s difficult to say because there have been so many amazing trips since I arrived. Between saving fledgling Little Penguins that are too young and too weak or kayaking around the fantastic Bottlenose Dolphins that came swimming one day in the bay or having a young New Zealand Sea Lion welcoming you back from your trip on the beach.

But one trip will be unforgettable for sure. It was a normal morning but the forecast wasn’t the best, a Northwest wind was supposed to come in (it can push us outside the bay, goodbye Flea Bay, hello Antarctica).

I said to my clients, we might have to stay on land and talk about penguins if the sea conditions don’t cooperate. They really wanted to go either way, so we drove and I reassessed the wind once at the bay. On the way down one of them spotted some black things in the water. I thought it was seaweed or maybe big fur seal bulls. But it was strange so I took out my binoculars and realised it was a pod of Orcas. An Alpha male, a female with a really young one at her side and 3 others maybe a bit younger.

I went in 2014 to Canada to have the chance to see them via sea kayak, but I always wanted to also have the chance to kayak with them here.

When we arrived at the bay, the wind was light but we had to be careful. I explained the safety procedures and we decided on a short but maybe unforgettable experience.

I know how to behave around killer whales. You really have to read the behaviour of this giant dolphin.

We crossed the bay first to be safer from the potential wind and see what the Orcas were doing. We found out that they were hunting. With a Marine Reserve we have such diversity. From young seals to stingray, the sea mammals have plenty of food source. The big ones stayed a bit away from the shore but the 3 youngsters were moving closer to the coast to catch some rays. They were scoping everywhere, I think, I wouldn't like to be a stingray around the cleverest sea mammals in the world. We were at the perfect distance (100-200 metres) to be able to observe this hunting moment. We saw no seals on the water, I don’t know why… ;)

After 10 minutes, the wind started to get a bit stronger, we knew we had to leave. So, we crossed the bay back and went closer to the beach. Shireen, the landowner, warned us that they were behind us. I learned that Orcas can sometimes be a bit cheeky around kayaks and the best technique to be safe is to join the kayaks together and form a raft with paddles on the top.

One of them tried to separate us by creating some big bubbles but we held-up well. The 3 young Orcas were really curious; they really came close to our inseparable raft.

One person had a GoPro, so lucky to record this, likely, one in a lifetime experience. The orcas came under the kayak and stayed for another 10 maybe 15 minutes. They finally left us and took the direction of the alphas. We kayaked back to the beach and put the kayaks away. We were completely blown away by what had just happened.

A dream came true on this day for me and that was the most amazing Nature experience in my life.

Sea-kayak on a beach at pohatu penguin marine reserve.LKayakl


Fur seal pup, watching you


Banks peninsula volcanic outercoast with deep sea cave


inside a sea cave at pohatu marine reserve


Hector Dolphins within Pohatu marine reserve swimming in formation


Exploring a small nook at pohatu marine reserve


New Zealand fur seals on the rocks at Pohatu


Pied cormorant spreading its wings to dry


Paddling outside pohatu marine reserve from flea bay island


Variable oyster catcher seraching for food at Pohatu marine reserve


Sea-kayaks inside a sea-cave on the outer coast f banks peninsula