Grant's first memories of the lagoon
George ‘Grant’ Ward grew up in Timaru and has been involved with Waitarakao on and off for more than 70 years. The octogenarian invited Environment Canterbury out to the lagoon recently to recount his story and discuss how the community can help protect and enhance Waitarakao into the future.
“I began whitebaiting at the mouth of the lagoon in 1948 when I would’ve been nine or 10 years-old. We whitebaited there for a long time quite happily as kids and when I came back to the lagoon later in life, the flow of the lagoon had completely changed.
“The beach 70 years ago was three, if not four, times smaller than it is today – it was just a tiny strip separating the lagoon from the sea. It started off a really pristine waterbody and I remember the water being quite clear and transparent as a kid. Now it’s a horrid green colour.
“I picnicked with Mum and my brother between the months of September and January. We’d get off the bus and head down to the lagoon. In September there was a small whitebaiting fraternity, maybe a dozen or so of us, but we’d end up catching a half dozen whitebait for a patty and head home.
“The water always seemed to be clear, there was always shrimp and whitebait in it. We’d catch a handful or so and Mum would spread it out between a large patty and divide it up amongst us,” Grant said.
A home for precious native species
“Mum was an active member of Forest and Bird and we travelled to the lagoon regularly to spot dotterels, oyster catchers. There was a Caspian tern colony and black swans too. I remember the pied stilts would have their nests right near the lagoon mouth and they’d be quite happy for you to sit and whitebait just a few metres away.
“I remember mum, my brother and I bird watching, checking out the bird nests. My brother and his friend used to catch eels in the creek too – they’d just put their hand in the water and grab them out – you couldn’t do that nowadays.
“My main memories, standing here now, are walking down the beach with black swans nesting in the marram grass there; somewhere in the vicinity was a Caspian tern colony, and right at the mouth of the lagoon was a colony of pied stilts.
“They were there for two or three years, quite happy, and nesting only two or three metres from where we were whitebaiting. There were banded dotterels and perhaps wrybills, but as a child I doubt I would’ve been able to pick out a dotterel like I can now,” Grant said.
The lagoon then and now
“The beach now seems to have much more growth on it – much more marram grass. As I’ve grown up I’ve seen huge changes in the environment and the commercialisation of our natural species.
“When I think of that I think of the tremendous effect we’ve had on the eel population. The eel population was absolutely abundant as a child. Now, you get into the water and it is difficult to find an eel. The same thing applies to water. We are over-utilising our water resource,” he said.
“The simple solution, in my eyes, is to increase the surface area of the water back to how it was – to at least give the lagoon a chance to flush out some of the toxins, the waste and the run-off that are being pumped into it.
“Nature has done something to increase the beach because of our Timaru harbour and that has diminished the lagoon. But on the other hand, when I was a kid there was just three buildings in the Washdyke industrial area – the Doncaster Hotel, a garage, and a little shop. Look at it now. And we expect the environment here to deal with that?
“And even though we do the best we can with things like the sewerage quality improving, when you take water away, nature can’t deal with it. What we’ve done here is decrease the water area.
There was 250 ha of water here – now there’s 20 and Environment Canterbury is asking ‘what can we do about it?’ Well, I’ll tell you the first thing they need to do is they need to increase the amount of water getting into the lagoon.