Experience Goat Island
So much more than a picnic at the beach, your visit to New Zealand’s first and most accessible marine reserve, seeing and swimming with the fish, is unforgettable.
Goat Island Marine Reserve
This marine reserve is named after the little island (Goat Island or Motu Hawere) that sits just 100 metres off the beach and protects it from Pacific Ocean swells. The island is a nature reserve and no landing is permitted. Goat Island Beach, a short walk down the hill from the carpark, is the setting off point for diving, snorkelling, kayaking and glass bottom boat tours.
Dogs are not permitted at any time. All marine life is protected in the marine reserve which means no fishing or collecting of anything – even seaweed and sea shells. This is the reason you can see so much marine life on the rocky shore and in the water. The reserve is managed by the Department of Conservation and more information about New Zealand’s marine reserves can be seen on their website.
Goat Island’s Underwater World
The marine reserve is ideal for visitors to experience snorkelling and see marine life in numbers not seen anywhere else on the coast. Bring your own snorkel or dive gear or hire from one of the local operators. You can dive or snorkel straight off the beach with your buddy or join a guided tour. If you prefer to stay dry take a glass bottom boat tour. It won’t take long to see the prolific marine life in this protected area.
Goat Island Walkway
You will have spectacular views from this walkway which begins from the Leigh Marine Laboratory that sits above Goat Island Beach. See more on our walks page. At low tide you can walk to Pakiri Beach. It involves walking across sand, the rocky shore and hopping across boulders to get there. On the way is a beach with pink sand and a small waterfall after rain. Allow time to return before the tide comes in or arrange transport from Pakiri Beach.
Getting to Goat Island
From Auckland, follow SH1 to Warkworth (about an hour) and follow the large brown Goat Island Marine Reserve signs through Matakana to Leigh and then on to Goat Island. From Warkworth it is 25km, from Matakana 16km and from Leigh 3km.
Best Time to visit Goat Island
The sea warms up at the beginning of summer with the highest temperatures in February/March up to 22degC. Although the island gives some protection from swells, it is best to visit when there is less than one metre swell. Wind direction can make a big different to conditions as northerly and easterly winds increase the swell and southerlies calm it down. Visibility in the water is reduced after heavy rain and swells.
Met Service Tide Charts
Linz Tide Charts
Facilities at Goat Island
In the main carpark (see map) there is a toilet block with changing rooms and an outside cold-water shower. Information signs stand alongside the path and in a kiosk on the way to the beach. The nearest shops and cafes are in Leigh. A five-minute loading zone close to the beach allows you to drop off and pick up gear or people before parking.
Wildlife at Goat Island
Most visitors come to see the prolific underwater life at this marine reserve. The reserve is also visited by dolphins, orca and fur seals and there are good numbers of birds. Pied shags nest in the large pohutukawa trees by the carpark and you can watch them flying off to hunt for food, drying their wings on the beach, making nests in the trees or feeding their young. To learn more about the wildlife of the Leigh area go to our wildlife page.
History of Goat Island
The Leigh coast has long been inhabited by Maori. The bay was known was Whakatuwhenua and the island as Motu Hawere. The coast was a prolific fish, shellfish and crayfish gathering area for local Maori.
In the 1940s, large snapper were caught from the beach, and crayfish collected from rock pools by locals. Large amounts of kelp that washed onto the beach after storms were collected to use for fertiliser. By the 1950s and 1960s the marine life had been reduced due to fishing and collecting.
A marine laboratory was established by the University of Auckland to the east of the beach in 1964. Auckland University scientists had the idea of creating a protected piece of coast so that their studies of marine life would not be affected.
New Zealand’s first marine reserve at Goat Island, officially called the Cape Rodney to Okakari Point Marine Reserve, was created in 1975 for scientific purposes. It covers 518 hectares of coastal sea.
Crayfish and snapper numbers increased once the area was protected. They fed on sea urchins, reducing their numbers and allowing the kelp forests to return. This in turn created more habitat and food for marine life, gradually returning the marine reserve to what all the coast was probably once like.
More than 100 species of fish have been recorded from the reserve. Invertebrate species that include crabs, sea stars and sea shells number in the thousands, just remember they are all protected in the reserve and cannot be collected.