Southland's Oreti Beach and beachcombing discoveries

by Phil McCarthy / 10 September, 2017

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Lloyd Esler explores Oreti Beach.

As he walks the southern dunes, beachcomber Lloyd Esler finds history unfurling at his feet.

Invercargill teacher, author, guide and city councillor Lloyd Esler has been wandering the raw southern coastline for 28 years.

The wild expanses of Oreti Beach, on the ocean side of the Sandy Point peninsula, are ever-changing. At the beach’s southern end, the dune face has eroded by about 100m after a significant storm two years ago. Across the estuary mouth lies the small settlement of Omaui, where a freshwater lagoon has formed.

“I don’t like to call it damage as it’s a natural process,” says Esler, 59.

He sees the transformations more as a product of shifting currents, storms and the inherent instability in the soft shoreline than a sign of climate change. And as the dunes recede, they’re revealing sea debris – snapshots of a reverse timeline, beginning with the invention and rapid dispersal of plastics, including distinctive squid lures from the 1970s. Pumice from a 1964 volcanic eruption in South Georgia, and fragments of shipwrecks and square glass gin bottles dating back to the 19th century have also been exposed.

As the dunes on the main part of the beach retreat, a 100m sand and rubbish bulge is forming on the estuary shore. Debris that traditionally washed up on Oreti Beach is now swept around the corner to the south where the new dune system, mostly composed of plastic and other rubbish, is bedding in.

“It’s unfortunate for the beachcombers out on Oreti Beach,” says Esler. “There’s less stuff to find. People go out there looking for ambergris, but it’s been years since I’ve found any there.”

However, habitats are adaptable, as shellfish get scoured out and resettle. He cites the example of post-earthquake Kaikoura, where marine species are likely to recolonise the newly reshaped coastline within 12 months.

One of Esler’s more intriguing ideas is that the prized and scarce Southland delicacy toheroa are not native inhabitants of the area: the shifting sands show no signs of the shellfish beyond the past 100 years. “I've got a theory that toheroa were brought here and seeded, because they’re not showing up in midden and old dunes.”

He mourns the loss of the native coastal sedge, pingao, which has been wiped out by aggressive marram grass at the mouth of the Oreti River. “We’ve lost the entire native dune system.”

The sparsely populated coastline is Esler’s place to escape from a busy schedule of part-time teaching (mostly “science stuff” around Southland primary schools), council business and tour guiding for US companies looking for someone with good local knowledge. Tour groups in the past have included retired admirals, senators and professors whom he accompanies on educational two-week journeys around the South Island.

Esler has authored books on Invercargill, the story of flax in New Zealand, and the chequered history of rabbits and possums here. For his next project, he’s gathering material on the oyster industry and Foveaux Strait.

“I love being knee-deep in salt water,” he says, stopping to pick up rubbish as he walks along the beach. “The coast is always changing, so there’s always something different to see.”

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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