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Beach Creatures

I love finding things on the beach, and like to try to identify them. If you think I have incorrect information on this page please help me put it right.


Seal relaxing on driftwood.

Seal relaxing on driftwood.

New Zealand fur seal, kekeno turn up from time to time, especially in late winter, or spring. They may be seen at the water's edge, from a distance looking like a slightly odd dog. They may also lie around on the beach looking like driftwood, or indeed find a log to tuck into, which can be a surprise if you don't notice it until you've walked past. Occasionally dead seal pups wash up too. DOC tells us to stay well away: we can be dangerous to seals and they can be dangerous to us and our dogs.

In 1978 fur seal, kekeno, were fully protected by the Marine Mammals Protection Act. Take care, and keep dogs and children at least 20 metres away from any live seal.

This pointy-nosed seal has long pale whiskers and a body covered with two layers of fur. Their coat is dark grey-brown on the back, and lighter below; when wet kekeno look almost black. In some animals the longer upper hairs have white tips which give the animal a silvery appearance.

Adult females: maximum length 1.5 m, weight 30-50 kg.

Adult males: maximum length 2.5 m, weight 90-150 kg. …

On average, they live 14 to 17 years. …

Human activities are the cause of most threats to kekeno today. It is known that fur seals are incidentally captured and subsequently drown during trawling and long line fishing operations in New Zealand.


I've only ever seen eels dead on the beach, but you may spot one in Waikawa Stream or Waiorongomai Stream if you're lucky. See River creatures for more on eels.




Sometimes there are so many dead sharks on the beach you can only figure the folks fishing offshore have something to do with it.

Fishing boat with birds, just off the beach.

Fishing boat with birds, just off the beach.

In January 2016 a male common thresher shark washed up just south of the Waiorongomai Stream. The tail was about as long as the body.

Male common thresher shark.

Male common thresher shark.

Male common thresher shark, with small dog for size.

Male common thresher shark, with small dog (approx 60 cm long) for size.

My thanks to Clinton Duffy of DoC who kindly correctly identified this shark from my photos. He says:

This is a subadult male common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) — you can tell it is a male by the two claspers (very thin in this case) extending off the pelvic fins either side of the vent.

This species is globally distributed in temperate to subtropical waters worldwide and is common around New Zealand. It breeds in coastal waters and small juveniles (about 1-1.5 m long) are commonly seen during summer in places like the Hauraki Gulf, Hawke Bay, the outer Marlborough Sounds and Tasman Bay. They feed on small schooling fishes like anchovy, pilchards and jack mackerel which they herd and stun with their tails. Maximum reported size for this species is 6 m total length (the tail makes up about half of that).


Bluebottle on the beach.

Bluebottle on the beach.

Properly called Indo-Pacific Portuguese man-of-war, these are especially plentiful after some storms. Wikipedia tells us:

Despite its outward appearance, the Portuguese man o' war is not a jellyfish but a siphonophore, which, unlike jellyfish, is not actually a single multicellular organism, but a colonial organism made up of specialized individual animals (of the same species) called zooids or polyps.[2] These polyps are attached to one another and physiologically integrated to the extent that they are unable to survive independently, and therefore have to work together and function like a so-called individual animal. …

Detached tentacles and dead specimens (including those that wash up on shore) can sting just as painfully as the live organism in the water and may remain potent for hours or even days after the death of the organism or the detachment of the tentacle.[18]

Usually there aren't enough to be specially worried about possible stings, but occasionally the beach has been pretty much carpeted with them and I've taken the dogs elsewhere for our walk.

By the Wind Sailors, Velella velella

Velella velella carpet the beach.

Velella velella carpet the beach. Photo by Miraz.

These sometimes appear as swarms of dead creatures, especially after a westerly wind in spring or summer. Read more at: When By the Wind Sailors come to shore.

Porcupine fish

Porcupine fish.

Porcupine fish, looking oh so happy.

Porcupine fish quite often turn up on the beach. The Marine Life Database tells us:

Like Puffer fish it can inflate its body with water and becomes the size and shape of a large football. When deflated the head is large and bony and the body is long and tapered. Unlike the Puffer fish, the Porcupine fish has large permanently erect spines on the body and head. This fish also contains the powerful nerve toxin tetrodotoxin (TTX) in its skin and intestines. …

They have a strange molar shaped swim bladder (a buoyancy aid) which sometimes washes ashore.

I found one of these once. It had the appearance of plastic and when I prodded it with a stick it was quite resistant. I thought maybe it was part of a kids toy, but I'm glad I took a photo.

Porcupine fish molar shaped swim bladder.

Porcupine fish molar shaped swim bladder.

Beware the Puffer Fish - OTAKI MAIL (February 2015) says:

We recently had a case of poisoning in a dog that had been walking on Otaki Beach. The dog had been to the beach 3-4 hours earlier and developed muscle tremors, shaking and incoordination. Other poisons can cause similar signs but we induced vomiting and saw large numbers of puffer fish spines, which confirmed the diagnosis. In more severe cases paralysis, seizures and death may follow.

Note: we don't have Puffer fish in New Zealand but we do have the similar porcupine fish.

Eagle ray

Eagle ray.

Eagle ray.

NIWA tells us:

Eagle rays belong to the group of cartilaginous fish — which includes sharks and chimaeras — whose skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. They can detect their prey even when they can't see them, using a well-honed electric sense: jelly-filled pores on their head can detect the weak electrical fields created by the muscles of other animals.

Eagle rays use these electro-sensory organs to find shellfish and other prey buried in sand or mud.

Ram's Horn Squid buoyancy shells

Ram's Horn Squid buoyancy shells.

Ram's Horn Squid buoyancy shells.

These look like interesting little shells, and they are, but they aren't home to little creatures. Instead they are an internal buoyancy device for squid, as Te Ara tells us:

The tiny ram’s horn squid has an internal-chambered shell at the rear of its body to assist with buoyancy. Live animals are rarely encountered in New Zealand waters, but following their death, large numbers of the coiled shells wash up on west coast beaches.

These flat, spiral shells are about 1 centimetre in diameter. By varying the amount of air in the chambers, squid can rise or descend in deep water.


Unfortunately whales sometimes turn up dead on the beach — a pilot whale in 2010 and a minke whale in 2013.

Dead cows, sheep, goats etc

Sometimes dead animals arrive on the beach. I’ve had no luck getting Horowhenua District Council to remove them, but apparently Horizons are actually responsible for the beach. Horizons certainly removed a large container full of liquid that was marked hazardous.

If you find a large dead animal please try asking Horizons to remove it. Note the location carefully. If it’s south of the boundary marker about halfway between the Waiorongomai Stream and the south entrance off Reay Mackay Grove try Greater Wellington Council instead.