Awarua Waituna Lagoon

Other NZ Ramsar sites: Farewell Spit Firth of Thames Kopuatai Manawatu Estuary Whangamarino


Photo: Department of Conservation

Awarua Wetlands can make you feel like a giant - striding from coast to mountain top in an easy bound.

One minute you can be standing on the glistening, glassy quartz pea-gravel beach of Toetoe Bay, facing blustery southern oceans and icy polar blasts. Step a few metres away and suddenly you are amidst a rust and green coloured ‘alpine’ meadow in the amazing Awarua peatlands. The winds, cool climate, mists, wet, and low nutrients of the peatland have encouraged hardy alpine plants to make their home on the southern coast over the past 12 thousand years since the last glaciation of the area. 

The stunning contrast between the several metre high compacted peat cliffs of the wetland (built up over thousands of years) and the shells, flotsam and jetsam of quartz gravelled Toe Toe Bay is unforgettable.


Photo of Red Tussock at Awarua Bay by Wynston Cooper

The most startling feature of Awarua's plant life is the moor-like bog cushion bog community, formed by low-growing plants including Donatia novae-zelandiae.  From a distance, Donatia resembles a mossy brown boulder, or an elongated cow pat. But up close they are like the tightly packed florettes of a head of broccoli. They occur rarely now at Awarua, but there are several small meadows of them, amongst the fern fingers of cushion-like comb sedges, surrounded by other alpine species such as bladderwort, sundew, gentian mosses and dwarf manuka.  Some adjoin the tannin stained black tarns creating a stunning alpine bog landscape, right at sea level! In spring and summer it can be ablaze with red, yellow, blue, red and  lavender coloured flowers of small native lilies, orchid, sundews and other alpine plants. The effects of drainage, weeds, and climate change threatens the ecology of this special area.

Waituna Lagoon in the Awarua complex was chosen as New Zealand's first wetland of international significance (Ramsar site) because of the important diverse habitats in the area that are too tough for other species. There are 80 moth species here, some found nowhere else. The area is also home to native fish such as the giant kokopu, banded kokopu, inanga, eels and lamprey. In 2008 the Ramsar site was extended by some 15,000 ha with the addition of three major estuaries; Toes Toes, Awarua Bay and the Invercargill (New River) Estuary.

Eighty one bird species have been recorded at Waituna, including 21 migratory birds that travel north of the equator. 

Key facts for visitors

  • 18,900 ha reserve complex managed by the Department of Conservation
  • Coastal lagoon, peatlands, salt marsh, gravel beach, ponds, estuaries, and lakes
  • Established as Waituna Lagoon Ramsar site (3,500 ha) on 13/08/76, extended in 2008 and renamed Awarua Wetlands.
  • The cushion bog can be seen after a several hour walk at the end of the road along Awarua Bay. 
  • The Lagoon outlet can be reached after a several hour walk from either the western or eastern entry to the lagoon site. It is not always open to the sea but is a dramatic feature of the lagoon even when it is blocked off. Walk along the wild coast and experience the contrast between bog and boisterous waves. 
  • A 250-metre boardwalk winds through low-growing manuka and shrubs, emerging at a viewing shelter that overlooks Waituna Lagoon
  • You can explore the margins of the lagoon by kayak or small power boat, starting from the Waituna Lagoon road end.

How to get there 

Well signposted.

Follow the signs to Awarua Bay and drive to the end of the road (approx 15 km from Invercargill).  

Either walk around the head of Awarua Bay across the bog (2.5 hrs) or drive to the end of Waituna Lagoon Road and walk westwards along the coast (1.5 hrs).  

You can launch a boat at the Waituna Lagoon Road end (approx 25 km from Invercargill). 

More information

See the Waituna website for comprehensive and regularly updated information

See Campbell Live video clip on the threats to ecological condition of Waituna Lagoon.

Download the Waituna Lagoon RAMSAR factsheet (144 kb) or read the Department of Conservation's factsheet on Awarua Wetland.

Learn about the Department of Conservation's Arawai Kakariki project to enhance Awarua/Waituna Lagoon.

Read more about Waituna Lagoon in the Directory of Wetlands in New Zealand (see Chapter 72 Awarua Plains) or in a technical report on its threats and management needs.

You can also read a web-book for first-hand accounts of people’s experiences at Waituna from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Return to our Ramsar page.




Waituna Lagoon factsheet