Wellington Scoop

Who’s responsible for safety on the breakwater?

Photo via Twitter from Dr Sea Rotmann

by Dr Sea Rotmann
A little over a week ago, a white Subaru got washed off the Moa Point breakwater by a ‘rogue’ wave. Some reports said the car’s occupants were fishing “at the popular fishing spot.” Witnesses (and social media) said that three people were in the car when the wave struck – they had to smash their way out through the windows and were lucky to get out of the wild ocean alive.

This is not the first time a car was swept off the breakwater, and people have died there in the past, according to locals.

An airport spokeswoman wrongly claimed that the metal safety barrier had “recently been damaged by the storm or vandalised”. But that ‘barrier’ has long been broken, and breakwater safety has been neglected by the airport.


As with the entire southern end of the runway, the breakwater is an eyesore full of dangerous rocks, akmons and crevices and open to the pounding southerly waves.

Photo: Fritz Schone

Photo: Fritz Schone

We often watch giant waves breaking over the end of the runway and the breakwater, with holes spurting water several metres high.


We also often watch people fishing off the breakwater, including taking their vehicles up there. Most fishermen aren’t foolhardy enough to do so in southerly swells. But rubberneckers have been seen running away or getting drenched in waves breaking over the runway and breakwater. It is an extremely dangerous area.

When it comes to finding the authority responsible for ensuring public safety, the plot thickens considerably. In a series of tweets, we tried to uncover who was in charge of removing the drowned vehicle which was visibly polluting Lyall Bay with debris (and most likely also toxic fluids like oil, petrol and air conditioning fluids etc.), and for taking responsibility for granting unsafe access to the area.

The Regional Council was the only Council who responded to our inquiries (except for City Councillor Calvi-Freeman) and it sent commercial divers to recover the vehicle four days later.

Both the Harbourmaster and the Police, who seemed to give mistaken (?) statements that nobody was in the vehicle at the time it was washed off, did not seem to be interested in recovering the vehicle, as it was “the owner’s responsibility”.

We have to question this blasé attitude to quite serious pollution of one of our most used city beaches – the car was clearly a write-off so why would the owners go to trouble and expense to get it recovered if no one forced them to? Debris was floating on the surface and washed up on Moa Point beach, around the corner. Surely, the waves could also carry it onto the surf break or Lyall Bay beach where it could be a hazard to the public. Would the Regional Council have sent someone if the community and Councillor Calvi-Freeman hadn’t been making inquiries?

Secondly, and more concerning seeing that people have died by being swept off that breakwater in the past, is the disingenuous attitude by the airport erroneously claiming that the barrier was only recently destroyed and that it was none of their problem “as the land was owned by someone else”.

Reading their “urban design assessment” which forms part of their (halted) Environment Court resource application – halted, by the way, because the airport thought it could get away with extending the runway without proper safety areas, which the Supreme Court agreed with the Pilots’ Association was not sufficient – it becomes clear that the land is owned by the Wellington City Council (WCC).

What also becomes clear, however, is that the airport has built the breakwater and sea wall and been “maintaining” it by dumping rocks and akmons off it – seemingly without having a clear permit or resource consent to do so.

The Surfbreak Protection Society has pointed out that this practice by the airport has severely degraded the quality of the “Corner” surf break in Lyall Bay. Their detailed research uncovered that, even though WCC is holding resource consents for work on the sea wall, it was not them but the airport who had been conducting the dumping of rocks in 2015 – without the Council’s clear knowledge. The surf community is in talks with the Council and Airport to have a vertical sea wall reinstated along the length of Moa Point Road alongside the airport as it was back in the 50s – 70s, when the Corner was at its optimum performance. After the Regional Council directed the Surfbreak Society to meet the airport company last September, Greg Thomas from the airport noted that the continual dumping of rocks “may not be as cost-effective” as constructing a permanent vertical wall.


In addition, as part of the ‘mitigation’ for destroying one of our most beloved South Coast tāonga, the airport is promising to build a 3m cycle way and “promenade” at the breakwater.

It is clear from the drawings that the designers (paid by the airport with ratepayer dollars) have not bothered visiting the area – especially in a Southerly. If they had, they’d have drawn the pedestrians and dogs being washed into the broiling sea and drenched by towering waves!

With the benches and access to sea level from the rocks, there is no way this area can be cordoned off to the public in dangerous conditions. The Council has also recently announced that it is thinking of moving the Lyall Bay car park, near the surf break, because coastal inundation is making it too vulnerable to being repeatedly washed out.

Why does the Council let the airport play hazard with public safety and amenity to this extent, even paying them to do so (for example, by providing millions for the – now useless(?) – expert reports)? Why does it not hold the airport responsible for issues related to public health and safety and the clear reduction in amenity values, like the surf break? Who is in charge here and does someone have to die before the authorities will do something about this mess?

Sea Rotmann, a resident of Moa Point, is co-chair of Guardians of the Bays.


  1. Mark Shanks, 16. January 2018, 9:23

    Great article Sea and some very reasonable conclusions and questions posed. WIAL has really had carte blanche when it comes to doing or not doing work protecting Moa Pt road and the runway. There does not seem to be any accountability. Surfers are heartened by the willingness of WIAL to discuss the effect of the rock dumping on the quality of the surf at The Corner, but the proof of the validity of these talks will be the restoration of the vertical wall. Surfers will need the support of GWRC and WCC to ensure this happens because they are the authorities who are legally empowered to make WIAL accountable. So far, (and this car washed into the sea is a good example), they have sat back and waited until they are forced to do something by the public. Not good enough.

  2. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 16. January 2018, 11:03

    I’ve been chasing up on this since the incident. WCC staff have spoken to Wellington Airport. The airport has accepted responsibility to replace the gates and maintain them, going forward.

  3. Sea Rotmann, 16. January 2018, 12:21

    Fantastic to hear, thanks Chris! Is that the building activity happening there right now?

  4. Citizen Joe, 17. January 2018, 13:41

    Paint some seawater resistant dotted yellow lines along the breakwater, kit out WCC’s zealous parking wardens with wet suits and give them a wad of water resistant parking tickets and just watch the parking fines swash into WCC’s coffers.