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The ebb and flow of the Mangawhai harbour had been damaged since 1978, with severe storms including Cyclone Bola in 1988 which reformed channels and blocked the northern inlet creating stagnation.

Armed with over 40 excavating machines and in defiance of council opposition, a large team of volunteers gathered at the Mangawhai lagoon in the early hours of February 11, 1991. 

Over four days they laboured to reopen the northern end of the harbour by Picnic Bay and close off a southern breach, allowing the sea to once again flow through and cleanse the lagoon.


A symbol of people power, the Big Dig illustrates what can be achieved when a community works together.  

Over the next five years, lasting success came after a man-made bund wall was erected at the southern breach of the harbour, allowing for the current to flow once more through only the northern channel.  Volunteers work with the Mangawhai Harbour Restoration Society and have planted over 100,000 native sand-dune plants to stabilise the shifing sand and restore the wildlife refuge.  

Watch Perry Trotter's  THE BIG DIG video here.  ​With thanks to Mangawhai Museum.  

THEY DARED THE IMPOSSIBLE A Story of Struggle by Volunteers to Restore the Harbour at Mangawhai by B.C. Ross is available to purchase at Mangawhai Museum.

Noel Cullen, one of the three initiators of the reopening of the harbour with Phil Dreardon, who owned several machines operating on the first day of the Big Dig.

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For now, the harbour has been saved and Mangawhai has a beautiful estuary with clear water that is safe to swim and fish in. Dedicated local volunteers are determined to keep it that way. 

HISTORY: The Big Dig
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Local men and women congregated on Mangawhai’s estuary with an assembly of digging equipment, from over 40 machines to the humble spade, determined to breathe life back into their dying lagoon.

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