Bay beaches today reopened - six weeks to the day after Rena struck Astrolabe Reef.
The beaches, from Mount Main Beach to Maketu estuary, were officially opened to the public at 6am as salvors continued the tricky job of beginning to remove the hundreds of containers still on board.
Today's reopening was another milestone and came three days after salvors managed to pump nearly all the oil off the ship.
National on-scene commander Mick Courtnell said that the beaches were able to be opened thanks to the efforts of volunteers and clean-up teams, although restrictions would remain for the time being in Papamoa, from east of Harrison's Cut to Alexandra Place, and also at Maketu Spit.
Mr Courtnell said although the beaches were open, they would continue to be monitored and could be closed again at short notice if fresh oil was found.
Clean-ups will continue in the worst affected areas and these will be marked by orange tape and cones.
"With regards to all the beaches, none of them are the same as they were before the Rena ran aground," he said.
Clean-up crews would remain a presence on the beaches until the oil was gone. Until that time, he said, the public was urged to exercise caution and remain vigilant about reporting oil sightings.
Despite the beaches officially reopening today, some people were using them yesterday.
Otumoetai College students Mac Courtney and Justin Liddicoat were on the beach just south of Tay St yesterday and said it was exciting to know the surf would be accessible for the summer.
Mac, 15, said it would make a big difference to his enjoyment of the school holidays.
"[I'm] really relieved, stoked we can surf for the summer. If the oil spill didn't happen we'd have been out [surfing] ages ago. It's just good to know that it'll be open for summer," he said.
Justin, 16, said that yesterday was the first time they'd surfed in Mount Maunganui since the beach closures.
He said they'd instead been going to Waihi Beach and Whangamata.
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Recently-crowned national kite surfing champion Marc Jacobs said it was a relief to be able to get back out on the waves.
"[I'm] stoked to be back up because this is the best time of the year for the sea breezes."
The kite surfing nationals were held at the end of October inside the harbour but were almost cancelled because of the oil spill. Mr Jacobs, a Mount Maunganui local, said it was good to be able to kite surf on his home beach again after being forced to travel out of town for the past few weeks.
Toi Te Ora Public Health medical officer Dr Jim Miller said the oil that might still be in the water had been assessed as being negligible.
He said caution should still be exercised in the sea and on the sand, particularly for parents with small children who may be prone to handling or consuming the oil spots.
The rahui, or ban, on shellfish remained in place, although recreational fishing had been cleared as posing no health threat. Tauranga Moana iwi liaison officer Jack Thatcher said it was not yet safe to consume shellfish because they may still be contaminated.
Northeasterly swells have prevented the removal of containers from Rena and salvors are now working to relocate crane barge Sea Tow 60 to the more sheltered port side.
"Salvors are taking all precautions possible to ensure the safety of themselves and their working environment, but as always, this operation is heavily dependent on the weather," Maritime New Zealand salvage manager Kenny Crawford said.
Once removed, the containers would be taken to a shuttle barge and brought into port, where they would be assessed and processed by container recovery company Braemar Howells. Maritime New Zealand officials also confirmed they had begun paring back operations at the Incident Command Centre in the old Cameron Rd Foodtown. At the height of the crisis, the centre had about 300 people but now has about 50.
The oiled wildlife centre has seen a similar drop in staff needed on site from the 250 to about 40 now.
The first release of penguins back into the wild is expected to take place next week once the environment has had its final sign-off and is declared safe again for the birds, but some staff will remain in Tauranga.
Just two birds in care are yet to be washed and the number of freshly oiled birds has dropped.
Staff are expected to remain on site for up to two more months.