Understanding changes in estuarine benthic communities has important implications for conservation and yet it is a challenge due to the high natural variability of these systems. We addressed this challenge through the study of temporal and spatial patterns of species richness in an intertidal benthic community in New Zealand North Island. Five different locations within the estuary were monitored seasonally over 12 yr. This data set allowed the study of species–time–area relationships (STAR) and the delineation of patterns in species richness, heterogeneity and turnover in space and time. The site with the highest species richness also had the highest within-site heterogeneity in species richness, a high number of species occurring infrequently in time, the lowest mud content and the most variable wave climate. Similarities and differences between sites were generally maintained over time, although seasonal and multi-year patterns in species richness occurred at all sites. The STAR showed a significant negative interaction between space and time, with species accumulation rates in space and time being equivalent at 4 spatial replicates (250 m2) and 2 temporal replicates (6 months). The lowest source of variability in species turnover was within site, and the highest source was over years. This was reflected in the lack of an asymptotic relationship in the species accumulation curve despite the 12 yr of monitoring. These results contribute to the knowledge of the variability in diversity patterns in estuaries and have important implications for long-term monitoring of natural communities and the estimation of diversity for conservation.