Diver's delight

Andy Belcher | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 6
It feels as though an ocean of diving has been compressed into this one small place. Colourful rock walls, Broken Ground, near Moko Hinaus.
The water might be cold, but the diving around New Zealand’s northern isles is red hot!

New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands were rated by diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. I had not dived this Northland Marine Reserve for many years and I was keen to re-acquaint myself with its dramatic underwater topography.

At the crack of dawn seven of us drove from Tauranga and boarded the luxury 15m powercat Mantra in Tutukaka early on Saturday afternoon. The weather forecast looked great so without delay we were on our way to the Poor Knights Islands, 22km offshore.

The Knights were established as New Zealand’s second marine reserve in 1981, and it’s now one of 35 around the country. The reserve extends for a whole 800m offshore from the two main islands of Aorangi and Tawhiti Rahi, where all marine life is protected.

When you enter the underwater world it feels as though an ocean of diving has been compressed into this one small place. The sheer cliffs, tunnels, caves and arches provide a great variety of habitats to explore.

We excitedly flopped into the 23-degree water at Tie Dye Arch at the Pinnacles. The archway hid all sorts of wonderful sights. On the wall on one side I came across a small indent, which contained 16 porae and two pink mao mao. The porae (Nemadactylus douglasii) is a loner for most of the year, although it sometimes congregates inside archways. It mainly feeds from sandy sea floors. The first thing I noticed was how very close I could get to the fish without them even batting an eyelid. Do fish have eyelids?

Seeing The Pinnacles again reminded me of a dive I had there many years ago. I was photographing a tiny nudibranch on an almost vertical wall at a depth of 28m. Suddenly a large black object darted in front of me, giving me a heck of a fright. It was, in fact, a shag – it was searching the crevices for food. I had no idea these sea birds could reach such great depths.

GOLDEN GLOW

Beautiful golden light greeted us at our first overnight anchorage at the Poor Knights. As dinner was being prepared, numerous mosquitoes with voracious appetites descended upon us – a small price to pay for the privilege of enjoying this wonderful place.

Next morning our target was Northern Arch, a narrow underwater archway descending into deep water. At the surface I vented my BCD and, with negative buoyancy, I flew down the vertical wall with a wonderful weightless sensation; it felt like freefall.

Looking up towards the surface in clear water from 25m, the archway looked spectacular with light entering from both sides. I then moved up to the northern side where nice ledges and slopes made my ascent both relaxing and safe.

I enjoyed photographing a red moki (Cheilodactylus spectabilis). It’s predominantly a coastal fish, but not uncommon among the outer islands. This one was feeding by sucking hard at coralline turf algae, thereby dislodging hidden crustaceans. I got very close, but it still ignored me. The Knights are alive with fish that seemingly have no fear of humans. Such are the joys of diving in a reserve.

Every time we moved to a new anchorage a school of large snapper would assemble underneath the dive platform. The NZ Department of Conservation discourages feeding reserve fish, but I guess the temptation is always there. I fixed my little GoPro camera to the end of a camera pole and lowered it into the water right amongst them. The camera was set on time lapse to take a still image every two seconds so within five minutes I had taken 150 photos.

Gannets are always present along the steep cliff sides and spectacular to watch. They have no external nostrils, which are, instead, located inside their mouth. They also have air sacs in their face and chest under the skin, which act like bubble wrapping, cushioning the impact of plunging into the water. Gannets can dive from a height of 30m, achieving speeds of 100km/h as they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most other airborne birds.

HIDDEN DELIGHTS

We spent several days at the Knights and it dished up one fabulous dive after another. Middle Arch was one of my favourites because it’s not too deep, enabling more photography time.

On one corner of the archway is Bernie’s Cave. This has a concave roof with an air pocket, presumably formed by big wave action and filled by divers’ exhaled air bubbles. I moved along the sandy bottom of the cave without breathing so as not to disturb a big school of blue mao mao (Scorpis violacea) that were relaxing up near the top.

By ascending very slowly to a spot just beside the air bubble I was able to capture a photo of the fish nicely reflected in the bubble’s surface.

On my way out I found a large eastern red scorpion fish (Scorpaena cardinalis), which is also known locally as the grandaddy hapuka. By moving very slowly I got incredibly close. I spent 20 minutes photographing this one and enjoyed being able to do some back-lighting with my second strobe.

The spiny rock lobster (Jasus edwardsii), which we know as crayfish, is also very approachable here. Magnified by the water, they look large enough to feed a family of six! Having said that, I remembered the old catchphrase for marine reserves: ‘Take only photos, leave only bubbles’.

On our second night at the Knights abstract patterns from the colourful cliffs of Nursery Cove were reflecting in a glassy smooth water surface. It surprised me that I was often the only one to notice this – I guess photographers look at things with a different eye.

Not long after the dawning of our third morning we plunged deep into the waters of the reserve at a spot right up on the northern end called Wild Beast Point. It’s named for good reason: after only a few minutes I saw a shark cruising down the steep reef.

A brief visit to 30m found me completely surrounded by gorgeous pink mao mao (Caprodon longimanus). They live in the slow lane, eat plankton, expend little energy and can live for up to 40 years.

It was time to leave the Knights, head out into deep water and start our journey south. We trolled unsuccessfully for marlin in an uncomfortable easterly swell. I was pleased to find shelter again at the small Moko Hinau island group.

We dived Broken Ground where the rock walls exploded with colour. Mantra was soon at anchor in one of Burgess Island’s nicely sheltered bays.

The next morning we dived a nicely sheltered Fanal Island Bay. I swam down a gently sloping kelp bed to a sand patch at 25m. I saw what I thought was a kelp stalk lying on the bottom until it unexpectedly raised up off the sand! It was the tail of a long-tailed stingray (Dasyatis thetidis) warning me to stay away. Being covered in sand, the ray was well camouflaged. I gave it a wide berth and then gently sank onto the sand beside it.

Keen for a photo, I became engrossed in my task, but after a while I glanced up and my whole field of vision was filled with hundreds of Koheru (Decapterus koheru). Then, suddenly, two huge bottlenose dolphins were right in my face – an awesome encounter, but one I wasn’t expecting; it gave me quite a fright. One of the greatest things about diving is that you never really know what’s coming next …

As I returned to the boat, fellow diver Glen was heading out armed with snorkel and speargun. He was soon battling with a good kingfish (Seriola lalandi) as it tried to swim into the kelp. As Glen got the fish closer to the boat I spotted a spear fisherman’s problem – the rope attaching the spear to the gun was entangled around his head. If the kingfish had broken free and dragged him under it could have caused a dangerous situation. Luckily it didn’t and Glen got it onboard. Many a nice kingfish meal was enjoyed over the next few days.

NO BARRIERS

We were soon on our way towards Great Barrier Island. As we got close to Port Fitzroy we enjoyed a stunningly clear view of Little Barrier Island out to the west. It was good to go ashore and admire Fitzroy Harbour’s waterside mural depicting many forms of marine life. I expressed my interest to a local inhabitant, who seemed rather surprised I would like it so much.

We decided to have a go at the two-hour walk to the remains of a kauri dam, the lowest of three which were used to transport kauri logs to the mouth of Kaiaraara Bay. Kauri trees grow up to 50m tall, with trunks of up to 16m. The first kauri trees were taken for use as ship’s spars as early as 1794. It is estimated that up to 90,000,000ft of timber was milled and the kauri forest was decimated. The climb was steep and I was left behind, struggling with a tripod and a 12kg camera bag. Who’d be a photographer? After many rest stops I finally made it to the dam.

The Mercury Islands were next on our itinerary and there we collected nice things to eat. The sun was setting on the horizon, the water was smooth, the barbecue was hot and the aroma of fresh crayfish and scallops cooking had us all salivating. Delicious.

Our last day involved an eight-hour cruise back to Tauranga Harbour. An easterly swell persisted as we tried again to hook a marlin. Sadly our luck hadn’t changed, but we did hook something rather unusual for these waters – a small mahi mahi(Coryphaena hippurus), which were turned to the water. These fish have beautiful colours and they’re extremely fast in the water – they’re said to be able to attain speeds of up to 50 knots!

The sea was much calmer as we approached Mayor Island and I took a few minutes out to enjoy the fur seals and some dolphins cavorting near the shore.

Our last couple of hours gave me time to reflect on our wonderful voyage of discovery. I had enjoyed the great company of Tony, Ian, Wayne, Glen, Warwick, Sue and Chris. I had also enjoyed fantastic diving and beautiful sunny days, and very much enjoyed being on Mantra. With two 350hp Cummins engines, this powercat has a top speed of 26 knots (48.2km/h), and because it has a dive compressor onboard I only needed to take one tank. The boat has berths for seven people and is also well set up for fishing. It’s a fantastic liveaboard vessel.

A week after this trip I received an email detailing next year’s Mantra trip – for a whole week at the Poor Knights. I booked my place immediately!

Special thanks to Tony Burt of Mantra Charters (MantraCharters.co.nz), Nicki Clithero of Dive Zone, Tauranga (DiveZoneTauranga.co.nz), and to Dale Hobson for lending me his Inon strobes.

TOP SHOTS

I took most of my underwater images with a Panasonic Lumix GF2 camera with a Panasonic 7-14mm wide-angle lens, in a Recsea aluminium housing and using two Inon strobes. A few underwater images were taken with a GoPro Hero 2 camera on a camera pole, while the above-water images were taken with a Nikon D3 with various lenses.


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