Thursday, September 8, 2016

Post Cyclone Diving

Cyclone Wati threw up a monstrous swell off the West coast of New Zealand and reduced the visibility to zero far out into the ocean. It's a very depressing thing when you can't see the blue line from the shore (saying that, the surf was really up and gave some very solid 3-4m waves to play on).

With the ground swell back to a gentle and occasional pulse it was time to find some cleaner water for a dive. We left Port Taranaki at 8:30am today in the boat "Nitrox" and headed up the coast doing a little fishing en-route. Finally we settled on a spot that we'd dived just the week before but had to abandon due to the cyclone abruptly kicking up adverse conditions.

I kitted up in my dive gear and jumped into the 17C water, did a quick bounce dive to check to see if the site was going to be dive-able and then surfaced to pass on the news that the visibility on the bottom was a variable 3m.

In no time at all I was joined by Ian Swan and Julie Barr, and we set off to explore the reef together. Quickly we found that the visibility was dropping so we all turned about and headed out into deeper water where the better visibility was. Ian and Julie spotted a few crayfish under the lava rock shelves of the reef and began to collect a couple for the dinner table. As agreed earlier, I broke off from them and went exploring some new ground in slightly deeper water. To my delight I found a deep channel with a sandy bottom where the visibility was a good 7-8m in places. Swimming slowly along the channel I came across a large short-tailed stingray lying motionless on the sandy bottom, so without disturbing the sleeping beast, I swam over it and continued down the channel. Deep undercuts lined the walls of the channel system and were peppered with nests of nervous crayfish and swarming shoals of sweep. Small caves, swim-throughs, and archways covered in large orange sponges came and went as I cruised by. By all appearances, the recent storm had not dislodged any of the delicate looking finger sponges and it was business as usual for the fish and other local residents.

Knowing that it was time to head back to the boat I ascended to the top of the channel and crossed over the top of the reef and started back towards the boat. I crossed over lots of deep cuts in the reef until eventually I was back under the boat. I surfaced and was met with a cheery smile from my wife, Irene, who was boatman while we were all diving. A few minutes later, Ian and Julie surfaced and returned to the boat. As we changed out of our dive gear, Irene told us about a possible whale sighting she had while we were in the water.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Good Vibrations

I haven't managed to get as much diving as I'd liked to do this summer, but the dives I have been on were certainly memorable. The underwater scooter has been really useful and allowed me to explore vast areas of reef around the Taranaki coast.

There is a common belief that the noise of a scooter drives fish and other marine animals away from the diver, but to the contrary I've found it to be the complete opposite. While I was scootering over a magnificent reef in South Taranaki, I flew over a group of large boulders and at first appearance there was no life around them. Just the unusual shapes of the boulders got my attention, so I started to do tight circles and figures of eights over them as I studied the formations. Within no time at all I started to spot movement from under the boulders. A moving mass of large crayfish (red spiny lobsters) started to crawl out of their hiding holes. Reef dwelling fish like red moki, mao mao, and various wrasse also just appeared as if from nowhere. Wow! I even had a couple of fly-bys from some stingrays.

I'm not sure if the marine creatures were just being incredibly inquisitive about the noise and vibrations from the scooter, but it does go a long way to dispelling the myth of scootering about and never getting to see the sea life.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Deep Blue

A wee while ago I headed North for three days and drove the 500km (310miles) to the small East coast village of Tutukaka for some diving out at the Poor Knights Islands.

On the way up, Ian Swan, his trusty camera, and myself, all jumped into the warm clear water at Goat Island Marine Reserve, near Leigh. Here we were molested by the gigantic shoaling snapper, mao mao, and kelp fish. We even saw a mermaid! (Ian has the photographic evidence... okay, it was actually a young lady in a skimpy bikini that had swum out to Goat Island from the mainland and passed over us while we were milling about in the shallows. A very memorable sight.)

Our dives in the Poor Knights were awesome as usual. First port of call was a dive off the back of Landing Bay Pinnacle to 60m. The visibility was amazing down there, we looked out over the downward sloping white sands that dropped off to beyond our gaze and into the ever deepening blueness of the water. As we ascended spiralling up the pinnacle to our designated decompression stops, the visibility dropped to about 20m but this was easily forgotten about as we watched vast swathes of fish moving about following the tidal driven plankton masses.

The second dive of the day was at Middle Arch. On the bottom of the lava slope at 30m in some broken reef, a mosaic moray lay still apart from the gentle bobbing of its head. It watched patiently as Ian approached. Once Ian was within a few centimetres of moray’s gaping mouth, it obliged with graceful posturing as the camera snapped pictures of the transparent but deadly sharp teeth that mosaic morays' have. Once the photo shoot finished, Ian and myself found ourselves heading up the slope and into the archway. Here we had the honour of being joined by a large sunfish (mola mola), but as usual I was not paying any attention so was not until I got back to the boat I first heard about it (I was the only person not to see the beast and I had to endure a ribbing from our skipper, Noel, about not being very observant!) I did however manage to have a couple of juvenile eagle rays to do a fly past right next to my head, but Ian just missed catching a photo of it.

The next day, we stopped off at Landing Bay Pinnacle again and planned a dive into the Taravana Cave system that went deep into the interior of Tawhiti Rahi Island (Taravana I'm told means crazy). The swim to the entrance took us down the western flank of the pinnacle and then over to the mouth of the cave which bottoms out at 36m. Ian was on open circuit (OC) and had twinned cylinders, but it was very critical that we stayed within the gas supplies available to us for the duration of the dive and decompression (plus reserves). As per the plan, we headed deep into the blackness of the cave. Our lights highlighted the abundant life on the cave walls and the gorgonian fans on the ceiling. The 250m penetration to the back of the cave went very quickly. Here Ian took photos as I posed with a small statue for the camera. We made our way back to a point where a narrower passageway breaks from the main cave and we followed it to the second of the Taravana Cave's entrances. The blue light was flooding in the entrance and in no time we were doing decompression stops on the colourful walls above the main entrance. Ian seized the opportunity to capture some more pictures while we hung around on deco.

To finish off the day's diving, Noel took us to Cleanerfish Bay. There was everything from stingrays to large crayfish hidden in the kelp covered boulders that went to 23m. I got to hold Ian’s new HID dive light while he took pictures of a Gem Nudibranch that was happy to pose for him.

The only bummer of the trip were the bloody mosquitoes that effected a perfectly executed midnight break-in into our accommodation and devoured copious quantities of our blood while we tried to sleep... “buzzzzz!”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Rust on the beach

Bow of the Gairloch
Just off my favourite local surf spot at Weld Road lies the scattered rusting hulk of the shipwrecked steamer 'Gairloch'. When the tide is low you can walk out to the bow section and examine the crafted mass of rusting steel. Having foundered on the reef over 100 years ago (January 5th, 1903), the Gairloch has become a protected historic wreck under New Zealand law.

Gairloch's boiler
On a spring tide you can get access to the ships boiler and starboard bulkheads which lie further out on the reef, and with the use of a snorkel and fins you can see the inside of the boiler from a rusted hole in the bottom where it is still attached to the ships superstructure.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Day and Night Diving

Yesterday I headed up the North Taranaki coast to dive the site of one of the newest marine reserves in New Zealand, the Parininihi Marine Reserve (an area known locally as the White Cliffs). It was a shore dive with Ian Swan that started out as a phone call in the early afternoon to discuss the weather and general sea conditions around the Taranaki coast. As always, I was keen for an opportunity to get wet so I quickly snapped up the chance of diving up at the White Cliffs.

Ian took his quad-bike to transport both us and our dive gear up the black iron sand beach. The wind had dropped back to a gentle breeze and the surface of the sea started to look quite settled with only a slight swell throwing up small breaking waves on the shore. The quad was parked up in the hard sand directly below the cliffs and we pulled on our dive gear. I entered the surf with fins in one hand and the underwater scooter in the other. Waves broke over the top of us as we pushed our way through the maze of rounded boulders until we were deep enough to pull on our fins comfortably. Once we were ready, Ian took command of the scooter and drove out of the white water with me holding onto his fins... what a buzz! :o)

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the visibility was going to be a problem as it dropped quite markedly as we got deeper. This was indeed quite cruel as the surface water was looking very clear. The occasional fish swam past but it was seen only as a dark blur, so I called to end the dive. Normally this area is blessed with abundant fish life, soft corals and exotic sponges, but there was no way we were going to get to experience them on this dive.

In no time at all we were body surfing back to the beach on the waves. I was given a quick reminder that boulders lay just beneath the surface as I crashed off a few on my less than elegant attempt to get to my feet at the waters edge, even Ian was completely inverted at one point trying to protect the scooter from crashing off any rocks during his exit.

Not beaten, I suggested a night dive in New Plymouth. After dark at 9:30pm, Ian and I jumped into Port Taranaki. The water was a bit on the murky side due to the dredging operation to deepen the main shipping channel into and around the port, but we soon found the clear water lying outside the port. Our torches lit the water up exposing all the nocturnal marine species, with eels skimming just off the surface of the sand and crayfish wandering about over the boulders. The daytime fish just carried on sleeping in the natural shelves created by the many boulders, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

I had agreed with Ian that we were to stay within very close proximity of each other throughout the dive. This was to ensure that neither of us had any entanglement problems on all the fishing line that had been lost by eager fishermen. Because of this close style of diving it’s not unknown to occasionally bump into your buddy. About 30 minutes into our dive, I was aware of Ian being slightly above me and to my right. Whilst I was finning gently forward with my torch held out in my right hand, I felt a downward pressure being exerted on my head and right hand. Automatically I thought that it was my dive buddy passing over me, so I pressed the back of my hand upward to ward him off and position him away from my mask which was being dragged off my face. But then I felt a sweeping motion against my arm and face… almost like a ripple of downward force. To my surprise the light of my torch lit up a white rippling surface just as I realised it was a huge stingray swimming over my back and pushing me downwards with it! Not wanting to get at the wrong end of the stinger in its tail, I turned to my left quickly whilst holding the ray at bay with the back of my right hand. It’s tail slowly passed by me (the stingray held its tail in a relaxed and lowered position) and I immediately recognised the beast. This was a short-tailed stingray that I’ve swum with for the last few years on both day and night dives around this area. What a rush!!!

After following the ray to the sandy seabed, I returned to Ian and tried to explain using wild gestures what had just happened to me, but I could see from his expression that he thought I had gone mad so I left it to the end of the dive to ask if he saw all the excitement… but unfortunately (or maybe even fortunately) he had missed seeing the ray trying to get up close and personal with me.


The stingray (scientific name: Dasyatis Brevicaudata) that brushed up against me is no stranger to investigating night divers. A few years back whilst out with some students, it swam in from behind and using its immense size pushed us all aside only to rest immediately in front of us on the seabed. It is more than happy to be stroked on its wings and underside when you lie beside it. Sometimes it swims in front of you and expects you to follow it about, even slowing down to allow you to keep up with it.

A couple of pods of orca (killer whales) had moved north along the Taranaki coast merrily munching on the eagle rays and stingrays in the last few weeks, so it’s good to know that this local resident had survived another raid.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lava tunnels and caves

Sunday was a looking to be an awful day weather-wise with strong winds and an increasing swell forecast, but at 8am the sea actually looked okay enough to take ‘Nitrox’ (Ian Swan’s excellent dive boat) out for a spin. Onboard was Irene (my gorgeous wife), Ian Swan (Nitrox's skipper), Shaun Rohloff (an all-round good bloke), and myself.

We headed out of Port Taranaki to Saddleback Island at the back of the Nga Motu Marine Park. Ian and Shaun jumped into the water for a dive on a kelp covered boulder slope going to a maximum depth of 27m. The water was 16C and the visibility was a bit poor giving only 4m on the bottom, but despite this both divers remained in the water for almost an hour in their wetsuits. Ian, being a shrewd hunter located a good sized crayfish (red spiny rock lobster) and returned it to the boat at the end of the dive.

The next dive was down the coast on some new ground that we’d never dived before. Using the bottom sounder we located some interesting formations in 20-23m of water. Showing up as 5m drops with undercuts, the ground looked promising. With Nitrox at anchor, I jumped into the water and followed a shot line to the bottom. Initially, the ground looked almost average with 1-2m high lava ledges with a black sand bottom. The fish life was not very exciting either, with only the occasional wrasse coming over to me for a look. I started to swim out from the shot line when out of the 3m vis. water dark shapes stared to appear around me. I headed over to one such dark mass to discover a 4m high lava outcrop which was undercut creating a huge overhang that could be swum down. On the roof were pockets or holes full of crayfish of all sizes. I continued to swim down the undercut until I popped out at the end. Then in front of me was a large tunnel through a lava mass, so I swam down its length to the light at the back. Juvenile crayfish lined the roof and walls, larger ones were walking about on the floor totally ignoring me… this was amazing to see!!! I swam through mini archways, into little caves, and over the top of the lava structures themselves. The area it covered was huge. Delicate sponges, oblique-swimming triplefins and shoaling maomao, and even a john dory swam around with me.

Obviously this was a very important area in terms of restocking Taranaki's crayfish population. The one disappointing thing I did see was the remains of a commercial crayfish pot lying broken up in one of the cuts in the main lava formation. One can only hope that this gem of a dive site is not abused and lost to the generations of new divers that have yet to discover it.


Whilst preparing for a deep dive with Ian Swan earlier last week, I turned up with all my gear ready to dive. After calibrating the rebreather, pulling on my drysuit, and then preparing for the pre-breathe at the dive site, I went for my fins only to discover that I'd managed to leave them at home! The moral: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents a Piss Poor Performance. Sorry for muffing up our deep dive Ian. :o(

Here is a picture of a not so typical seahorse that I found today in only 3m of water on a dive with Julie Barr and Ian Swan in Port Taranaki. This particular seahorse had five spikes on top of its head whereas it is more usual to see seahorses in Taranaki without any spikes at all. The overall length was about 20cm long and it performed a few subtle colour changes as it posed for photos. Ian took the photo with his Olympus 5050 digital camera and underwater housing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Nudibranch and octopus

The title sounds a bit like a recipe for a none too appetising seafood platter but it actually best describes my dive off the Tutukaka coast at the weekend.

I was attending a farewell gathering held in Tutukaka for Phil Bendle and his amazing wife Faye before they returned to Taranaki to enjoy their retirement. Prior to his retirement two years ago, Phil had been the skipper of the outstanding charter boat ‘Norseman’ for two decades, taking underwater photographers and divers to the world famous ‘Poor Knights Marine Reserve’. Just from seeing those who attended, it was very apparent to see how much Phil and the Norseman contributed to the development of diving in New Zealand.

My dive started with a drive around the local coastline. There was not even a hint of swell on the ocean, so my surfboard stayed stowed in its bag (every time I take the surfboard the sea is flat, but when I don’t take the surfboard the surf breaks are absolutely pumping… go figure!). Luckily I'd packed my dive gear in addition to the surfing gear, so I eventually settled on a dive site near the mouth of the Tutukaka Harbour. Having scrambled down to the rocky beach in my dive gear, I eagerly entered the water. At 20C the east coast water was considerably warmer than in Taranaki, and the visibility was verging on 20m.

About 30 minutes into my dive, I pulled myself through a tight swim-through in the lava rock formations making up the fish infested reef and something caught my attention. It was a sharp bright green colour on a slightly darker patch of green algae. The contrast was only really possible because of the clear water and having the midday sun directly overhead, but it certainly stood out even to me and I’m colour blind! Upon closer inspection, I saw what looked like a green butterfly with vibrant little blue spots dashed about it’s “wings” and body. The head had the most beautiful graduated blue coloured rhinophore (stalk like organs used to smell odours in the water). I got the surprise of my life when I put my gloved finger next to it to get a sense of its size… it was tiny compared to my finger’s width weighing in at about 16mm in length. This was a perfect illustration of how objects appear 25% larger in water than on the surface. I stayed watching the rarely seen nudibranch (later identified as Elysia Sp. 4) for over 10 minutes as it grazed away on the algae. I finally said my goodbyes and left it merrily chomping away.

I had only moved about 1m away from the nudibranch when I looked up into the piercing gaze of an octopus’s eye. A rush of excitement gripped me and I soon manoeuvred myself to within 80cm of its head. The tentacles were all rolled up in the small hole it was hiding in except for one. This tentacle, I presumed, was the one it was using to catch anything that walked/swam close enough to be grabbed and digested. The octopus had matched the surrounding rocks, sponges, and seaweeds with its perfect camouflage colouration, but it also remarkably pulled its flesh to form little spikes to better match the texture of the background reef. It took ages before the octopus accepted that I was no threat to it and slowly rolled out its free tentacle towards me. Just before the tentacle touched my dive suit the octopus started to pulse the colour pigments in its eye in a rapid rolling black to light grey pattern and then it stopped short of touching me, gently retracting the tentacle. I took this to mean it might have been a bit stressed by my presence so I backed off and gave it some space.

Finding lots of swim-throughs and dark undercuts in the reef, I played about with the smaller fish that were taking refuge in there. Shoals of juvenile fish like bigeye and two spot demoiselles peered out from the sanctuary of their hiding places. It was not long before I discovered another much bigger octopus. In no time at all, it was time to be returning to shore and I took a bearing for the beach. Swimming around the large pinnacles and lava rock outcrops, I snaked my way back at full steam. Taking a break from the swimming in 6m of water I stopped, but something took my attention from the corner of my eye. Looking right, I saw the familiar shape of an octopus, but this was no ordinary octopus because it was bloody huge in size and was spanning the entrance to a cave with it tentacles fully stretched out effectively blocking the entrance. I could hear rock lobsters cracking away from within and it looked like they were about to become dinner for the octopus!

The dive was soon over as I approached the abruptly sloping beach. Suddenly I saw a panicked motion in front of me. I had no idea what it was that was trashing about in the shallows trying to escape the water so I surfaced the last metre popping my head out of the water to hear screams of terror! Through my mask I could make out a family with young children retreating quickly up the beach. Apparently my sudden unidentified appearance in the water had startled the children who were paddling at the waters edge and they had bolted for the safety of dry land! :o)