Thursday, December 1, 2016

Diving, diving, and even more diving

Wow, it's been a hectic month with all the diving I've been doing since my last post - "Cabin fever".

The Great Barrier Island dive trip was fantastic. The rugged native bush covered island is located north of the Coromandel Peninsula in the Hauraki Gulf, and is probably one the best kept secrets in New Zealand with it’s beaches and hidden bays. The water temp was 15C and the visibility varied from a few metres to about 25m, depending on the dive site.

A dive I did on the trip was to Channel Rock, between the Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsula. This pinnacle of rock sits in the middle of nowhere and experiences strong tidal currents, as I found out whilst struggling to push up into shallower water from 50m and up. My dive buddy, Gary Palmer, was diving his twinset on air (he couldn't find a gas blender to make up a mix in time for the trip) and racked up about 40mins more deco than myself on the rebreather. A very enjoyable dive despite my leaking drysuit.

One of the next dive trips was to Tutukaka, a gateway to the diving paradise of the Poor Knights. Jacques Cousteau rated the Poor Knights as one of his top ten dive sites in the world, and I can fully understand why. The New Zealand government made it into a Marine Reserve in 1981, and as a result, the marine life has become without exception both diverse and abundant. The Eastern Australian Current (the same one mentioned in the kids movie ‘Nemo’) flows past the islands bringing in turtles, whales, and more recently, manta rays.

I did two days of diving in the Poor Knights and the rebreather worked well. On one of the dives, we discovered a large eagle ray lying on a white sand shelf at 20m. When I lay down beside it and stroked its wing, the ray looked at me with it’s large eye and continued to gently breathe the water surrounding us. This is why I personally love the Poor Knights, you always have the opportunity to get really close to the marine life as nothing appears to be bothered by the presence of divers (either on closed circuit or on open circuit).

The majority of my other dives have been off the Taranaki coast. The warmer than usual water has meant that lots of species of fish have remained for the winter season. Even our resident great whites are nearer to shore than usual, with one getting snagged up in a commercial fishing boats nets. Sadly, it died before it was able to be set free. We even had a leopard seal come ashore for a photo opportunity with the local newspaper.

But by far the best thing I saw in the last week or so was a Southern Wright whale and her newly born calf playing only 150m offshore in 20m of water. This was in our Ngamotu Marine Park off New Plymouth, which 100 years before was a regular calving ground for the whales. Then a few days later a pod of Orcas came through. I'm just so lucky to have all this on my doorstep!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cabin Fever

Winter here in New Zealand means the visibility in the ocean can vary from zero to 30m plus, and can slip from one extreme to the other in a day. Yesterday, the cabin fever reached new heights and I opted to take a dive off the coast despite the 35 knot northwester and rising swell.

With the rebreather on, I jumped into the scrotum shrinking 12C water (well it would have been scrotum shrinking, but luckily I had my toasty Fourth Element thermals on under my drysuit). After checking that the controllers were still operating, I descended to the seabed.

The 0.5m visibility water obscured almost everything. I even collided with rocks the size of a car... striking the exact same spot on my head where my surfboard clobbered me during a wipe-out the day before. Fifteen minutes passed and I was considering calling the dive, but as luck would have it, I found a patch of cleaner water with about 1m of visibility. Staying motionless, I hovered over a hole where I knew a large but friendly octopus normally resides, but it wasn’t there. Instead of the octopus in the hole, I found three seahorses huddled together at the entrance. Their tails were wrapped tightly around an old section of encrusted chain.

Because I was just staying in one place the whole time, all the local marine life was either coming over to check me out or just getting on with their busy daily routines. I spent the next 45 minutes just watching the social complexities of a 1m by 1m quadrant of reef. Word must have got out that I was there because all sorts of the harder to find species introduced themselves to me. The only thing I never saw were any red spiny lobsters, but I could hear them all around me, particularly the bucks as they clicked some kind of code at each other.

After the dive, I clambered out of my dive gear and got soaked in the process due to the horizontal rain blowing at me from all directions... but guess what, that has to be one of the best dives I had this year!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Poor Knights and the Samba Sound - Day 2

The day kicked off for me at first light. I filled my scrubber canister with a fresh load of sorb (carbon dioxide absorbent), then assembled and calibrated my Inspo’ rebreather ready for the dives.

Rebreather divers Pete Mesley and Simon Mitchell were in Tutukaka for the Oceanz Award dinner from the previous evening and joined us on ‘Arrow’. Gareth decided that he didn’t want to dive so under the supervision of Noel, skippered the boat over to the Poor Knights. The weather was very similar to Saturday’s, with a North-westerly blowing and a messy swell brewing up. This meant that it would only be dive sites on the Southern aspects of the Poor Knights islands that would be dive-able.

We settled on the outside wall of Shaft Cave on Arorangaia Island as the first dive for the day. The entrance to Shaft Cave went from just above the surface of the sea down to a depth of 50m, with a further drop off to 87m below that. I was going to dive with Simon and pose for photographs with the sponges at the deeper depths.

The water was 21C and the visibility was easily 20m. The descent went without a hitch, briefly pausing at 25m just as a check to see that everything was functioning properly, and then on to 45m where Simon left his camera on ledge before we descended further. Following the wall down to a large ledge at 61m, I stopped and watched Simon go to around the 80m mark. A seriously cold thermocline (an often visible and abrupt temperature change in the water) occurred at this depth, so after a few minutes of looking about I ascended back to the ledge where the camera was stored, whilst still watching Simon ascending below me.

Once the camera was made ready with the strobes pulled out on their spindly stalks, we set off along the wall amongst the finger sponges. At this depth they start to increase in size considerably to the ones found in shallower waters. Photos were staged and posed for. Shoaling two-spot demoiselles were keen to get in on the photo shoot and swam about me as I gazed at sponges with my HID torch highlighting the beautiful colours and finer structures.

Using the wall as a guide we slowly ascended, incorporating our decompression stops into the slow traverse of the underwater cliff. My decompression obligation was about 20 minutes shorter than Simon’s. During the shallow stops, we found a surge free zone with overhangs that contained some very diverse ecosystems. To my dismay I came across a lot of intact but dead crabs lying about the ledges. One crab was like no other I’d ever seen before. I just hope that a virus or a toxin is not responsible for causing some of the population to expire.

We surfaced from the last stop at just under two hours from entering in the water, and swam out from the island to get picked up by the boat. This was a really enjoyable dive.

For our surface interval, we stopped off in Southern Harbour and watched the divers coming and going from all the other charter boats. The sea looked quite nasty out beyond the protection of the natural harbour, but was relatively flat within.

The next dive was at “The Rock” again, but this time it was going to be a shallow no-decompression dive. Simon waited for me as I joined him near the top of the lava knoll. Almost immediately, we were joined by a long-finned boarfish who refused to stay in one place long enough to have its photo taken. I swam away from the boarfish, but it seemed to think I was rejecting it so it made a point of swimming right up next to me while I looked out for nudibranchs and banded coral shrimps. Eventually I gave it the slip and found Simon taking photos around the corner. Huge snapper circled above us.

The water was thick with noisy open-circuit underwater photographers, so I headed for the highest point of The Rock and observed a nudibranch laying its spiral egg case. Crested blennies were everywhere and popped their inquisitive looking faces out of the holes in the rhyolite rock. Definitely the place to get a good photo of one. Simon finished taking photographs so he signalled that he was ready to surface and we were back on the boat within a few minutes.

Noel took the boat back to Tutukaka, but before we set off I cleared a space on one of the forward bunks and grabbed the chance of a sleep before my 7 hour drive back to New Plymouth in Taranaki.

--

I noticed during my last dive on the Sunday that my rebreather controllers were showing that cell 3 was giving a reading about 0.1bar above the other two cells. This is usually due to moisture on the cell face. I currently have the rebreather electronics hanging up and drying out, but I’ll keep an eye on it and perform a linearity check before the next dives.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Poor Knights and the Samba Sound - Day 1

DAY 1 - Saturday

Tutukaka marina at first lightThe Poor Knights Marine Reserve was the venue for this weekend's diving. I arrived at the Tutukaka marina at 5:30am and grabbed a quick sleep amongst all the dive gear in the back of my station wagon. "Uncomfortable" would have been quite an understatement.

The weather forecast for the weekend was not looking good, but in reality only a slight wind was blowing and the ground swell was relatively manageable on the Saturday. Noel Ericsson, our skipper, guided the Yukon Charters boat 'Arrow' over the bumpy twelve nautical miles of ocean to the Poor Knights southern lying Aorangi Island. My dive buddy for the day was Gareth Bellamy, who was diving his home-built manual closed circuit rebreather.

Our first dive was at a site simply known as "The Rock" off Archway Island. This huge pinnacle-like lump of rhyolite dropped from 6m to 48m on its southern flank, and was covered in sponges and soft corals. Every nook and cranny was filled with nearly every species of triplefin and blenny. Small grey moray eels were spread about everywhere on the walls, some crammed into very tight holes. I even found one jammed into a hole lying upside down and looking ready to pounce on some small unsuspecting reef dweller. I thought it best not to wiggle my gloveless finger in front of it because I’ve seen the lightning fast strikes these guys can make.

The fish life near and on the walls consisted of very territorial black angelfish, shoals of adult and juvenile two-spot demoiselle, blue maomao, pink maomao, red pigfish, kingfish, and a solitary juvenile long tailed stingray. A clown toado (also known as a sharp-nosed puffer) swam about conducting its daily business of nibbling at sponges, bryozoans, and ascidians.

Gareth and myself swam in a counter-clockwise direction around "The Rock", slowly ascending from the depths to the sun-lit summit where our dive boat was stationed. After completing the last of our required decompression, we surfaced and joined the rest of crew onboard 'Arrow' after 75 minutes in the 21C water.

Eastern Archway (The Tunnel)Noel took ‘Arrow’ around to Rikoriko Cave where a samba band had planned to hold a concert on a boat (the sea cave is huge and has superb acoustics, some big bands have played concerts and recorded in there!), but the swell was a bit ugly looking. We ended up catching up with the band in Eastern Arch (also known as The Tunnel) in Arorangaia Island. The acoustics were really good and the band played some great Afro-Brazilian rhythms (when the big drums played and reverberated through the archway, they were out of this world). This was all part of the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Poor Knights Marine Reserve and the Oceanz Awards dinner being held in Tutukaka later that evening.

Our surface interval seemed to pass quickly, and in no time at all we were geared up and were ready to drop down on the second dive site called “Fraggle Rock” which was only a short distance from previous dive site.

The water was crystal clear giving the impression that when jumping off the boat you were going to hit the rocky slopes below, but upon entering we found that there was at least 8m between the rock and the surface. At first glace, the top of the slope looked almost barren but on closer inspection it was buzzing with activity from all the crested blennies and triplefins living in a garden of small bryozoans. We headed down to the white sandy beach that lay in 42m at the foot of the slope. Grey moray eels occupied ledges on the wall and the red spiny lobsters noisily announced their presence from the back of larger holes with cracking sounds.

Heading along the submerged beach with the wall on our right, we soon discovered a swim-through in the lava rock and stole the opportunity to explore it further. Gareth led the way and we quickly found ourselves at the end of a short lava tube section. This lay at the bottom of a crack in the slope that ran all the way from the surface. This was an awesome place to be and I let out expressions of appreciation (the diving of rebreathers allows divers to talk to each other) which Gareth quickly acknowledged.

The wall ended abruptly with a sudden right-angled turn to the right, which we followed for about 20m as it took us into shallower waters. At this point we turned the dive and ascended slowly whilst traversing the wall back to the boat. Shoaling kingfish joined us while we decompressed. Some were even swimming within inches of me which is very rare for these majestic game fish (again, yet another benefit of diving a rebreather… no bubbles to scare away creatures).

Decompression completed and back onboard ‘Arrow’, Noel headed back to Tutukaka. The crossing passed very quickly for me because I fell asleep, no doubt complete with loads of dribble pouring from my mouth and loud snorting sounds emanating from my airways.

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!”