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)