By Laura Harron
When you wake up to birdsong rather than howling 40 knot winds, you know it’s going to be a good day on the water. Everyone is charged with the promise of our late summer as we greet our sleepy, but largely enthusiastic divers at the door.
It’s 8.00am and we are gearing up our customers with the equipment they need for the diving day. Amongst the introductions I hear things like “What’s your name mate?”, “You work for the Italian special forces?!”, “Ah, you are a primary school teacher? Well done!” Diving always attracts an eclectic bunch of people, it’s one of the things I love about working in the industry. People from all sorts of corners of the world, and all sorts of industries have come together, and all got out of their beds before 7.00am (some earlier) for the prospect of seeing something extraordinary.
I instruct and guide at the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand. On this particular morning I meet my two divers and I can tell they are buzzing off the idea of encountering lots of different marine life. Lloyd is a doctor researching the origins of ancient bacteria in the oceans, and Maya is a vet. These guys love wildlife and I can’t wait to get them beneath the surface to share with them some of the best sub-tropical diving in the world.
The Poor Knights offers an incredible amount of biodiversity for two main reasons. Firstly the islands are a naturally temperate environment with kelp beds and large encrusting sponges, however over the years the East Auckland Current (also known as the East Australian current, but the Kiwi’s don’t want the Aussie’s taking credit for this one) has brought down warm tropical currents that carry larvae of tropical fish species. Some of these species are able to remain at the islands, surviving the winter temperatures (tough little dudes), and become resident on the temperate reefs. As a result of this, the islands offer an incredible array of marine life, everything from seals in the winter to the occasional manta ray in the summer. Secondly, The Poor Knights have also been a fully protected marine reserve since 1998, this protection has allowed this sub-tropical mini eco-system to flourish into the world class diving destination that it is today.
We hop onto the boat for the morning introductions to the crew and the safety briefing, we like to reassure people that we have a full range of safety gear on board that range from EPIRBS to plunger coffee. Most people at this time of morning would rather grab a coffee when abandoning ship rather than a lifejacket, so it’s important they know where these things are. As we approach the islands we are surrounded with large schools of feeding trevally. Hundreds of these fish can be seen feasting on juvenile shrimp on the surface. These schools then attract the sea birds, and we watch as the gannets and shags dive head first into the ocean hoping to spear a fish. Maya and Llyod look excited; I found out this morning they are hoping to see pelagics and nudibranchs. I’m pretty confident we are going to see both.
As soon as we have dropped anchor we gear up, do our buddy checks and giant stride our excited selves into the clear blue water.
Several Kingfish (large, stealthy bullet shaped predators) start to dart around the reef. We remain in one place for the first ten minutes, no need to move the kingfish come to us. We watch in sheer amazement as a wall of koheru (little bait fish) begin to bait ball to deter the kingfish. As the kingfish proceed to shoot in amongst the school, the bait ball splits in two and begins to spin in different directions. We are nearly vibrating with excitement, they can tell from my reaction that this is a real treat. Ok, what else did they want to see? Nudibranchs! Luckily for Maya and Llyod The Poor Knights Islands offers some of the largest nudibranchs I have ever seen in my life. I’m sometimes convinced people inject steroids into the reef to produce these bruisers. Not only are they enormous here but it is one of the few places in the world where I have seen nudibranchs mate – frequently. Being hermaphrodites, the nudibranchs here can be seen often exchanging DNA with their sex organs with any other nudi of the same species. After this exchange they lay extraordinary lines of eggs known as rosettes. They cover the reef and are beautiful to photograph, this sort of action makes a macro photographer dribble. Sure enough, within minutes I am giving them the ‘mating’ sign, and they are devouring the scene before them. What flamboyant little/big creatures.
The rest of the dive is a series of giant scorpion fish sightings, moray eels, visions of stingrays gliding past us and again, more kingfish. Unfortunately like all dives it has to come to an end. We reluctantly prepare for our safety stop . On the boat we are buzzing, and enthusiastically discuss what we saw as the skipper who is remaining dry for the day makes no attempt to hide his envy. Next time mate!
We drop down into the water once again to immerse ourselves in beauty. One this particular dive I have asked them not only to locate and identify different species of invertebrates and vertebrates, but also observe the behavior of the animals. I have never encountered such a diverse range of encrusting life, it blows me away even after hundreds of dives here. I have briefed them on the territorial behavior of the demoiselles and black angel fish, both these species are nesting eggs on the reef at the moment and display an endearing amount of paternal protectiveness when they attempt to chase our bodies (which are a good 78 times larger then them) away from their nest. Within 20 minutes their slates are full, so we swim around until we reach our air reserves and again prepare for an ascent. Time for lunch.
During lunch the skipper takes us for a tour and embarks on tales of history and adventure on the Poor Knights Islands. They have a violent history (it involves bacon) and as they have been protected top side too for years, they are just as fascinating above as well as beneath the surface.
We are diving this afternoon at Blue Mao Mao Arch, a site once declared by Jacques Cousteau to be in his top ten dive sites in the world. Pretty special place. The site is an arch which runs from once plateau to another, inside the arch large walls of schooling blue mao mao and demoiselles can take your breath away. The silhouettes at either exit are stunning and as with most arches at these islands the encrusting life covers absolutely everything. Good buoyancy control is essential. As always they are superb and we emerge from our third dive with smiling faces.
On the way home the crew relax and discuss the things we saw on our dives, everyone agrees today has been a winner. Not all days are easy, we sometimes are faced with having to organize dives in difficult conditions, last month we were faced with weeks of 2 – 3 m swells and 30 knots winds. Guaranteed though, even on the hardest of days, we will be sitting around discussing something amazing that we saw on the way back to the Tutukaka marina. This is why diving is so powerful, people who have dived for years in one particular place will still often surface with wonder one their faces ready to gloat at what they saw. Something new, something rare, something extraordinary.
Laura Harron, 29, originally hails from Ireland and has previously worked in Malta and Tonga before moving to New Zealand. She is now based Poor Knight Islands with Dive! Tutukaka.