By James Croker
WHAKAARI / WHITE ISLAND
Sometimes things just happen that you can’t even begin to plan. Multiple circumstances come into play and the end result is something quite spectacular that leaves you utterly staggered as to how it all occurred.
JC : “Hey bro, what are you up to this weekend ? Looks like we have a weather window – Volkners could be on”
Rob W : “No way, leave it with me, I’ve got a mate here who is pretty handy with a video camera – I’ll get back to you in an hour”
Rob W : “Yup, he’s keen. Will mean a major mission leaving Welly Friday after work and hitting Whakatāne after midnight. Need to get back Sunday night also”
JC : “Game on”
The crew from Ghostfishing NZ are some of the most bonkers divers I have ever met. Their passion for diving and the environment both below and above the waterline blow me away. As skilled divers, they operate regularly in some pretty stink conditions, tidying up underwater areas that have been abused by peoples careless actions over time. The hauls of garbage vary from bagging up bottles and cans to lifting tyres, vehicles and other heavy items with a hiab or crane and removing fishing line and nets from our reefs. All to highlight and remediate the detrimental effect that it has on both the aquatic environment and the life it contains and supports.
The Ghostfishing NZ team does this voluntarily through engaging with local communities, training and supporting divers, along with help from some fantastic sponsors. The work is hard going, never ending and at times depressing but always buoyed by an enthusiastic and dedicated group of people acting together to make a difference.
So every now and then the team needs to refresh, restore some balance and remind themselves why they do all of this. Our big blue backyard out of Whakatāne provides some of the best diving Aotearoa has to offer. The live marine volcano of Whakaari / White Island lies 50 Km offshore, adjacent to the isolated reefs of Te Paepae o Aotea / Volkner rocks whose towering pinnacles drop away to depths of hundreds of meters in warm blue Pacific water. All of which often attracts some serious megafauna and this is what we were hoping to see.
Friday night saw the safe arrival of our visitors, two of ghostfishing’s finest - Rob Wilson and Jamie Hall together with the ritual unloading of dive equipment, adjustments and planning for first light. In a few hours we would be underway.
ROB WILSON / JAMIE HALL GHOSTFISHING NZ
As the light grew, the boat was loaded and the expectations for the day ahead confirmed by the plain sailing ahead of us. Maintaining a steady 20 knots, the crossing was a relaxed affair with small groups of common dolphin in accompaniment. On days like these, the volcano looks close enough to touch as it teases us from a distance. Before too long though we are greeted by the island and the sentinels of Te Paepae o Aotea – the departure place for the spirits of people of Mataatua descent. It would be these pinnacles that we would dive today.
Having dived the smallest pinnacle 2 weeks ago in visability of 40 plus metres, I opted to explore the pinnacle known to us as Little Volkner. With plenty of gas in the twinsets, this would be a cruisey dive after the travels of yesterday and a chance to test some new camera equipment. Dropping down onto the reef below we were immediately greeted by the usual dense schools of reef fish that surround this place. Blue maomao, demoiselles and kingfish combined to put on a dazzling display of colour and movement that never fails to mesmorize.
At a depth of 30M we made our way along the reef, all the while studying the healthy kelp for the secrets that it covered. The multitude of different aspects, overhangs and indents make it a fascinating and diverse place to dive. Every nook and cranny has a story to tell providing refuge for its many inhabitants. Groups of moray eels of varying types battle for prime position leaving many to seek shelter in the kelp. These added an exciting dimension to our journey as we finned through the dense forest before us.
Boulders formed narrow passageways creating beautiful swim throughs adorned with colourful encrusting life. Just when you don’t think it can get any better, a corner is turned leading to a current swept tunnel where all the action is happening. Large walls that resemble an artists palette provide the perfect backdrop for all the stunning reef fish that school through here of all shapes and sizes. First there are the large sacred Blue Moki fish that hang in the water with buoyancy skills to envy, their calm nature reflecting their total comfort in this place. These are offset by the brilliant golden snapper swaying to and fro, the biggest I have ever seen. Blue maomao look striking against the yellow reef, perfectly complimenting the sandagers wrasse and pair of Lord Howe coralfish that flutter by.
We start to head shallower and the surge increases as we chase more channels through the pinnacle, reminding us that we really are way offshore both in the middle of nowhere and everywhere. Being at one with the motion of the ocean is invigorating and these moments in time allow us to form a total connection with our surroundings. All too soon we must return over the kelp to hang out below the boat a while and reflect on what we have just seen.
Floating at the surface, the crew remark on the peace and tranquility that are a feature of this special place and the healing starts to take effect. With a second dive equally as stunning completed, it is time to head back to shore and enjoy an evening of catch up and camera work.
Excitement is high the following morning as we depart from the Whakatāne heads. There is not a breath of wind and the ocean is like a millpond inshore. As we head into deeper water the sunlight puts on a show with the mirrored surface broken only by our wake. It doesn’t get any better than this out in our Bay of Plenty. Again Whakaari greets us with a familiar smoke signal as we make our way to Laison’s reef, named after Henry Laison, one of New Zealand’s diving pioneers who discovered the reef. His friends describe Henry as a loveable, irrepressibly generous māori, a great guy and superlative diver. It is here that I really want to showcase to the ghostfishing crew.
The reef is halfway between Whakaari / White Island and the pinnacles of Te Paepae o Aotea / Volkner rocks. The top of the pinnacle is 10M underwater, dropping away to 150M. As we drop onto the reef there are kingfish. Really massive kingfish. Lots of them. Schooling with the reef fish they entice us onwards into deeper water where we are surrounded by large rays gliding under, over and alongside us. Suddenly the edge of the reef ends and we get our first glimpse of the abyss that lies below.
An upwelling emanates from the darkness bringing with it dense schools of blue and pink maomao, demoiselles and more kingfish. All of a sudden they part and reveal the outline of a large predator with smooth rhythmic movement – a bronze whaler shark. As it cruises past, I feel the curiosity from its eye, totally aware of everything that is happening. Looking up at Rob and Jamie I can see that they have the shark in their sights. A wonderful feeling having talked about their desire to see these animals for the first time now that it is “bronzie season”. Then another shark glides by on the same path as the one before and another just over my head close in to the reef, then several more cruise through with a couple breaking off to come closer and check us out. I can hear the howls of delight from Rob reverberating through the water. The grace of these creatures and the understanding between all of us that there is no threat is an incredible thing to witness. Sharks have long been considered to be guardian spirits and protectors with many tribal stories reflecting this.
As the bronze whalers glide into the distance we continue around the reef circling back to where we started. What next ? Well, obviously head back to the point and start shark spotting again. It wasn’t to be although the reef fish were still there to enjoy, our sharks had moved on. Fair enough too, I think we would have overdosed on the enjoyment. Back on the line it was clear that the experience had left all of us quite literally stunned, elated, overwhelmed. Sharing these experiences with friends is a very special thing. It is where relationships are forged ever closer and new opportunities seem to present themselves.
The weekend had turned out to be everything we had collectively hoped for. A medicine for the soul, some incredible diving and a clarity of thought for how our various projects compliment and enhance each other. As our friends departed for Wellington there was a knowing appreciation that we would be doing this again very soon.
Many thanks to Rob and Jamie for making the journey, Jimbo for being an ace boatman and Laison’s reef for turning it on.
What a fine legacy and special place, kia ora Henry.