New Zealand - New Zealand and Rarotonga Update 2006 by Richard Scarsbrook
Jen and I spent a week in Rarotonga and seven weeks in New Zealand in February and March 2006 - our fourth visit in five years. My reports on our earlier trips can be found elsewhere on the BSAC Travel Club website, and should be read in conjunction with this article. The purpose of this report is to add our impressions of places we hadn't dived before; provide updates about a couple of spots we re-visited, and add a few general points omitted from, or revised since, our previous trip reports.
This report includes accounts of diving around the Hauraki Gulf, and Three Kings and the far north of North Island, with updates on Poor Knights and Rarotonga. There are detailed descriptions of about 20 dive sites.
As before we flew with Air New Zealand, except the outbound LHR/LAX sector which was United. They were OK. Air New Zealand's 747s have been upgraded and now have modern in-flight entertainment with on-demand movies and so on.
Airport security and immigration at LAX seemed better organised than on previous trips (but still tedious), and the staff at LAX were friendly and courteous. For the first time, we encountered long queues on arrival at Auckland. They were closing desks at the bio-security check even though the queue was growing, and we waited over an hour to be nodded through. There were long delays through security at LHR as well. Heathrow seems to be getting worse for security delays, and we will try and avoid it as a gateway on future trips if practicable.
The flights we used (cashing in some of our frequent flyer miles) meant an eight hour layover in LA. We thought it would be a good idea to leave the airport and get a cab down to Santa Monica to soak up the atmosphere. With hindsight it was a waste of money. Having got up at 0500 UK time to start our journey it was about 2300 UK time when we reached LA, (though only 1500 local time) so we were tired already. We walked from Santa Monica along to Venice Beach, which was fairly atmospheric with lots of svelte Californians out exercising on rollerblades with miniature dogs in tow, plus a nice sunset over the Pacific. But Venice was rather seedy, and the walk back to Santa Monica looking for a cab felt somewhat threatening. The cab back cost US$50. It was quite cool - quiet, smooth, and nice classical music - but overall the excursion cost us about $150 and we didn't really enjoy it. Next time I would stay in the airport and read a book.
Once again we used the BBH Website network of backpacker hostels for most of our accommodation, and rented a Nissan Pulsar from Auckland Premium Car Rentals Website. All outstanding value and no problems.
The weather this time was nice (shorts and T-shirts) on North Island, which we visited in February and early March, but a bit chilly at times on South Island towards the end of the trip. The non-diving highlights of this year's trip included great beaches at Raglan, Whangerei Heads, and especially Ahipara; the purpose-built mountain bike tracks at Rotorua; the Mt Robert/Angelus Hut/Coldwater Hut tramp at Nelson Lakes; and the view of Mt Misery from the summit of Mt Horrible, near Arthur's Pass.
Once again we dived with The Dive Centre Rarotonga Website. Last year Rarotonga was hit by three separate tropical storms in two weeks. Possibly as a result, tourist numbers are down, and the island was quiet while we were there. The weather wasn't wonderful, with a lot of heavy rain, and reduced visibility underwater. Despite, or more likely because of this, we had the best dives we have had so far in Rarotonga. Diving in Rarotonga, indeed diving anywhere with excellent visibility, can be rather samey - I've usually had enough after a week in the Red Sea. But this time, the fact that we were often the only people in the boat meant that we could go to more challenging sites, and the reduced visibility (still 10-20 metres though) added atmosphere to sites that might otherwise been dull. The water temperature was a toasty 27degC.
* Maitai - the well-smashed remains of a 3000 ton cargo steamer, which lies in only 8 metres, just out from shore at the north of the island. The rudder still stands upright, amazingly given the location of the wreck, and there are several boilers and engine parts amongst the plates and ribs. The engine block breaks the surface. An interesting dive, which has provided several items for The Dive Centre's collection of trophies (see photo).
* Rutaki Passage - a gentle drift at a knot or so out through a narrow passage in the reef with overhanging walls rising from 20m to the surface.
* Papua Passage - a swim out to the drop-off, where we counted about 20 crayfish on some ledges just inside air-diving range. We saw cruising tuna, and huge numbers of baby bristletooth surgeon fish. Visibility at depth was excellent.
* Avavaroa Passage - an atmospheric dive along a sand passage to the drop-off. There was a slight outgoing current, and clouds of murky water from the lagoon were rolling down the slope to the depths. There was plenty of fish life on the adjoining reef, including some delightful 'humbugs', a kind of black and turquoise clown fish.
* Matavera dropoff - a steep wall which drops to 50m and beyond. Visibility was less than 10m on the plateau above the wall, due to runoff from the land after heavy rain, but below 25m or so it improved to 20m or more. We saw reef sharks and schooling fish.
On this trip we only dived on North Island. We sampled the Hauraki Gulf, north of Auckland, and revisited Poor Knights to try out a different dive operator there as a change from Dive!Tutukaka. Our big dive excursion was a one week liveaboard to Three Kings, a group of volcanic islands 50km off the top of North Island. We also planned to dive out of Wellington, but that was thwarted by bad weather.
Away from a few high-profile spots like Poor Knights, the majority of diving in NZ is done privately. There are plenty of dive shops, but most of their diving is with beginners for training. Even in Auckland, with a population of 1.3 million, we could only find on the web three operators offering scheduled dive trips, and ended up using two of them. Most trips run at weekends. Midweek dives are generally organised on demand. If you put your name down, shops will try and arrange a trip around you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Operators say that often the trips don't fill up until the last minute. We've found on several occasions that when your trip is cancelled shops need prompting to apply refunds to your credit card. Make sure you can and do check your account while you're away: it's much easier to sort things out on the phone while you're in NZ, than when you're back home with a 12 hour time difference and expensive call charges.
I've given links for the dive operators we used, but there are many others. Reading the advertisements in a recent edition of Dive New Zealand Website and then phoning up is the best way of finding out what's available. Most diving seems to get arranged at quite short notice, so except for big liveaboard trips we don't book anything until we're in NZ. It is more than 12 months since our pony cylinders were last tested and this year all the operators we used declined to fill them: NZ regulations require an annual test. We hadn't had any trouble getting them filled on previous visits. Fortunately we had taken our decanting hose, so were able to fill them anyway. If you want to dive with a pony you need to take your own: I haven't seen ponies for hire in NZ (and sometimes get the impression that NZ divers think they're for wimps).
Hauraki Gulf is a huge bay with Auckland at its southwest side, the Coromandel peninsula on its eastern side, and the Whangaparaoa and Matakana peninsulas on the west. Close to Auckland the visibility is relatively poor. Having said that, the water at Devonport pier looked as clear as many places we'd dive in the UK. The best diving is around the islands near the mouth of the gulf 40 miles or more by sea from Auckland city; Little Barrier, Great Barrier, the Mokohinau group, the Hen and Chickens group, and various outlying rocks and pinnacles. No dive boats run out of Auckland: they depart from Leigh, about an hour's drive north. Or you can shore dive.
We booked two days diving on Divercity, a well laid-out 14m catamaran with a novel submersible diving platform and a decent skipper, through Dive Centre Ltd Website in Auckland. The boat doesn't carry tanks and weights, so we rented them from Goat Island Dive Website. The total cost for boat and equipment hire worked out around £50 per day each. We stayed in a caravan at Goat Island Camping Website, which apart from being situated in a nice location and close to where the boats go from, I couldn't recommend. The caravan and site facilities were dirty, overpriced and poorly equipped. But we did get into a memorable, slightly drunken, game of charades with a nice NZ family who felt the same as we did about the caravan site.
Little Barrier Island - Little Barrier Island is about 3 miles in diameter surrounded by gently shelving kelp-covered reefs, with some steeper parts, mainly on the northeast side. It lies about 10 miles out from Leigh and is a protected nature reserve. This was a midweek dive. The other divers were a group of Maori doing a PADI OW course and their instructor, and a trio of unaccompanied beginners. Their needs, and a northeasterly wind and swell, restricted us to diving the west side. Diving takes place from an anchored boat, so you have to navigate your way back. Not our favourite style of diving, but the skipper explained that he gets lots of undisciplined divers who would swim long distances in whatever direction took their fancy if he didn't anchor up, making recovering them all a nightmare. The trio made his point by losing each other underwater, continuing their individual dives, then having a long surface swim back to the boat. One had to be picked up by Divercity's tender. The Maori and their instructor were a great bunch, full of fun. After the second dive I was cleaning some scallops, keeping the white meat and throwing the rest away. The Maori lads were horrified by this waste and queued up to take the shells full of remains and slurp down the contents with gusto.
* Lion Rock - 19m, a bouldery reef covered in kelp eventually running out onto silty sand. We saw a nice eagle ray, and blue maomao above the kelp. Probably good for crayfish hunters (though we didn't see any), but rather monotonous otherwise.
* 500m S of Lion Rock - 14m, a more interesting site at the edge of a reef about 4m high. There were cracks, swimthroughs, and a fair amount of encrusting life on the rocks; and scallops and a beautiful 3m stingray on the sand.
Mokohinau Islands - This group of tiny islands are the most remote in the Hauraki Gulf, lying about 25 miles NE of Leigh. They are all protected nature reserves where landing is prohibited. The diving is reputed to be good, with clear water, steep walls, rich encrusting life, and schools of pelagic fish. We had booked a weekend trip on Divercity, but unfortunately an oil pump failed and the trip was cancelled.
Goat Island Marine Reserve - is a popular shore dive close to Leigh. There are toilets and changing rooms; a detailed map showing the various underwater habitats from which you can plan your dive; and a convenient drop-off and loading point close to the water so you don't need to lug your gear from the car park. We had a short, shallow dive there after the Little Barrier trip to use up the air left in our tanks. Due to the NE winds it was quite surgy and stirred up with only 2-3 metre visibility. Despite this it was a worthwhile dive, with astonishing numbers of large snapper completely unafraid of divers. Snapper are excellent eating, and are consequently heavily fished and a fairly rare sight elsewhere: it shows how effective the reserve is in preserving stocks. In calm weather the reserve must be a very nice dive indeed.
Other Hauraki Gulf sites - Great Barrier island is said to have some good diving, and has a couple of wrecks. It's a big island, 20 miles long, with plenty of accommodation, but I don't think there's a dive centre there. Most trips seem to operate out of Leigh. Sail Rock, and the Hen and Chickens are also said to have good diving. Boat trips leave from Leigh and from Whangerei. There are other diveable islands closer inshore - Kawau, Rangitoto, and Waiheke are the largest - but the visibility is said to be less good (we've been to Waiheke though not to dive. It's a nice place but the water looked quite murky).
There are several beaches between the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and Leigh where shore diving is possible, generally over a gently shelving bottom with rocky outcrops. At Tawharanui Marine Park, near Matakana about 5 miles south of Leigh, you can park right next to the beach. We saw people diving here, but didn't try it ourselves. Being a reserve, the fish and crustacean life should be better than average; and it seemed a less crowded spot than nearby Goat Island Reserve.
The Hauraki Gulf is an area that caters to weekending Aucklanders. There are nice beaches, wineries, interesting markets, and a fair amount of upmarket accommodation. The activities available tend toward the gentle rather than the adventurous. Verdict - Goat Island Marine Reserve is a nice shore dive, and I wouldn't rule out another shot at the Mokohinaus or similar if we could be confident of getting on the best sites - but one visit to Little Barrier was enough.
The Northwest Coast - from Raglan northwards to Ninety Mile Beach has some wonderful beaches and great surfing, but very little by way of accessible diving. It isn't really shore diving country, and no boat trips were available during our stay. Subsequently I've seen occasional trips advertised to Gannet Rock, 12 miles off Raglan and boasting a large seal population, by Stirling's Dive Shop Website in Auckland.
Poor Knights - We've used the biggest Poor Knights operator Dive!Tutukaka on two previous trips. They are very good, but the sheer number of holiday divers they attract and courses they run has led to disappointments. On two days when conditions were perfect we didn't get to the best sites because they weren't suitable for some of the others on the boat: fair enough, but a situation we'd rather avoid. So this time we tried Dive Poor Knights Website, which turned out to be just the job. The boat Crayzee Diver is fine, an 11 metre monohull with a very similar layout and comfort level to D!T's boats. There were only six people on board, Bruce the amiable skipper, Steve a laidback dive guide (optional), two Swedish girls only one of whom was a diver, and ourselves.
There was too much swell to dive the Sugar Loaf, Number 1 on our Poor Knights to-do list, but we were pleased with the adventurous alternative Bruce suggested. The boat was kept mobile on the first dive, which we prefer. The boat did anchor up for the excellent second dive out and back through Blue MaoMao arch, but that was sensible given the sea conditions. It was a good day's diving in good company, and as a bonus significantly cheaper than D!T - saving enough to pay for a top-of-the-range bottle of NZ wine.
* Taravana Cave - 35m, a tunnel with no clear surface, penetrating about 130 metres into the island. The entrance is between 35 and 25m, and the tunnel narrows down as you go further in; but there is plenty of room to swim side by side. We were told of an alternative exit down a side passage about 60m in, but didn't reach that far before we had to turn round while we still had enough reserve gas in our ponies to make a safe exit if our main supply failed. There were shoals of fish outside the cave, and jewel anemones and sponges under the kelp at the top of the wall. An adventurous dive that needs to be taken seriously, and very refreshing to meet a dive operator who recognises clients that are up to it.
* Blue MaoMao Arch - 14m, a world-class second dive with impressive rock architecture; swimthroughs rather like an inverted version of Cathedral Rock at St Abbs; multiple shoals of blue maomao, breeding desmoiselles, and snapper; and morays and scorpion fish in the cracks and crevices.
Verdict - there is world-class diving at Poor Knights, and it merits repeated visits. We're glad we tried Dive Poor Knights and would use them again without hesitation.
Three Kings - In many ways the Three Kings are to NZ diving as St Kilda is to British diving. This is how they are described by Stirling's dive shop:
"Of all the diving locations in New Zealand, the Three Kings Islands are often regarded as the best. Situated approximately 55 kilometres north west of the northern most tip of New Zealand's North Island, they provide an opportunity to experience New Zealand's marine environment at it's most raw and beautiful. Around the islands oceanic currents held apart for hundreds of kilometres meet each other and mix in a cauldron of concentrated marine life. Here the tides are unpredictable, the currents extreme and the sea conditions often unforgiving. Dive charters to the Three Kings are expensive and demanding of vessel, crew and divers. Most New Zealand divers never get there but for those that do, what must be some of the best temperate water diving on the planet awaits."
Following excellent trips on Frank Carre's small liveaboard Sandpiper Website in 2003 in Fiordland, and in 2005 around the Marlborough Sounds, we booked a 7 day trip to Three Kings. We were joined by our friend Chris Brough from Wellington, a former TSAC Website member; two NZ divers, Mike and Peter; and Frank with his son JP. The divers joined the boat in Houhoura, a sheltered harbour on the east coast about 25 miles south of North Cape. It wasn't cheap, costing about the same as an all-in week on a Sharm liveaboard, but then Three Kings is a special place, difficult to get to: Sandpiper made a 1000 mile round trip from Picton for our charter, which was a one-off. There are other boats which will go there: they cater principally to the game fishing market and cost considerably more than Sandpiper.
The islands that make up Three Kings form a chain about 8 miles long and range in size from Great Island, a mile and a half across and 300m high, to small stacks and breaking reefs. The tide runs at up to 4 knots through the main channels between the islands. It's no place to get swept away: the nearest land is Australia 1000 miles to the west and South America 6000 miles to the east. Three Kings is sacred to the Maori: tradition has it that the spirits of the dead leave the earth here. There is no habitation, and landing is forbidden. There is only one anchorage, in an open bay on the north side of Great Island. The tide runs into the bay: be careful if night diving from an anchored boat. We were very lucky with the weather: February is cyclone season in the south Pacific; Three Kings could become unpleasant in the swell from a cyclone even thousands of miles away. As it was the swell was only 2m or so on the crossing from North Cape, falling to 1m or less over the following days. Winds were light during our 4 day stay, picking up to 25 knots southwesterly only after we had safely reached the shelter of the mainland.
There are no guidebooks to Three Kings; in fact they are almost undived, so on most of your dives you are pioneering. Perhaps the most striking feature of the dives is the amount and size of the fish you see. Mike, one of the NZ divers, was a keen fisherman. His first cast on arrival at the Kings produced a 1.5m shark, immediately followed by a large barracuda, then another large fish. The following morning he hooked a huge stingray, which was too big to land on the boat; and during the week he caught several kingfish up to 40kg (kingfish are a predator similar to tuna). Crayfish were abundant.
* Great Island NW - 28m, a bay with clear blue water, a gently shelving rocky bottom thickly covered with kelp, many fish including cruising kingfish
* Great Island SW - 30m, a large bay beneath a steep wall, with a steeply shelving rocky bottom. Plenty of encrusting life, fish, and crustaceans.
* Princes Islands N - 35m, a very steep slab dropping into a flat sandy gully, with a steep reef rising to 20m on the other side. Excellent visibility, profuse fish and encrusting life.
* SS Elingamite - 37m, the Elingamite was a 2500 ton passenger steamer which hit the end of West Island in fog in 1902. She sank with the loss of 45 lives. She was carrying a consignment of coins, including 6000 gold sovereigns, not all of which have been recovered. The wreck lies in an extremely exposed and tide-swept position at the foot of a gully on the west-most point of Three Kings. The wreckage is so completely smashed and covered in sponge as to be almost unrecognisable. There is beautiful life on the gully wall to the north, and many fish including eagle rays.
* Southwest Island, cave on W side - 20m, a lovely cavern (with a clear surface). Swelly at the entrance but calm further in, with many fish including a school of pink maomao, and a family of crayfish in a cave at the back.
* Northeast Island W - 45m, an excellent wall and slabs dropping into about 50m. A big surge on the slabs above 20m, but many colourful sponges in holes under the kelp. Big shoals of pink maomao at depth.
* Princes Islands, cave at S end of E-most island - 20m, nice underwater scenery, prolific sponge and other life in cracks near the cave entrance, many fish outside, followed by a drift under DSMB in a very turbulent current in the channel east of the island.
Verdict - Three Kings is a wonderful place with some fantastic diving. We are lucky to have been there, and would recommend Sandpiper. To enjoy this trip you need to be familiar with living on boats and you need to have a high level of diving skills.
The Far North - After a forecast of deteriorating weather forced Sandpiper back from the Three Kings, we spent a couple of days diving along the north and northeast coasts of North Island as we made our way back to Houhoura. Apart from Cape Reinga, where the only road ends, few people see this beautiful part of NZ's coastline. There are steep cliffs, wind-swept beaches, and extensive areas of native bush. The diving is mainly on low reefs lying in 10-20m on a gently shelving sand and shingle seabed. The visibility was about 10m, and the dives were much-of-a-muchness.
* Cape Reinga E side - 14m, low reef and sand. Many bait fish, plus a school of kingfish patrolling round throughout the dive.
* Hooper Point, W of Tom Bowling Bay - 14m, similar to Cape Reinga, plus one or two crayfish
* Surville Cliffs just W of North Cape - 19m, latitude 34? 23?S the most northerly point of New Zealand. Similar to Hooper Point
* Cape Karikari N side - 22m, steeper ground than the previous three dives, with large clean rocks fallen from the cliffs close in, and weed covered reef further out. Stingrays and eagle rays resting amongst the rocks, morays in the cracks, and snapper amongst the fish life.
Wellington - We stayed with Chris and his family for a few days at their home near Wellington. In November 2005 HMNZS Wellington, F69, had been sunk as a diving attraction, in a blaze of Scylla-style publicity. Although none of us are very keen on diving 'fake' wrecks, Chris reckoned it was worth a look for novelty value alone, and had booked us on a Splash Gordon Website Saturday morning charter. On the Thursday the dive shop rang to say the dive was cancelled due to a bad weather forecast. On Friday a southerly gale began and the heavens opened. Ferry sailings across the Cook Strait were cancelled: the last boat to make it took 8 hours instead of the normal 3, arriving with 4 injured passengers, and several vehicles damaged after breaking loose on the car deck. Sailings didn't resume until Saturday afternoon when the storm had abated. On Monday the local paper carried a report of debris washed up near the wreck site. The project leader said it was just loose material, and this had been expected. By the end of the week, it had been discovered that the wreck had broken into 3 pieces. The wreck lies in about 25m of water in a very exposed position: over a 50 degree arc there's no land between it and Antarctica 2000 miles away. It will probably be flattened by the end of the winter.
Summary Rarotonga remains a great place for a stopover. It can provide entertaining diving even in bad weather. NZ is as good as ever if you enjoy the outdoors. Although the exchange rate is improving for Brits, and overall it's still a cheap place to holiday, diving in NZ seems to be getting more expensive. There is decent, accessible diving to be had around the Hauraki Gulf, but this trip has reconfirmed that for the casual diver-tourist the big three - Poor Knights, White Island, Fiordland - remain the must-do dive spots. Three Kings is a wonderful place for hardened divers, if you can find a trip. As ever, go to NZ for as long as you can, do non-diving stuff as well, and don't try to cram so much in that travelling overshadows doing.
Richard Scarsbrook - BSAC First Class Diver/Advanced Instructor, RYA Coastal Skipper
Jen Scarsbrook - BSAC Advanced Diver/Advanced Instructor