ianskipworth.com > Skip's Underwater Image Gallery > The Kermadecs - Part 1  

M.V. Atu en route to the Kermadecs
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New Zealand has a number of remote island territories from the subantarctic islands of the ferocious Southern Ocean to the Chatham Islands to the east but it is the Kermadec Islands, far to the north east, that probably hold the most appeal for the adventurous New Zealand diver.

Lying approximately 1000 km from the New Zealand mainland, the Kermadec Islands comprise a group of volcanic rocks and islets separated by almost 250 km. Rising out of one of the deepest of ocean trenches, they seem out of place, tiny specks of land in a huge, endless ocean.

Because of their remoteness, these subtropical island jewels are seldom visited but with their remote location brings a promise to fascinate all who make the effort to visit them.

For many years a trip to the Kermadecs had been a dream of mine. It is seldom that there is an opportunity to join an expedition there so when I heard of a trip planned for early in 2001, I was determined not to miss out. So it was that a group of eight divers began to assemble in Tauranga one afternoon early in March for what promised to be the trip of a lifetime diving expedition.

After loading a small mountain of equipment and supplies onto the boat we waited impatiently for final preparations to be completed. Our home for the next 11 days was to be M.V. Atu, a 21 metre, 50 tonne charter launch equipped with every amenity necessary to ensure our safety and comfort.
Urchin, Cheeseman Island

We departed Tauranga at 5.20 that evening and once outside the harbour, set a course for L'Esperance Rock, some 454 nautical miles (840 km) distant to the north east. The weather during the last few days had not been good but by the time we departed, there was scarcely any wind and only an easterly swell remained to downgrade conditions from ideal.

After a somewhat restless sleep we awoke on our first morning at sea to find conditions little different from the previous evening. Only the swell caused the boat to roll uncomfortably as we inched our way towards the distant Kermadecs. With nothing to do other than relax and wait for hundreds of miles of sea to pass beneath us we gobbled down our breakfast and eased into a life of laziness.

Moray Eel, Cheeseman Island

Even at this early stage of our voyage the sea had turned that lovely deep blue colour indicative of excellent underwater visibility and we found ourselves impatient to get into some diving.

By mid afternoon on our first day the lack of wind had caused the sea surface to become almost glassy. In these conditions it was possible to stand on the bow of the boat and get a good view of life below the surface. For long periods there was little to see except a few jellyfish and salps but occasionally, a few small fish or squid would dart along in front of the bow wave with the squid sometimes propelling themselves out of the water. Slightly more exciting were several flying fish which launched themselves into flights lasting 10 seconds or more and a couple of sunfish with big dorsal fins flopping lazily above the surface.

Starfish, Cheeseman Island

The first day had passed rather quietly until late in the afternoon when a shout "marlin!" came from the stern. We'd been trolling lures for most of the day but had pretty much lost interest in them. After the shout went up we raced to the back of the boat from where we watched the marlin leap acrobatically from the water several times. After a tug of war lasting almost an hour our lucky first time marlin fisherman, Ian, had subdued the beautiful fish sufficiently to pull him alongside the boat from where we wasted little time in releasing him. So ended the first day of our voyage to the Kermadces.

Hard coral, Raoul Island

The morning of our second day at sea greeted us with continuing fine weather. The easterly swell persisted and the nonexistent wind of the previous day was now blowing at about 10 knots but we felt rather fortunate to have had such a comfortable trip thus far. Better still, the weather faxes we were receiving indicated that we could expect the good weather to continue for at least a few more days.

During the morning our lazy trolling efforts were rewarded with a small mahi mahi which pounced on a lure and put up little resistance in coming to the boat. Later in the morning we gained a day as we crossed the international date line and passed into the eastern hemisphere.

Grey knife fish, Raoul Island

An ocean voyage in a small boat gives you a good appreciation of the massive extent of the ocean on this planet of ours. Spending so much of our lives on land makes it very easy to forget this but after days of voyaging across a huge featureless expanse of blue, the ocean inevitably takes on a much greater significance.

By the morning of the third day, we were all becoming impatient and keen to know when we'd be able to get our first dive in. It seemed likely that we would make the southern most island, L'Esperance Rock at about 9 pm that evening. Being too late to do a dive, we decided to continue to motor through the night so that we would be at Curtis and Cheeseman Islands first thing the following morning.

Before going to bed that night we watched the radar anxiously for the first indication of L'Esperance Rock. This was a rather interesting time as our navigation had been totally dependent on the boat's electronic global positioning system (GPS) and it is only when this rock, less than 300 metres across, appears in the middle of nowhere that we could be sure we were in the right place. The radar showed nothing for a long time and most of us had gone to bed when it finally began to appear on the radar about 12 miles distant and just where the GPS said it should be.

Wolverine Rock, Denham Bay, Raoul Island
The following morning we awoke early to the changed sounds of the boat's motors reversing and idling. On crawling out of bed and staggering up to the wheelhouse we were greeted by our first view of the Kermadecs. Finally, land had appeared in our view of the world and we were all quite excited at the prospect of the diving to come.

We had tucked ourselves in behind the western side of Cheeseman Island to get some shelter from the easterly winds now blowing at about 15 knots. We waited for a an hour or so to let the morning sun poke its head up from behind the island before slipping into our dive gear and taking the plunge into an underwater world that none of us had experienced before.

The water kissed our faces and revealed a very blue world in visibility of about 30 metres (100 ft). As we dropped to the bottom at about 35 metres we gazed about us at the odd mixture of fish, some of them very familiar but others quite unexpected in New Zealand waters. Gold-ribbon grouper, rarely seen in New Zealand were abundant and often shared a crack with toadstool grouper or yellow banded perch. Kingfish and kahawai cruised about much as they would at home but the larger fish out in the blue, the sharks, definitely didn't fit a typical New Zealand underwater scene. A pair of these sharks came in to inspect us more closely and must have been a little confused by the strange intruders in their domain. As always they are beautiful creatures and inspire nothing but exhilaration (until they start doing that back arching thing and drop their pectoral fins).
Sharks often provide an armed escort back to the boat at the end of the dive!
Raoul Island

For the second dive at the day we stayed anchored at Cheeseman Island before moving on to the nearby Stawell Shoal for our third dive. Here we were treated to one of those great underwater experiences that remain memorable amongst hundreds of dives. From the moment we submerged our faces below the water until the moment we climbed back on board the boat the sharks were with us.

We had anchored on what seemed to be the shallowest part of the reef where a number of jagged pinnacles rose to within five metres of the surface. A ring of these pinnacles seemed to form a natural amphitheatre where fish of all varieties congregated. Schools of large kingfish cruised through schools of drummer, kahawai and demoiselles. Beautiful yellow banded perch occupied many of the cracks in the rocks where we also saw several lionfish. All the while, the sharks glided amongst the other fish but generally kept their distance from us.

Splendid hawkfish - common at the Kermadecs but not seen around mainland NZ.

As the end of the dive approached, other divers began to make their way back to the anchor chain. Eager not to miss any of the action I stayed down as long as I could and when I finally started to make my way towards the anchor, most of the other divers had either left the water or were doing a safety stop close to the boat.

As I moved towards the boat, the nearby sharks followed me. Soon, the other divers had left the water and I was on my own with a larger group of sharks coming ever closer. This did become a slightly uncomfortable situation but they seemed more inquisitive than aggressive and it definitely makes for a much more pleasant dive if you marvel at what beautiful animals they are rather than dwell on their potential to shred you.

At the end of the day we all headed for bed fairly early feeling very satisfied with our first day's diving at the Kermadecs. We would motor through that night past the next island to the north, Macauley Island, and continue north towards the largest and only inhabited island of the group, Raoul Island.

Continue on to The Kermadecs - Part 2

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