ianskipworth.com > Skip's Underwater Image Gallery > The Kermadecs - Part 2  

Continued from The Kermadecs - Part 1

Striped boar fish, Dougall Rock, Raoul Island

Early the next morning we were close to Raoul Island and soon after breakfast were sampling the diving at Dougall Rock on the southern side of the island. Here the bottom plummets to 300 metres or more within a stones throw from the rock and the natural up-welling of current ensures a concentration of marine life. For much of the dive, a group of ten sharks followed John and I around the rock towards its northeastern corner where the wall drops down, down, down to somewhere I badly wanted to go.

During this dive I saw my first striped boar fish hanging out in a cave beneath a large rock. I had never seen one of these colourful and strikingly patterned fish before but in subsequent dives around Raoul Island found heaps of them hanging out in groups of up to ten.

Boat Cove, Raoul Island

On this dive we also came across several of the large spotted black grouper, undoubtedly one of the big underwater attractions of the Kermadecs. These fish do occur in relatively small numbers in north eastern New Zealand but they are much more abundant and grow to a much larger size at the Kermadecs. Their other striking characteristic is the ease with which they can be approached.

On a later dive we were to find ourselves in a spot where there seemed to be dozens of these gentle giants. Here I followed a fish weighing perhaps 50 kg (110 lb) into a hole beneath a rock only to have him swim up to me and rest his huge head on my camera only inches away from my face.

Spotted black grouper, Raoul Island

After our dive at Dougall Rock we headed for the sheltered waters of the nearby Boat Cove to anchor up for lunch. Since arriving at the southern islands we had been communicating on the radio with the Department of Conservation (DOC) staff stationed on Raoul. Their desperate need of company became obvious when they invited us, even me, to a barbecue on the island that evening. The Kermadecs simply don't get a lot of visitors and it is a fairly isolated existence for the DOC staff stationed on Raoul. There happened to be another boat sheltering at the islands when we arrived but the DOC guys later told us that these were the first visitors they'd had for 85 days.

As we sat anchored in the clear waters of Boat Cove we could see several sharks cruising around and with the sun blazing, it seemed like too good a photographic opportunity to miss. Although feeling a little apprehensive about jumping in with the sharks we'd spent so much diving with them it seemed kind of silly to be concerned about going for another swim with them. After setting up my camera and getting into my wet suit I jumped in.

Galapagos sharks snapped while snorkeling in Boat Cove, Raoul Island

Around mainland New Zealand sharks are seldom seen underwater by divers. Despite the fact that there's plenty of them about, they probably sense the presence of divers from a long way off and stay well clear of them. At the Kermadecs the sharks seem to display no such tendencies of shyness. On my entry into the water the sharks nearby showed no alarm and and immediately began taking an obvious interest in me. With each swim past me they came a little closer until I decided I was getting a little cold or feeling a little hungry or had run out of film or some such excuse.

Present in numbers throughout almost every dive, these mainly galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) mixed with a few grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) were for me the most striking underwater attraction of the Kermadecs. Reading up about them back at home the book "Sharks and Rays of New Zealand" describes the galapagos shark as "aggressive and dangerous". I don't know about the dangerous thing. For me, any risk is more than offset by the opportunity to swim with such beautiful animals in an environment where their behavior is probably very little modified by man.

Denham Bay, Raoul Island

That afternoon we had another good dive at Meyer Island after which the thought of standing on something that didn't move took on great appeal. Our attempts to get ashore were hampered by the swell rolling in at Fishing Rock, the landing point. A group of us first approached the landing point in Atu's inflatable dinghy but were left feeling very vulnerable when the motor cut out near the shore and we had to row frantically to stay clear of the breaking waves. Our second attempt at landing was more successful and eventually most of us were deposited on the island without mishap. The legendary island hospitality lived up to its name as the DOC staff transported us back to their hostel by tractor and four wheeled motorbike. There we were taken on a tour of the facilities before indulging in the barbecued food and excellent Raoul Island home brew.

We had decided to stay on the island for the night rather than try to negotiate the waves and the sharks while drunk in the dark. This turned out to be an even better decision as the night wore on and the home brew tasted better and better. We awoke fairly early the following morning feeling a little ragged and after breakfast were transported by our DOC friends along a track of approximately 10 kilometres from the hostel to the Boat Cove landing where we had arranged to meet up with Atu.

During our ride to Boat Cove we got a good look at the forest on the island. The dominant pohutukawa and nikau palms give the forest a slightly familiar feel but the dense stands of almost pure nikau don't look like anything you'd see on the mainland. It might be expected that the flora and fauna on Raoul is as undisturbed and natural as you would find anywhere but the island has an unfortunate history of human occupation stretching back over 150 years. As a result there are many introduced plant and animal species and the DOC staff spend much of their time combing the island in an attempt to control or eradicate weeds. The goats which once thrived have been eliminated but the feral cats make it a less than ideal environment for nesting birds and the place seems to be swarming with introduced rats which can be seen hopping lazily along the tracks.

Wreck of Japanese fishing boat, Denham Bay beach, Raoul Island

That day we had two more great dives around Raoul, the second of which saw me escorted from the water by particularly friendly locals. Being the last to leave the water I knew that the sharks had come to like me and would want to say good-bye. However, I couldn't help feeling they were getting a little over friendly as I approached the boat and looked behind me where I counted 25 of them swimming into the current towards me, the closest almost ready to nip at the tips of my fins.

After finishing diving for the day we decided to go ashore at Denham Bay to check out the wreck of a Japanese fishing boat driven ashore there. Although the bay was well sheltered from the prevailing weather, the beach is very steep and getting ashore without getting wet was not easy. Several members of the group did get knocked over in the surf but all was well until the sea decided to reclaim our inflatable dinghy. It had been pulled ashore, supposedly beyond the range of the waves but after leaving it unattended for a minute or two, we turned to see it floating upside down in the surf.

Wolverine Rock, Denham Bay, Raoul Island

Upon rescue and inspection, the motor was found to be drenched in water, covered in sand and the chances of it getting us back to Atu, anchored well offshore, seemed remote. We joked about being shipwrecked on an island in the middle of nowhere and sent a few of the crew off in the dinghy to row the considerable distance to Atu. During the wait for the dinghy to return we explored some of the huge beach and wandered off into the bush behind it. Eventually the dinghy returned with a restarted motor and we were all "rescued".

That evening, the planned night dive had only two keen participants, Neil and Simon. I did my best to prepare them mentally for the dive by reminding them of the enormous tiger shark caught at night, nearby at Fishing Rock. Apparently undaunted they entered the water with high powered torches seeming to light up the whole bay. Their dive was to last barely 20 minutes after which they exited the water telling stories of mysterious things that had bumped into them in the dark causing them to terminate the dive. Needless to say, the trauma relief team was on hand (led by me) to administer the appropriate counseling.

We were to have one more full days thoroughly enjoying diving at the Kermadecs. By this time the unusual mix of fish species had begun to seem a lot more familiar. The odd looking drummer, similar to but distinctly different from our silver drummer. The bluefish, normally seen only as individuals at home swam around in large herds of big individuals grazing from rocks in shallow water. Lord Howe coralfish, yellow banded perch, toadstool grouper, gold-ribbon grouper, spotted black grouper, painted moki, magpie morwong, grey and blue knifefish, all seldom seen around mainland New Zealand but encountered with great frequency at the Kermadecs. Then, a multitude of species seldom or never seen at home; lion fish, moorish idols, two species of small unfamiliar morays, yellow boxfish and numerous others with which it is difficult to gain familiarity over the short time we were at the Kermadecs.

New Zealand's northern most "civilisation", site of DOC hostel and met station with Raoul's highest peak, Moumoukai (516 m) in the background, Raoul Island

After five days at the Kermadecs we awoke to find the weather looking considerably less inviting. Our scheduled time to depart for home was drawing near and we were keen to keep an extra close eye on the weather and seize any windows that presented. A check of the latest weather fax confirmed that conditions at the Kermadecs were likely to deteriorate further and that two converging low pressure systems far to the south might make weather close to the mainland very unpleasant in a few days time.

We all felt lucky to have had such a good spell of weather at the Kermadecs and in the present miserable conditions, found it easy to make the decision to commence the long voyage home one day earlier than originally planned.

After ploughing our way east from Denham Bay through heavy swells, we dropped Drew, one of the DOC staff, at Boat Cove. There we lashed everything down and made final preparations for the rough seas that awaited us. At 2.00 pm we nudged our way out onto the big blue wobbly thing and soon began to loose site of a grey, wet, mist shrouded Raoul Island.

Striped boarfish, Wolverine Rock, Denham Bay, Raoul Island

Anxiety levels were raised early into the voyage when it was announced that we had lost steering. At the time, it was beginning to get dark and we were bobbing about in a rather rough sea. After some frantic exploration it was found that a burst hydraulic hose was the cause of the problem. While using the two motors to keep the boat pointing roughly in the direction of the sea, a replacement hose was eventually found, fitted and the steering hydraulic system recharged with oil.

The days that followed were not pleasant and graphically illustrated why the Kermadecs are so seldom visited. During the long trip home there is absolutely no alternative to accepting whatever mother nature dishes up. There are no shortcuts and no places to shelter if you want a break. Your only hiding place is your cabin bunk and for all of the trip home, these lurched about wildly and were difficult or impossible to sleep in.

With each roll and thud anything loose in the boat got relocated somewhat and with every shower of spray that whipped across our decks, the salt water penetrated cracks and appeared inside as constant drips or occasional bucket sized drenchings. After a few days of this the boat began to look a mess. We could have tidied things up a bit but doing anything that required moving about the boat seemed like a huge effort and all we wanted to do was make time disappear and set foot on dry land.

Galapagos shark, Raoul Island

As we headed for the mainland we were getting closer to a large high located over the South Island. The sun shone for much of the time and the weather faxes indicated that we should only be experiencing mild winds but the wind continued to blow at 25 to 35 knots with gusts to 45 right up until we approached Mayor Island on the third night of the voyage home when it finally began to abate.

At 2 am, three and a half days after leaving Raoul Island, Atu pulled into the marina at Tauranga where the lurching and rolling finally stopped. Later in the morning we rose from our bunks and took a walk on dry land only to find that it lurched about in a less pleasant way than Atu's motion at sea. We were all very pleased to be back on the mainland but it had been a magnificent trip and the memories of those far away islands would stay with us forever.

Denham Bay beach, Raoul Island

Photographic Notes:

Topside photographs were taken with a Nikon F601 with 16mm f2.8 fisheye, 18mm f3.5, 180mm f2.8 or 300mm f4.5 Nikkor lenses
with Fuji Provia film. Underwater photographs were taken with a Nikon F3 in an Aquatica 3 housing, 16mm f2.8 fisheye or 60mm f2.8 micro Nikkor lenses, Ikelite Ai/n and Sea & Sea YS50 strobes with Fuji Velvia or Provia film. Images presented here were scanned onto Kodak Photo CD and prepared for this page with Adobe Photoshop 6.

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