Saturday December 24th, 2011
As I entered the waters of Island Bay near Wellington to complete my attempt to dive once a month, I couldn’t help thinking how different this experience was going to be compared to Japan. Because of its famous cold water, Wellington is a place most divers would probably choose not to go to. Its unique underwater world remains unknown to most visitors but the seas are forests of seaweed and kelp packed with a varied marine life. It’s certainly not tropical Okinawa, but what’s down below is just as fascinating.
Island Bay is a protected marine reserve, where nothing can be removed from the water. As a result, the area is full of information for Wellington’s marine biology students who come here in abundance during term time to study, and divers can observe an extremely rich variety of plants and animals. Situated about 5km south of Wellington city centre, Island Bay is a quaint suburb with churches, shops, cinemas and public transport all a short 10 minute walk away from the beach. Two scuba diving companies offer regular shore dives, boat dives and snorkeling tours. There is also plenty for the keen marine biologist – a small marine education centre, and the Victoria University coastal ecology laboratory.
My chosen dive shop was two doors away from my accommodation. At Splash Gordon, I was advised to do two easy shore dives, where I could enter slowly and get used to Wellington’s famous cold water, instead of jumping straight off a boat which would have been a shock to the system after Okinawa’s warmth. Today’s group had 8 members, most of them newly-qualified and about to do their first certified dive. I was paired up with Grant, a Wellington local due to start his Dive Master course with the school, so we opted to do our own thing while the others followed the guide. After loading all the equipment we drove for 5 mins to Bait House, a little bay tucked behind a small car park and some trees. The entry point was a short rocky path surrounded by tide pools on either side. Once deep enough we could swim out into the open sea, which looked extremely inviting under the scorching sun. As I walked across the slippery seaweed and rocks, I understood what was meant by the cold but was more impressed by the visibility. Already I could spot tiny fish sitting on the rocks, and mountains of plants to wade through.
As the dive began, I started to feel like Harry Potter in the 4th film when he swims in the murky lake close to Hogwarts School. The water was far from murky, but the rocks around us were caked in long thick green seaweed and darker kelp, so much so that we had to push them away with our hands to create paths. We were literally swimming through forests, stopping occasionally to search for crabs, starfish, and other interesting specimens we could photograph. Bait House is made up of rocky reefs, which are weedy and crawling with marine plants, but deeper down are pebbles and more heavy sand. The average dive in Wellington tends to be around 12m, and at Bait House we remained just above 10, giving us ample time to get used to the cold, relax and focus on what was around us. Visibility was excellent, the water was fresh and clear, and the huge surrounding rocks provided us with narrow tunnels we could swim though. Every single crack and hole in the rocks contained a crayfish, huge ones resting on the sand below, and younger ones retreating into the cracks or sticking out their long pincers as we swam by. The cold water gave me a slight headache and there was a noticeable current but my buddy Grant knew the area well, and I was in good hands as I followed him past mountains of rock formations and rested on the pebbles below to observe the marine life around me. Island Bay doesn’t have a lot of fish but to compensate, we were spoiled by the huge amount of crayfish, starfish, sea anemones and even a white nudibranch family. Looking very closely, I could see mum and two babies.
Mermaid Kitchen just opposite the shop was the location of our second dive. I was greeted by swimthroughs, canyons and an array of marine life as I descended into one of Island Bay’s main dive sites with three other divers. During the afternoon the current seemed to have picked up and visibility was a lot worse than in the morning, but we descended to about 11m and entered even more swimthroughs further out at sea. There was no end to the huge amount of marine plants. Once again we cruised through them and found various tiny crabs and sea anemones. Most common were the crayfish also spotted this morning, deep purplish red and orange with rows of depressions across their tails and the swimming crab, a large creature that grows to about 8cm and uses its paddles for swimming or digging backwards into the sand. I was struck by the goby-like fish resting on the huge kelp that swam away the moment I tried to take a photo, and the blue cod perched in the sand thanks to their large pectoral and pelvis fins. The dive site is a photographer’s paradise with a range of colour (green, brown and pink seaweed) and a chance to discover the tiny details and patterns of seaweed, sea anemones, abalone and starfish.
It’s easy to overlook an area like Island Bay and head straight for warm tropical waters. Such environments are perfect for divers and it’s much easier to relax and take your time when you’re in warm water surrounded by lots of colourful fish. Sure enough my fellow divers today were concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy Island Bay after diving in Okinawa, but New Zealand has just as much to offer. With the right wetsuit, the water is extremely comfortable, offering excellent visibility and a chance to see up close animals, plants and colours that can’t be found in tropical regions. As a diver, I felt more than anything how important it is to have an open mind – to consider less popular or well-known areas and be open to discovering new creatures or new plants, even if they may not look particularly beautiful, or the water you are in is slightly cold. I would highly recommend Island Bay as a top dive site.
- I booked two dives with Splash Gordon (http://www.splashgordon.co.nz/). Originally I had planned to join them on their boat but switched to two basic shore dives.
- Two dives with full gear hire cost 120 dollars or just over 7,000yen (such a bargain compared to Japan!)
- The school has a big area at the entrance selling plenty of dive gear. On the first floor is a huge area at the back for divers to set up or wash equipment, have a barbecue and fill in log books. Upstairs are two classrooms for students learning how to dive. No showers are provided. Many divers drove to the school for the day and back again to get changed.
- Hot tea and coffee is available.
- Divers use their own cars to get to the dive site so I got a lift with a fellow diver after loading all our equipment into the car.
- Lunch is provided by the school. After dive 1 we drove back to the school for a barbecue of sausages, bread rolls, onions, ketchup, and plenty of tea, coffee and fruit juice.
- You are responsible for all hired equipment. The area to wash equipment in is extremely spacious – wooden tables and benches, a big tub of water for wetsuits, boots, masks, fins and snorkels, and a smaller tub for cameras.
Dive 1: Bait House: depth: 9.8m, dive time: 40mins, water temp: 13C, entry time: 11:06AM, exit time: 11:46AM, average depth: 4.6m, visibility: 8m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 11kg weight belt and 7mm wetsuit. Saw crayfish, nudibranchs, sea anemones, forests of seaweed and kelp, banded wrasse, common triplefin, butterfish, beadlet anemone, kina (sea urchin)
Dive 2: Mermaid’s Kitchen: depth: 11.3m, dive time: 37mins, water temp: 13C, entry time: 13:59, exit time: 14:36, average depth: 6.7m, visibility: 3-5m, used an 11.1L aluminium tank, 11kg weight belt and 7mm wetsuit. Saw more crayfish, strapweed, coralline algae, 7-arm starfish, cushion star, and blue cod.