by Alison Smith, images supplied by Dive Tairua
Twelve nautical miles off the coast of Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula rises an imposing cluster of ancient volcanic formations that captured the imagination of Captain James Cook and continues to fascinate and enchant underwater explorers to this day.
Sheer, majestic and – in the apt words of local skipper Jim Hope – ‘brutally breathtaking’, The Aldermen Islands are an environmental treasure gifted by Maori in 1970 to become a vitally important wildlife sanctuary administered by the Department of Conservation.
Home to several species of endangered reptiles, threatened plants and breeding sea and land birds, setting foot on any of the islands is strictly prohibited and carefully upheld under the watchful eye of DoC and local charter operators.
‘We’re all pretty protective,’ says Jim. ‘Either you have that kind of place or you don’t, you shouldn’t have half measures.’
But the diverse terrain of volcanic caverns, gullies, tunnels, sharp pinnacles and deep valleys offer incredible diving and snorkelling and their underwater diversity is something that local boat charters – spearheaded by Donna and Dave at Tairua Dive and Fishinn – are always willing to promote.
With warm currents creating an ever-changing underwater landscape that includes humpback whales, marlin, stingrays and sub-tropical species such as turtles, sunfish, mantarays and even coral fish.
‘It is so special I’m going to have my ashes put out there – it just steals your heart,’ exclaimed Jim, a former school principal working alongside Tairua Dive and Fishinn as a skipper to the Aldermens. ‘It has always looked after me and I’ve never had to come hurrying home, although I’m still very careful travelling around there at night.’
The Aldermen Islands encompass 134ha, with four main islands and numerous rocky outcrops including giant narrow columns which rise from the seafloor and spike the surface. Others fall short by just metres, making boating in this area treacherous for the unwary.
The islands were given their name by Captain Cook, who sailed past in 1769 after naming Mayor Island, and went on to name the majestic islands ‘the Honourable Court of Aldermen’ as though he were witnessing the gathering of a council meeting with the Lord Mayor of London.
The artist aboard the ship painted the vista as the ship travelled past, producing a moving painting featuring all the islands in one image, explains fellow Tairua skipper Brian Schmidt, dive instructor and former owner of the Tairua Dive and Fishinn.
Schmidt has taken many intrigued artists on trips over the years. ‘They come for just the sheer beauty of those offshore islands,’ he says. ‘As artists they were expecting to see one profile as it was drawn and of course it doesn’t exist. Instead we’d have to travel nearly two miles to get that same image with all the islands, and they’re often quite surprised to discover that.’
Geologists such as Dr Roger Briggs, associate professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Waiakato, is another visitor intrigued by this court of Aldermen, although his interest lies in the islands’ history as a volcanic complex that once joined the eastern shores of the Coromandel Peninsula. The area was submerged after the last ice age 20,000 years ago and slowly eroded by the ocean to give the amazing vista of today.
The vertical spines, he explains, represent eroded remnants of rhyolite lava from a catastrophic eruption probably five million years ago. The lava cooled to form columns like organ pipes rising from the seafloor and forming such beautiful feeding stations to the rich sealife.
Dr Briggs’ trained eye sees beauty from a different perspective, yet his snorkelling experience left him in awe: ‘I thought it was magnificent, and of course there’s incredible volcanic geology there and the [formations] are just so spectacularly exposed.’
The geology of the Aldermen Islands provides safe havens for crayfish, and there are deep dives as well as many acres of shallow diving so you can cruise for 40 minutes just taking it all in. As good as that sounds, locals will tell you it may take many more dives to take in all that the islands have to offer.