Pania Reef (Hidden Beauty)Napier

Pania Reef (Hidden Beauty)Napier

By Christopher Stretton

Legend tells that Pania was a beautiful maiden of the sea people. She left the sea to live with her lover Karitoki. Her people were upset with this and constantly called for her to return. When the calls became irresistible Pania returned to the sea for one last visit before returning to live with Karitoki forever. But her people drew her down into a sea cavern and would not let her return to land. Now, when you pass over the reef you can see Pania below with her outstretched arms, striving to get back to her lover.

Pania Reef is to be found half a kilometre north of the port of Napier in Hawke Bay. The reef runs in a line pointing north east for about 1.6 kilometres. Both ends of the reef are approximately marked by large buoys placed to help keep shipping traffic in and out of the busy Napier port from spending a lot longer than intended in the bay (although a nice large wreck dive would be appreciated by local divers). The reef rises from a featureless bottom of soft mud at 17 to 20 metres to mussel or seaweed covered tops at three to 12 metres. The reef is narrow; a diver can swim across its width from east to west in several minutes. The steep rise of the reef provides many vertical faces under-cut by ledges, or bisected by guts leading in to the weedy centre.

Hawke Bay is exposed to all weather from the north-east to the south, so the best time to dive is from November to February, although there can be good diving conditions during the colder months. Several large rivers empty in to the bay to the south, so high rainfall sends silt-laden water into the sea, which soon finds its way north to Pania Reef. The key to overcoming these handicaps is to be ready to dive, dive, dive as much as possible when the conditions are right.

So what do you find when you arrive at the reef after the short boat ride from Napier’s inner harbour? When the visibility is at its best, around 15 to 20 metres, the wide vista affords a view of the abundant fish life attracted by Pania. Schools of leatherjackets hover in the water column with sweep and the occasional blue maomao, while butterfly perch hang out where rocky faces direct the plankton into handy accumulations. Schools of kingfish will swing in from out of the blue, circle a diver at two arms length distance several times, before disappearing, often to re-appear later in the dive. The kingfish are well fed on the large silvery schools of jack mackerel and juvenile kahawai which pass like fast moving clouds over the reef. Down on the reef fields of ecklonia kelp hide red moki, as orange wrasse and banded wrasse duck in and out of the weedy cover. Green female butterfish cruise above the tops of this kelp forest. Their juveniles pop in and out of view, and the occassional big flash of blue in the forest marks the sudden dissapearance of a very secretive male butterfish.

The reef usually has visibility of two to five metres, so panoramic views are not possible. The focus turns to the plants and animals living on and close to the reef. It is now that Pania reveals her true beauty. The reef structure provides many near-vertical surfaces bathed in the currents which move water about Hawke Bay, bringing food to animals living fixed to the reef. These walls are crowded with invertebrates. In some areas sponges predominate, other areas have large patches of jewel anemones in a variety of splendid colours. Hydroids, bryozoans and bivalve molluscs contribute to the rich, encrusting fauna, along with yellow daisy-like zooanthids and soft corals looking like stumpy pink fingers. Over this wallpaper crawl conspicuous nudibranchs. The clown nudibranch Glossodoris amoena is common, either munching on its small grey bryozoan food source, or in pairs mating or laying their spiral ribbons of eggs. The small nudibranch Cadlina willani, with its pale yellow back stripe along a white body can also be found. Large red crabs find plenty to eat on the reef, including  the  nudibranchs’ eggs. Schools of oblique swimming triplefins shelter out of the surge close to the walls, while mottled and variable triplefins sit waiting for unsuspecting small crustaceans to stumble by. North Rock near the northern marker buoy is one area of Pania Reef renowned for its covering of jewel anemones and other brightly coloured invertebrates (and its legendary hoard of large crayfish).

In cracks and under ledges fish hide out waiting for darkness to arrive, signaling their time to come out and feed. Conger eels and rock cod peer warily with their big round eyes from their hiding places. Slender roughy lurk in small schools at the back of overhangs. Crab-munching red-banded perch hide alone in shallow cracks. Another inhabitant of the reef’s recesses gets a lot of attention from divers; crayfish are easy to find, and it is rare to head for home without a feed.

Other parts of the reef present fields of mussels, often where fresh water springs cause localised areas of lower salinity. The shallowest part of the reef, known as The Boil, where the reef rises to within three metres of the surface, is one area with large mussel beds. Many of the mussles are decorated with white anemones. The mussels are preyed upon by hoardes of spiky green eleven armed starfish, and also appear to attract blue cod, who are often keen to nibble at divers’ finger tips.

There are sandy patches between flatter areas of the reef which are worth a closer look despite their initial appearance of being lifeless. It is on the sand that goatfish grub for food, schools of blue moki rest, and this is also the most likely place to see snapper. During early summer, schools of juvenile tarakihi a few centimetres long make the sandy patches their home. The sand is also home to some very pretty, large anemones and holes in the sand house octopus, with their intelligent looking eyes peering out to watch you swim by. Scorpionfish, both the larger northern scorpionfish and their dwarf cousins are common all over the reef, but tend to be most approachable when sitting on the sand. Stingrays can also be found slumbering on these flat areas with their tails erect to ward off anyone foolish enough to disturb their sleep.

Despite its proximity to a large population area and the pressure of local divers, Pania Reef is still home to an abundant array of fish and invertebrate species. The visibility may not often be more than five metres, but there is plenty to entertain divers. There are two dive shops operating in Napier who will be only too happy to take you out diving or provide you with air. They can be found near the boat ramps in the inner harbour. So the next time you are visiting Hawke’s Bay, whether it be to sample the fine wines at a few wineries, check out the art deco architecture, or just enjoy the sunshine, consider bringing along your dive gear so you can go out and visit Pania, the beauty residing beneath the waters of Hawke Bay.

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