Diving Auckland’s Doorstep – the Hauraki Gulf
By Tony and Jenny Enderby
Sunlight filtered down the canyon walls, lighting the colourful invertebrates. Schools of blue maomao, sweep
and butterfly perch hovered in midwater, nipping at plankton particles. Near the edges, scorpionfish and half banded perch waited for a passing meal. The blue-green mass that looked like plants were animals, Bugula bryozoans and the splashes of yellow and blue were Verco’s nudibranchs grazing on them.
At the edge of the visibility a school of trevally were easily seen 20 metres below us. It was hard to imagine diving being this good in the Hauraki Gulf, on Auckland’s gateway but in the aptly-named Canyon at the Mokohinau Islands it could be likened to the Poor Knights with less fish.
For the next few months the world will focus on the Hauraki Gulf, as Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup defence unfolds. Auckland, the City of Sails, is the most appropriate place in the world to hold the cup. If Team New Zealand sails to plan, it will again be the venue in four years.
The Gulf has attractions for divers in its 8000 square kilometres. Here are just some of the variations to tempt you.
Mokohinau Islands: This northern group of islands has spectacular offshore diving, with steep walls, colourful invertebrate life and good fish schools. Groper Rock, to the northwest drops to more than 80 metres. You can see big fish including kingfish during summer and the occasional shark.
The main island, Burgess has some shelter and a highlight is the canyon that runs deep into the western side. The entrance is around 30 metres. Take a torch to light up the colourful walls and look for scorpionfish amongst the growth.
Around Navire and Fanal Islands the bottom has kelp covered rocks and sand between 10 and 25 metres.
Simpson Rock, a few kilometres to the south has big schools of fish, including snapper, blue and pink maomao, trevally, kingfish and the occasional bronze whaler shark. The eastern side has a cave and drops to around 25 metres. Watch for currents on the western side.
Hen and Chickens Islands and Sail Rock: Sail Rock, the high point to the southwest of Hen Island has steep walls above and below the water. White common anemones are prolific and among them are triplefins and tiger shells. Schools of blue maomao, sweep, trevally and silver drummer abound. Occasional kingfish hunt here in summer. The walls drop to boulders at 20 metres, then gradually shelve to more than 30 metres. There are crayfish and large yellow moray eels in the cracks.
The Hen and Chickens Islands are more sheltered with kelp-covered boulders between 10 and 30 metres. The boulders hide a few crayfish and there are schools of goatfish, blue maomao, trevally, red moki and demoiselles.
Goat Island (Cape Rodney-Okakari Pt Marine Reserve): Near Leigh, this is the best beach dive in New Zealand. Shag Rock, just offshore, makes a great dive for beginners with a depth of only six metres. You will be surrounded by big snapper. Everything is protected, including kina (sea urchins). Don’t feed the fish, they bite! You will see more crayfish here than anywhere else. Expect to see blue cod, goatfish, piper, eagle rays, parore, red moki and much more on every dive.
North Reef, 300 metres north-west of Goat Island has lots of ups and downs. A big school of silver drummer lives off here and there are often large blue moki. The reef drops to 25 metres at the outer edges to sponge gardens.
The east side of the island will give you a deeper dive to 25 metres. The rocks change to shingly sand with demoiselles, pigfish and the occasional giant boarfish. Several rocky pinnacles between the island and Cape Rodney are worth exploring.
Leigh Reef: A kilometre from the Leigh Harbour entrance you will find the reef – just look for the fishing boats. There is usually some current. The reef top, around 13 metres, drops to 25 metres onto sand. There are caves with a few crayfish and moray eels. Mado, blue maomao, kahawai and trevally school over the reef. Kingfish abound in summer and there are often reports of bronze whaler sharks. A black marlin was photographed here in early 2002.
Tawharanui Marine Park: Another protected marine area southeast of Omaha. It’s a difficult beach dive as you have to carry gear some distance. The terrain off the main beach is interesting with patches of rock and sponge at 12 metres, usually hiding crayfish. Towards the eastern end of the reserve (marked with orange triangles) there are deep gutters to 25 metres. Maybe not the fish numbers at Goat Island, but still more than the surrounding coastline.
Little Barrier Island: The island is a sanctuary for New Zealand’s endangered wildlife, including stitchbirds, tuatara and giant weta. Landing is not permitted.
The northern side has pinnacles and boulders that hide a wealth of life. Deep crevices are lined with sponges to 25 metres. Big boulders surround the island underwater, making a good crayfish haven. Black angelfish, scarlet wrasse, demoiselles and big John dory hover at the edge of the kelp. Large red moki are common and you may see a variation – the painted moki.
Horn Rock: An open water dive between Little and Great Barrier Islands. The top of Horn Rock breaks in a big swell and is best dived at slack water.
This large rocky area is between 12 and 25 metres and covered in kelp. Watch for nylon fishing line tangled in the kelp. Crayfish make their homes in the cracks and large stingrays often rest on the sand. Red moki, kelpfish and goatfish are common beneath the kelp fronds. Can be hard to get to, but worth the effort.
Great Barrier Island: The Barrier protects much of the Gulf. Rakitu (Arid) Island to the east is the site of a proposed marine reserve. West of Arid Cove is an archway that drops to 10 metres. Outside the walls drop to over 30 metres to sponges gardens. Demoiselles, yellow morays, red pigfish, porae and leatherjackets nose around the archway walls. Blue moki hover amongst the smaller fish inside.
Off Miners Head is the wreck of the Wairarapa well scattered from 8-20 metres. She is totally protected under the Historic Places Act and nothing may be removed.
North of Rosalie Bay the Wiltshire wreck lies. She is more recognisable as a ship, lying in about 25 metres. Her bow now lies alongside her stern.
The diving on both sides of the island is usually rocky reefs and kelp. Many of the scallop beds are now covered by the parchment worm.
Coromandel Peninsula: From Coromandel to the tip of the peninsula are boulders and rocky reefs covered in kelp. A few crayfish underneath, with snapper and other fish over the sand. Channel Island has very strong currents, but there are kingfish and other fish schools and a few crayfish.
Kawau Island: The best two reefs are Fairchild Reef at the northern end and Flat Rock to the east. Both have rocky areas dropping to sand at about 12-15 metres. Watch for nylon fishing lines on both. Although well fished you may find the occasional crayfish. Small snapper and John dory are common.
Waiheke Island: Gannet Rock to the east and Rocky Bay at the northeast tip are the best dive sites. Kelp covered rocky reefs down to 20 metres. A few crayfish and scallops. Visibility can be poor although in late summer blue water can wash into the Gulf and reach the island.
Hauraki Gulf diving is often overlooked yet is better than many people imagine. You can drive from Auckland, have a dive and be home just after lunch. If you have the whole day or several days then there are a wealth of dive sites – and usually there is somewhere to dive regardless of the weather. Unless you decide to stay dry and watch the yacht racing instead.
There are plenty of rocks for crayfish to hide under in the Gulf.
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