Owhiro Bay in Wellington

Owhiro Bay in Wellington

By Tony and Jenny Enderby

A wall loomed in front of us, completely covered in green, red and brown seaweeds. Several circular holes where the portholes had been removed looked like black spots. It was the hull of the Yung Pen, a Korean fishing boat, wrecked off Owhiro Bay on Wellington’s south coast in 1982 during a storm. She split in two with her bow almost ending up on the road while the stern section sank not far from the beach in eight metres of water. It sat upside down in front of us, like some sort of underwater tent providing a home for the invertebrate life.

There were numerous fish around the hull and underneath, including red moki, scarlet and banded wrasses, spotties and blue cod. They were all small, many still in the juvenile stage, an encouraging sight for restocking the coast with mature fish. This dive site is part of a proposed marine reserve and we had expected to see schools of catchable-sized fish – but there weren’t any. Opposition to the reserve had been loud and strangely similar to that at Goat Island nearly 30 years ago. Fish life at Goat Island had been plundered similar to Wellington’s south coast. Today those opponents consider Goat Island ‘their’ reserve and actively protect the snapper schools that have repopulated it. The fishing around the neighbouring coastline has improved too – perhaps the same will happen once the south coast becomes protected.

It wasn’t the sort of day that ships would succumb, being calm and Wellington’s reputation as a constantly wind-blown place was far from the truth. Contrary to what we thought, most of Wellington’s wind comes from the north, making the south coast very diveable. The road around the coast has plenty of places to park with a short walk into the water. Access to the Yung Pen site was down a disused concrete boat ramp, far easier than clambering over the rocks.

The shallows were dotted with sea hares, one staining the water with purple dye. A diver from the group coming out had stepped a bit too close to it. Between the kelp-covered rocks were anemones covering almost every available patch. At the seaward edge massive strands of bull kelp swirled above us.

Around the shelter of the hull of the Yung Pen, the fish life increased. Small tarakihi and blue moki hovered and banded wrasse, leatherjackets, marblefish and red moki grazed over the hull. The feelers of several very small crayfish poked out from the interior.

The ship’s rails in most places were squashed into the sand and rocks but some were still intact. A golden spiny seastar was attached to one of these, looking like a creature from another world. To the mussels and paua on the wreck, the seastar was as dangerous an invader as anything from Star Wars.

As well as the Yung Pen the wreckage from three other ships that had succumbed to southerly storms was strewn over the sea floor. The Wellington and the Cyrus were wrecked in 1874, and the Progress in 1931 leaving the wreckage of four ships along 100 metres of coast.

Although tempting as souvenirs, the scattered wreckage should be left where it lies. Anything from the older ships is protected under the Historic Places Act and if everyone left the wreck sites as they found them there would still be plenty for the next generation of divers to see. The remains of many more ships dot the less accessible rugged coastline around Wellington

Underneath the Yung Pen our eyes adjusted to the dim light. Large conger eels, with reputations much worse than reality, were reputed to live inside the darkened hull. On a night dive a two-metre conger can get the heart-rate up with an unexpected visit.

A scarlet wrasse came out of the dark then sped off as it chased another of its kind too close to its territory. From the holes in the hull numerous triplefins watched us, hoping for something edible to be dislodged. They darted away as we came closer as if withdrawing photographic rights in retaliation for no handout.

A banded wrasse had adopted a piece of the ship as a sleeping base. Its body lay draped across it and it hadn’t moved 10 minutes later when we passed it again.

A patch of colour on the hull showed the whereabouts of a clown nudibranch. Several more grazed nearby and down on the rails a white patch materialised as a gold-lined nudibranch.

We swam back along the seaward side of the Yung Pen. On the rocks near the front were paua, both yellow-foot and the common black-foot paua. These tasty molluscs are a target for poachers both for the black-market restaurant trade and export. The battle to save them won’t be helped by Fisheries’ recent decision to cut half the honourary fisheries inspection staff. Hopefully marine reserve status on the south coast will preserve at least a breeding population.

Flowing black and forth in the gentle surge was the 15cm bubbly shape of a wandering anemone. There were several more attached to the weed. Their tentacles almost glowed an orange-yellow and extended as they reached into the current for passing food.

At first glance another shape looked like a wandering anemone but it was larger and browner. It turned out to be New Zealand’s largest nudibranch, the 15cm Wellington nudibranch, this one showing great geographic sensitivity.

Something bigger moved into view, a blue jellyfish half a metre across. Its tentacles that extended nearly two metres, caused us to move up current, away from any possible sting. Several leatherjackets followed, moving in and nipping pieces off at will.

The jellyfish had a large half-moon shaped bite missing from one side. We looked at each other and grinned – that bite wasn’t from a leatherjacket and hopefully whatever created it was no longer in the area.

We headed back between the rocks for an easy exit via the boat ramp.  Behind us were the hills of the South Island and in front of them was the large white glow of The Interislander returning to Wellington Harbour.

How many opportunities had we missed on previous visits to Wellington when we had never considered diving there. The coast at Owhiro Bay was well worth it – and the diving can only get better if the proposal for a marine reserve gets the go ahead. It would be great for the children of Wellington to have a place like Goat Island on their doorstep.

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