Channel Island, Hauraki Gulf

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By Clarke Gayford.

Probably the most obviously named island in all the Hauraki Gulf, Channel Island is exactly that: a sugarloaf of rock broken either side by the waters of the Colville Channel. Closer to the Coromandel than Great Barrier Island, it’s accessible by boat everywhere from Waiheke Island – or even Gulf Harbour on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

The joy of being an island in a channel, with waters feeding into one of the world’s most productive harbours, is that it becomes a must-stop shop for all manner of ocean-going activity. A life magnet, its geometry and placement causes pressure ridges of current to collect huge quantities of krill amongst a swirling plankton soup. Pulling up, we could see acres and acres of surface-feeding kahawai and trevally taking full advantage of this as they congruously herded microscopic snacks up to feast. An encouraging sign of things below.

In stark contrast to a distinct lack of life on the island itself, slipping below the waters came alive. The first thing I noticed was the incredible sound generated by literally hundreds of tons of fish all thumping and drumming as they moved as one. The shimmering patterns the schooling fish created made for a surreal experience, at times almost deafening.

Inside the kahawai vortex.

Inside the kahawai vortex.

Now kahawai have a habit of not liking freedivers getting down below them. Other blue-water spearfishers will know what I mean when I talk about getting caught in a great spinning kahawai vortex. Diving down through a school they will separate out in an almost cylindrical pattern, surrounding a diver completely. To be in one of these 15m under water, and having them still swirling down underneath while blocking out the light from above, becomes, at times, a disorientating experience. On more than one occasion I’ve been left feeling nauseated from the complete lack of orientation it creates, and you have to be careful as if they are moving down at the same speed, you can often end up much deeper than you realise. It is easy to see how effectively this works to confuse predators, and trying to spear just one can sometimes be a tricky selection process.

But if they are not your target I highly recommend leaving them alone – after a few minutes I find the fish will relax and happily let you swim with them. This, of course, allows you to be in the right position for when larger predators turn up for a look. Kingfish can’t help themselves in this environment, something that becomes obvious when observing the tell-tale scrapes and marks all over the bodies of the nervous kahawai swimming past. In a cave under the island we found about 20 damaged fish all sheltering while looking considerably worse for wear, the cave acting like some sort of emergency ward for the injured.

Schools of over a hundred kingfish at a time.

Schools of over a hundred kingfish at a time.

Now I’ve been in some big kingfish schools, and Channel Island was no exception. I saw my first mob before I’d even left the surface. Spearos know it takes enormous willpower to not shoot the first suitable kingfish you see, since that might be the only chance you get, but as I was still waiting for my cameraman I had time to swim freely amongst them. Incredibly, schools of over a hundred at a time would come charging in for a look. Kingfish are bolshy at the best of times, but their confidence grows in numbers and I could have reached out and patted several 20kg fish as they came buzzing past.

All that noise and excitement brings in other predators as well and we were joined briefly by one of the largest makos I’ve ever seen inside the Gulf. This kept playing over in my mind when I shot a good Kingfish several minutes later. Thankfully it had far too many other distractions to return, although I think this disappointed my shark-mad cameraman. My diving partner Anthony and I also observed a small mako completely cartwheel out of the water, repeatedly chasing a poor kahawai. Perhaps annoyed at missing, the shark then circled back swam up and bit straight through our float line, despite there being no fish attached. Clearly a few anger management issues with that one!

Of course it’s not just about the pelagics – the island is home to a great assortment of reef fish, including one the largest collections of red moki I’ve ever witnessed. I also spotted several large bump head snapper in the distance, but with no cover this was always going to be a watch-and-observe-only scenario.

The hardest part about diving Channel Island is getting suitable visibility; it’s often clearer on an incoming tide and it’s important to make sure there have been no heavy rains in the previous week. The open seaward side of the island is a lot steeper, dropping into deep water, with shallower terrain found harbour-side around the small outcrop of visible rock next to the island. Krill-feeding fish will change sides to stay face-on into the current, so be prepared to move to stay with the action.

There is nothing I enjoy more than being in a healthy ocean environment, and watching the layered ecology in action. New Zealanders should be proud of the fact that this is all possible on the doorstep of the country’s most populous city. There’s really not many other places in the world you could do this.

To think we nearly lost kahawai in the 1980s when stocks were plundered by commercial fishermen and sold as cat food in Australia. (The quotas for the Quota Management System were based on catch rates the year preceding the introduction of the system; it was a desperate and futile bid to secure themselves the largest possible quota.) Thankfully, in response to the Ministry of Fisheries document ‘Soundings’ (2000) we had option4 (which led to the formation of the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council and Legasea, who advocate for the rebuild of fisheries and the protection of our marine environment for all New Zealanders) to thank for fighting to ensure the ‘people’s fish’ remain around in good numbers. While the rebuild isn’t yet complete, and some places are still slow to recover, being out and experiencing these big schools and seeing how they feed into the rest of the ecosystem makes you realise how important that win was for all of us who enjoy the ocean.

More information:
option4: http://www.option4.co.nz/
Legasea: http://www.legasea.co.nz/
New Zealand Sport Fishing Council: http://www.nzsportfishing.co.nz/
QMS: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/fishing-industry/page-6

 Clarke’s new fishing and diving series ‘Fish of the Day’ begins on Choice TV in April.