By Clarke Gayford. Images by Clarke Gayford and Nat Davey.
It really is hard to explain to non-diving types the incredible underwater variation we have in this country. Variation I thought I had a reasonable understanding of – and then I stuck my head under in Fiordland.
This trip felt different from the start, especially flying into Queenstown, normally a party/ski town, with all my spearfishing gear. But this was just to be our entry point as we loaded up our conveniently spacious Jucy rental and made the four-hour drive to Milford Sound.
Here we met up with Rochele Potter and Nat Davey aboard Nat’s 60-foot commercial boat Medea. A boat normally found fishing in Northland, but one he had brought down during some time off to explore an area none of us had visited before.
So here we were for a week of freediving with a side of deer hunting in one of the world’s great jewels – bliss.
The first thing that strikes you about the underwater topography in the Fiords is the continuation of the steep mountain scenery down into the depths. Snow-covered mountains that slip into the water and continue for hundreds of metres further, creating an eerie sight as the steep slopes disappear off into darkness below.
This effect was complemented by things you just don’t see elsewhere in New Zealand. Like the clusters of black coral in just five metres of water that surrounded Eleanor Island in Charles Sound, their bone white branches giving the appearance of a petrified forest. Or in fact, actual forest trees that have fallen into the water, getting waterlogged and now standing upright on their exposed root systems.
Despite the area’s rainfall, which can be a massive eight metres annually, below the surface layer, it was clean and clear, but with an almost twilight hue. Here the visibility opened up to between 20–25 metres or more in places. It was also amazing the difference moving just 50 metres could make. One minute you were finning over a barren-looking area with not much sign of life. Then for no particular reason that I could see, suddenly just ahead would fill up with all sorts of activity.
This consisted of great plumes of butterfly perch that were everywhere, particularly around the black coral and any sunken branches. There also wasn’t a dive, where we didn’t have the company of large terakihi, moki, with even the rarely seen copper moki. Adding to this mix were inquisitive stingray, spiny dogfish and seven gillers representing the shark family, with octopus, huge paua and a few butterfish also peppered about. And blue cod! Blue cod so big I initially thought I was looking at small hapuka in the distance. We found the larger ones more wary of divers, but smashing open a couple of dinner-plate sized kina quickly switched their moods into an aggressive feeding mode and we had no trouble spearing a delicious few for our dinner each night.
Now the English language has no plural for the word ‘crayfish’ but then talking about them in singular in Fiordland is not really necessary as they are absolutely everywhere. And big too, with several bucks we found pushing three kilograms or more.
The place is like a nirvana for them – they must crawl into Fiordland and think, “I have arrived!” They seemed completely relaxed with their surrounds as well. This is thanks in part to a convenient dark-tinted surface, care of the tannin filled brackish layer overhead. So relaxed, that on nearly every dive we found them wandering about in the open, as if they thought it was 2am and they were off to some crayfish party. A fantastic sight to see.
The Sounds also come with a remarkable variation in water temperatures. Up to six or seven degrees difference in places, depending on location, with the fresh water runoff making the cold stuff sit up on top. Being late May it got as low as eight-and-a-half degrees. This coupled with freediving’s necessary technique of encouraging your body to slow its heart rate to improve breath hold, impeded the flow of blood around the ol’ body. Or in simple terms, the warm stuff didn’t get to where it was needed so a hot shower at the end of each dive was essential joy.
The scenery above and below the water really made it one of those New Zealand trips of a lifetime. Impossible to do proper justice in this short space. But my personal highlight arrived courtesy of one of the last dives of the trip.
We were at anchor when Anthony’s girlfriend Celia, who was line fishing, caught a hapuka in just 32 metres of water. Considering the visibility I figured even just seeing one of these underwater would be a cool and very rare thing to do, so I raced to get into my wetsuit. On my first warm-up dive to 20 metres I was met with a huge school of terakihi rising up from the depths. Scanning down through them, in the gloomy distance I spotted two light-in-colour shapes approaching. I kept staring, thinking, “Are they? Aren’t they?” It was hard to tell, but then both swam in a bit closer and I could see instantly from the outline that these were indeed hapuka, at these depths appearing almost completely white.
Surfacing, I took my time breathing up again and this time dropped back down to 28 metres. It was here I got lucky as about six metres out in front angling down, a hapuka turned up towards me and I pushed forward with just enough time and reach to place a shot down through its head.
Much to everyone on the boat’s amusement I let out a few expletives of joy upon reaching the surface and pulling it in. Coming in at just under five kilograms it wasn’t huge, but I was absolutely pumped as I had spent many hours daydreaming about getting the impossible chance to spear a mainland ’puka, something not many have ever had the chance to do. It certainly helped having someone of the skill level of Nat Davey on hand to offer a few essential tips, a team effort. I can also tell you it made those fillets taste even sweeter that night.
Fiordland is not an easy place to get to, but if you ever get the chance like I did, grab it with both flippers and go.
It’s like nothing I have ever experienced anywhere else, but that’s the beauty of the wonderful variation in this country.
Special thanks to the guys at Jucy rentals for getting us there.