Mathesons Bay, Where Leatherjackets Live

By Daniel Poloha.

If you ask a diver from Auckland, New Zealand about nearby shore dives, they usually mention Goat Island near Leigh, north of the city. Some of them, though, probably remember another spot in the same area. It is Mathesons Bay, also at Leigh, but outside of Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve.

Aucklanders learn about this place during their Open Water course but forget it later since they think of it only as a training location. Learning to dive in Europe, I missed that experience, which is why I decided to check out the place.

It was winter when I visited Mathesons Bay for the first time. The sea was calm, visibility good and nobody around. My buddy and I entered water on the left side of the beach, in front of the parking area. As we entered the deeper water and its forest of seaweed, two facts surprised me. First, I realised how colourful it was there. Brown, red and green algae of various shapes formed a beautiful environment. Second, I could see no fish.

When we moved deeper into the channel between the rocky shore and the small island in the bay, leatherjackets started to appear. I also noticed a few spotties. After a couple of dives, I realised leatherjackets were everywhere. In shallow water hiding behind large boulders, hovering above kelp forests in deeper water, resting in cracks in the rocks surrounding the channel. Most of the time they were shy, following me with curiosity and turning their backs to me when I tried to take a picture. Fortunately there were a few exceptions. One tried really hard to bite the glass port of my camera housing. I had to chase it away to get it in focus. Another was apathetic, hovering above the sandy bottom and letting me approach it to take pictures from various angles. Thanks to these guys I was able to get the shots I wanted.

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Common urchin (kina) grazes on fronds of brown kelp in the channel between the shore and the island.

I also met octopuses there, completely unexpectedly. Both big and small, hiding in narrow crevices and moving along boulders in the open. They are very patient, offering a diver opportunity to observe their ability to change the colour and texture of their skin. Unfortunately, because of this they can also be difficult to spot. If you move they are invisible, but if you stop for a while you may notice a ‘rock’ surface that is moving slightly, with eyes and a funnel to pump water through.

Though there are usually not many fish in the bay in winter, this situation changes rapidly when water gets warmer in summer. Wrasses and goatfish are abundant in some parts of the bay, schools of trevally and mullet pay a visit, young snapper get less shy and swim closer to divers. On a good day the bay can transform into a fish soup, quickly turning into an oasis of marine life.

Mathesons Bay faces to the east with a reasonable protection from north and south, so is suitable for diving in most conditions and tides. Beware though – even a mild surf can destroy the visibility.

The access into the water is quite comfortable over the sand, but it can be a rather long swim, so kayak diving is a great option. You pack your craft on the beach, paddle to the island in a couple of minutes and jump straight into the rocky, kelp-covered area where the diving is best. When you return from your dive, there are public toilets, changing rooms with an outdoor shower and a picnic area at the car park which is a big plus, especially for us city dwellers just up for the day.