Niue Revisited

Written by Clarke Gayford. Photographed by Mike Bhana.

I’ve often found that the process of verbalising your goals helps you move subconsciously towards them. What I learnt this year, is that if you go further and put those goals in to a Dive New Zealand article that likelihood improves dramatically.

“Niue, I’ll be back,” I stated back in January, a phrase which flashed into my mind as the plane kissed the hot tarmac here on my second trip of the year. You beauty!

Arriving with a greater understanding of the place, this time I came ready: I came with a plan. However, sometimes a tropical island has an agenda all of its own, as I was about to find out.

There’s a special energy to Niue, unique as one of the world’s largest raised coral atolls – it truly is a tropical FAD, with no outlying islands or nearby reefs.

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Once the reserve of Royals, Matapa Chasm is now a great salt & freshwater mixed swimming hole full of fish.

All the rainwater collects in the prism of its once-active volcanic cone, now overgrown with ancient porous coral. This means it has no rivers, or significant runoff, which explains why it has some of the clearest saltwater on earth.

It also has very little commercial fishing pressure. The majority of Niue’s fishing fleet are the small one-man ‘vaka’ canoes. But don’t be fooled by their size, they can still land incredible fish. One fisherman recently caught a yellowfin tuna that weighed in at a whooping 76kg!

Anywhere you can access the water, the diving and snorkelling is spectacular and just offshore. For example, even in the tiny lagoon of Avatele, where Willy’s Washaway Café is situated, I must have seen over 60 different species of fish before I’d even reached open water. Then, just off the reef, well, that’s when it really heats up.

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With fish as Niue’s main source of protein absolutely nothing is wasted, this blue marlin fed families all over the island.

I’m a spear-fisherman, so I get excited about spying the ocean pelagics, and I got to see them all. From wahoo, to yellowfin and mahimahi. There were barracuda, big rainbow runners, even green jobfish and coral trout with the odd marlin crashing the surface.

To give you an idea of just how fishy the place can be, one morning we were heading out with skipper Brendon Pasisi, the goal to attempt to spear a yellowfin. The day before we had seen a huge workup off a far FAD, so I was super excited to get amongst it.

Brendon, ever the fisherman, insisted on popping a couple of lures out, “just in case”. This proved problematic in the best way possible, as before reaching our destination we had caught and landed two wahoo. Then spying the massive workup ahead we went to pull the lures in and suddenly all hell broke loose. A blue marlin had roared in and I was hooked up.

So here I was with my spearfishing gear in the boat, yellowfin tuna literally popping out of the water all around us, and yet all I could do was hang on to a marlin, which by now was making the most of the island’s geography and had stubbornly dived over 300m down, refusing to come up. All of this happened within 4kms of leaving the wharf. Where else in the world could you do this?

When I wasn’t out spearing, I managed to explore much more of the island on this trip. Each well sign-posted sea track around its 64km circumference is a different adventure in itself. From the cool freshwater/saltwater mix of the amazing Matapa Chasm to the adventurous otherworldly trek across jagged coral forests before arriving at the sandy oasis of the Togo trench, Niue is a paradise for active types who want to get out and explore during their island escape.

Despite being late in the season there were still mahimahi to be found.

Despite being late in the season there were still mahimahi to be found.

One of my favourite side adventures was climbing the 155 steps down into the Anapala Chasm and going for an underground snorkel in its eerie, dark freshwater interior. Here huge limestone arches blend and warp in your dive torch light as you lose all perspective of what is above and below the water. A truly unique experience in itself.

WFL_NIUE_147I also managed a couple of beautiful tank dives with operator Rami, who provided one of the strangest experiences underwater I’ve ever had. Heading to a lesser-known spot up the island, we descended 16m to a coral sand entrance, before heading back into an arch under the reef. About 40m in, the light disappeared completely and Rami started to signal for me to head up. This seemed to go against all common sense. Following him, I surfaced in an underwater cave so big that I could remove my dive gear and climb out over the rocks. Here I was walking around in a cave underwater, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling so large they looked like Roman columns, and were probably older.

I was so engrossed in these that I failed to see a coconut crab that must have weighed at least 4kg hanging upside down just inches from my face. Like a scene from the movie Alien, my torchlight caught it as it scuttled across the rock, sending an uncontrollable yelp out of my mouth, and a death shudder spiking down my spine. An exhilarating moment all deep underground and deep under water.

If you are into spearfishing like I am you’ll be pleased to know that several operators are really starting to understand our specific needs, especially operator Brendon Pasisi from Niue Fishing Charters.

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Clockwise L-R: Situated on the west coast of the Island, Palaha Cave lights up as the sun goes down; Matapa Chasm; Each sea track has a hidden secret. The Talava Arches is one such gem, well worth the hot walk in.

Being on the island to shoot for my new TV series Fish of Day ironically meant that I didn’t get to spend as long as I would have liked chasing fish. I still managed my first mahimahi, a decent bull of about 14kg. I also came tantalisingly close to a shot on my boogeyman, the dogtooth tuna. However being surrounded by a couple of large whaler sharks at the time, that would have been an interesting exercise.

A lot gets written about Niue and its diving, but for an active New Zealander it really is a dream destination. Sure, it has incredibly clear warm water and a healthy ocean full of life. But what really sets it apart is the convenience. It’s one flight and you’re there. No long transfers, no island hopping, no long offshore boat journeys to dive spots.

Even the Scenic Matavai Resort where we stayed is just a five-minute drive from the airport. Just five minutes to luxury accommodation that overlooks water so prolific with whales (in season) that they have a bell they ring each time one passes close. Niue literally just waits for you to arrive and get stuck in. Which is why I’ve got no qualms putting it back out into the universe by saying: “Hey! Niue, I’ll be back!”