by Angie Belcher
Great Barrier Island, dividing mark between Auckland’s gentle Hauraki Gulf and the wild blue yonder, has long been a place of escape for hermits and for those with a dream. Many of its residents abandoned the mainland years ago, willingly exchanging their fast-paced city existences for a more fundamental way of life: self-composting toilets, solar power and pigeon post included. Though now easily accessible by air or sea, the deeply forested island still retains its wilderness personality and has its own strong beauty.
Great Barrier has never really been seen as one of New Zealandâs great dive destinations. But, like the islandâs 1200 inhabitants who searched and found what they wanted, divers too can realise some of their own dreams here. Aucklandâs Marea Neal was one such diver, as this excerpt from her log book tells us: Off again to the next dive site – at Arid (Rakitu) Island, east Great Barrier Island. Here we snorkelled, while Steve endeavoured to spear fish. We swam over to a huge rock or was it a miniature island, whatever it was there wasnât much to see. So we just ended up swimming right around the rock, eventually getting back to where we started. At this point Andy started getting dive bombed by a âfriendlyâ gannet. He was yelling and screaming, and everyone else was laughing – of course. Then we could hear yelling from the boat – something about orcas being on the horizon. Like we could swim that far! Then Steve was yelling at me, and Andy was yelling at John – not at the gannet anymore. I turned around to see an orca swim right pass me. Its colours were so distinct, so perfectly black and white, as perfect as a picture. Then one swam towards Andy, right at him. And what did he do? He took photos of course – thatâs what photographers do. Then the orcas veered away and eventually melted into the distance. Everyone was once again yelling and screaming, but this time about a whale encounter! I was quite speechless really. I had gone from being bored from having nothing to look at in the water next to the sheer drop rock to achieving something I had only dreamed about – being in the water with a wild orca.
There is so much to discover on this island. Traces of old mines which gave up copper, silver and gold, the remains of fortified pa sites established by the Ngatiwai on the headlands, relics from obsolete whaling stations, ship building yard, and kauri mills. Fabulous forest walks, dams, hot pools and endangered birds: black petrel, cook petrel, brown teal duck and kokako all intrigue the visitor.
Equally exciting is the marine life and sunken history below the waterline. The waters surrounding the island can be rewarding for wreck diving enthusiasts. Not in terms of gold bullion and scattered portholes (theyâve long gone) but in the opportunity to wallow in sunken history. The island claimed 24 vessels from 1854 onwards, with the Blind Bay, Schooner Bay and Tryphena Harbour areas making victims of pre-twentieth century mariners.
A twin screw steamer of 7,801 tons, the Wiltshire struck a rock off Windy Hill north of Rosalie Bay in 1922. Heavy seas made it impossible to launch lifeboats. Finally, a rope carried ashore and up the cliffs was used to haul the officers and crew ashore. The rear half of the wreck constitutesthe main section and is still fairly intact. It lies in 15 to 28 metres; divers can tailor their dives to a variety of depths. Most of the brass and props were removed, but bits of crockery and brass can still be found, as Marea discovered: âWe arrive at the site of the Wiltshire on the eastern side of Great Barrier Island and the swell is about two metres high! After a bit of a team talk, we decide that only the keen ones will go – thatâs all of us! So off the bow of the Odyssea comes the tender, a four metre inflatable. Ian used this to drop each pair onto the wreck. So down into the surging water Andy and I go. Saw a lot of kelp and a few fish trying to fight the currents. But then out of the stirred up water comes a pipe. A few more corners away we find a huge hunk of metal. A few demoiselles are guarding their nests on it. And then it came. An engulfing current from the depths was upon us, with it came 16ÂºC water and a visibility of less than two metres! We couldnât see much now, but on our way back to the drop off point, we came across even more structure of the ship. Parts of it you could swim through. An even stranger phenomenon was that there were only fish to see in these dark areas – no sign of ascidians or sponges. Later I was told that the ship is regularly blown up in order to find more âtreasureâ. This results in a fine dust settling on everything, and in effect suffocating whatever it lands on.â The wreck is really only diveable in calm conditions. Visibility can range from ten to 30 metres.
In 1921 a 545 ton schooner drifted onto rocks southeast of Tryphena. The only remains are meagre bits of wreckage scattered around. But the rock, Cecilia Sudden Rock, lying five metres below the surface, can be an interesting dive. The area drops to about 30 metres and is home to lots of fish, attracted by the often strong current which runs southwest of the southeast side of the rock.
Located at the top of the west coast, this wreck remains vivid in the history books as one of New Zealandâs worse maritime disasters. The steamer struck cliffs at Miners Head on the northwest side of the island. The court enquiry blamed the captain and some of the crew for the disaster and their subsequent performance, which resulted in the loss of 135 lives. The wreck is pretty broken up and well picked at by visiting divers, but lots of small items can still be found. And you know how divers love to have an old nail or chunk of pipe to display in their homes. An anchor still lies in 15 metres of water, although it wouldnât surprise me if some divers have had a go at collecting even this. âNo dear! You canât put that on the mantlepiece!â The remains of other lesser known wrecks lie scattered about the island: Osprey, Hettie, Elizabeth. Details can be found in Peter Ripponâs New Zealand Diverâs Handbook, or for real enthusiasts check out New Zealand Shipwrecks by N. Ingram and P. Owen Wheatly; The Wreck Book by Steve Locker-Lampson and Ian Francis; and New Zealand Tragedies, Shipwrecks and Maritime Disasters by Gavin McLean. If you like to follow up the more morbid side of wreck diving, you can see the headstones at the two large graveyards at Tapuwai Point on the east side of the island near Whaapoua Beach, and Te Rahui Point in Katherine Bay, where many of the victims of the SS Wairarapa were buried.
OTHER DIVE SITES:
âWhich one?â you ask, thinking of the dozens of Rabbit Islands around New Zealand. This one lies 30 metres off Great Barrierâs southern coast, 15 minutes from Tryphena Harbour. Itâs good for a drift dive or a last shallow dive of the day. thereâs a variety of fish life and the occasional ray. The rocky shoreline drops gradually to a sandy bottom at about 15 metres on the northern side and 25-30 metres on the seaward side. Visibility ranges from ten to 15 metres.
This group of rocks rises ten to 15 metres above the surface west of Whangaparapara Harbour. The rocks drop quickly away to a sandy bottom at 25 metres. Well worth a dive. Visibility is unpredictable, and can be as little as five metres one day and 15 the next. There are nice kelp forests, a couple of interesting swim throughs, and from what I hear, plenty of crayfish.
WHANGAPARAPARA WHALING STATION:
If you donât mind rummaging around in a jumble of old wharf piles in poor visibility, this can be a good dive for ferrets! It is still possible to find old bottles, and often this type of dive site has the most interesting macro subjects. The whaling station, on the north side of Whangaparapara Harbour, operated for only a short time before the decrease in whale catches made it unviable. The station closed in the 1960s.
The site of a World War II army dumping ground on the southeast coast. Anti-aircraft guns used to be everywhere, until the army became concerned about the number of divers trying to raise âliveâ souvenirs and began a cleanup. It may not be Million Dollar Point, but still an interesting dive if you like something different.
There are lots of other interesting areas for those willing to explore. Cape Barrier and Waterfall Bay, on the south coast, a rocky area with large kelp forests. Amodeo Rock is submerged just five minutes by boat from Tryphena wharf on the northern side near the entrance, where giant boarfish are occasionally seen. Mooring Bay on the southern coast of the Barrier offers safe anchorage in almost any conditions, making it prime territory for training dives. Its rocky bottom with large boulders, cracks, swim throughs and huge kelp fields are enough to excite any new diver. Dive in anywhere around Broken Islands and youâll find something, maybe even that elusive cray which will win your club trophy. Try Shag Point, on the west coast of the Barrier, the north point of Tryphena harbour. Or Moturako Island for a dive. We had great visibility and one of our divers got close and cosy with a huge, and I mean HUGE, short-tailed stingray. There are vast areas of kelp forests among which were several species of fish including snapper, leatherjackets, silver drummer, and of course two-spotted demoiselles. Be adventurous.
Great Barrier Island may be only a few hours from Auckland, but itâs worlds away in what it has to offer. Try it.
There are natural hot springs on the east side of the island near Mount Hobson, accessible by walking tracks. Three kauri dams lie across the headwaters of the Kaiarara stream, also accessible by walking tracks. Mountain biking is popular, with some good rides. There is sea kayaking around Port Fitzroy, run by Outdoor Adventures. Up until recently the island had no EFTPOS, no opossums and no pubs. We hear now (yes, by pigeon post) that a small Irish pub is in operation! Dive contacts: AquaVentures, RD Tryphena, Great Barrier Island. Phone 0-9-429 0033, fax 0-9-429 0077. Mermaid Marine, monthly Great Barrier and Little Barrier trips. Phone 0-9-372 7185. Special thanks to Southern Comfort Charters, Odyssea, ph/fax 0-9-846 8374; The Dive Shop Tauranga and Maketu Motors for tank fills and diving help; and Intercity Bus line.