NZ Dive Pioneers

Interviewed by Ross Armstrong

E. J. McCaffery, known to his friends as Mac, learned to dive in the late 1960s at the tender age of 52. Since then Mac has made up for his late start, logging hundreds of dives around most of the North Island. He still uses his original DCP (bladder-type decompression meter) and was 81 when he last dived at the Three Kings. Mac has lived at Matapouri Bay for the last eight years and gets out diving whenever he can. Mac, how did you first get into diving?

I have always been interested in water sports, from swimming at school and later surf lifesaving. In 1960 I was transferred to the Wellington area. Some of the staff in the factory got me interested in snorkelling and I did quite of bit of snorkelling until 1966 or ‘67 when I was introduced to scuba. I wasn’t exactly a youngster when I started, I think I was 52 when I passed my test. My very first sea dive was at the Quarry on Wellington’s south coast. I walked into the water with my instructor, and kept walking until the water was over my head. We found a rock that was covered in crays and I came back with four crayfish.

I dived for the first 18 months without a wetsuit, which was pretty cool in the Wellington area. That was over two winters. I would wear my son’s football socks pulled up around my knees and two woollen jerseys. I remember making myself some gloves without fingers from old wetsuit material that I got from a dive shop. I would also wear my wife’s pantyhose; I got that idea from a friend of mine who had been to the South Pole. I finished one dive wearing three woollen jerseys, and when I got out of the water I was so heavy that I couldn’t stand up. I had to crawl up the beach on my hands and knees. That made me decide to buy a suit.

Can you tell us a little about your early suits?

The first suit I ever tried was a drysuit that a friend had loaned to me. I used that suit quite a bit diving around Wellington’s Red Rocks area and places like that. I remember trying to get back into the boat after one particular dive, I was freezing cold and couldn’t get up the ladder. I thought that I couldn’t be too fit but, after struggling for a while, I suddenly realised there was water in my drysuit from my waist down. The legs had filled up like a balloon. After a hell of a struggle, I finally managed to get on board. I swore I would never wear a drysuit again.

The first wetsuit I owned was not lined, so I had to sprinkle the suit and myself with talcum powder before I could get into it. My wife ended up making me some nylon sleeves that I put on over my arms. With these sleeves on, it was easier to get my arms in and out of the suit. Later I got my first wetsuit booties. I found that nylon socks inside the booties kept my feet warmer.

What was the diving like when you started?

To begin with I didn’t know much about the sea life, initially my diving was food gathering, mainly crayfish. The fish life was much more prolific than today. We used to go out to the Wairarapa coast quite often. It was a pretty hairy place to dive. On one trip we were getting ready for a dive when one of my young children said her fishing line was stuck on the bottom. I went over to help her and when we got the line up there was a 20kg hapuku on it. After that, we discovered that the area, which was only 12 to 15 metres deep, was just a mass of hapuku. I hopped in on snorkel and speared one that weighed about 30kgs. The hapuku were snapping at anything we would put in the water, pieces of bread or even cloth. They were almost like sprats on the surface, there were so many of them.

Since then I heard from people around the area that hapuku schools would come in close at a certain time of the year. Among other things, we were told that the hapuku would eat crayfish. We were able to verify that, because quite a few of them we caught had legal-size crayfish in their gut.

Another time I was diving around Mana Island out from Porirua. Most of the diving I have done for the last 20 years or so has just been sightseeing, but in those days I was usually chasing crays. However, on this particular day I was just having a look at the scenery and didn’t have a catch bag. During the dive I came on to a little hole with some crays in it, so I took a couple of the nice looking ones. On the way back to the boat I found another hole with crays, so I caught two more and poked one under each arm, giving me four. Then, just underneath the boat, there was a hole that was absolutely full of crays and I just couldn’t resist. So I grabbed a large one and put it between my legs. I finished up at the boat with five crays. The boatman couldn’t work out why I was just bobbing there at the back of the boat. I couldn’t speak because I had the regulator in my mouth. The best I could do was mumble through my regulator. Eventually the boatman realised what was happening and took one off me, after that I was OK.

How did you learn more about what you saw when diving?

At the time I had a couple of boys at university and they persuaded me to join the university dive club. From then onwards I just got into it really seriously. Once I got involved with the university crowd we got into biology and started to learn a little about fish, shells, weed and all the other fauna you see. In 1971 we dived Hunters Reef which is right on the edge of Cook Strait. It was 27 metres to the reef, but some of the pinnacles came up between ten and 13 metres, almost like spires. We had never dived there before and the university club wanted to keep it as a secret reserve and not touch anything. On one dive we found a large red cray that was probably between five and seven kilograms. I say ‘probably’ because I had caught a four kilogram cray the week before, and the one on Hunters Reef was nearly twice the size of that one. The feelers were longer than my arm. We handled it and looked at it and then let it go.

The first time I came to the Poor Knights was in November 1969, on a joint venture with the Wellington and Auckland University clubs. The first few dives at the Poor Knights were mind-blowing. I would come up from Wellington with the Victoria University club for a week at a time in November, Christmas and the May holidays for three years running. Then I got transferred back to Auckland and was able to get a lot more diving in, and by that time several of the Wellington University club people had moved to Auckland. After that I did a lot of diving with Lew Ritchie, who was a Fisheries Research Officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I accompanied Lew on a lot of his work, for example we used to spend a week doing a survey of scallops before the scallop season opened and again after the season finished. We would mostly survey Whangaroa and Whangarei harbours. At that stage I was in my 60s.

Over a period of several years I helped with a survey of the northern underwater coastline, starting from Spirits Bay, past North Cape, down to Cape Karikari, Bay of Islands to Whangarei Harbour. It involved running a line out along the bottom for 100 metres and recording what we found at one-metre intervals along the line. Diving around there was really fantastic; the area was full of big kingies, huge rays and every species of fish you could imagine.

You must have seen some unusual things with all the diving you have done.

Yes, for example one time Lew and I dived a low reef about 750 metres off Rimariki Rocks in Northland. At just over 30 metres we landed on a rock that was covered with crayfish and luckily I had my catch bag. The crays were in the rock and over it, it could have been a migration we struck. I was head down and tail up when I felt my flipper being pulled. I turned around and saw Lew had grabbed my flipper and was pointing up. I looked up and there was a thing like an ARA bus passing overhead. It was huge! It was a mako shark, I suppose it was about three to three and a half metres long. But it appeared to be about a metre and a half deep; it had an enormous gut on it. This shark swam round and round us. Lew’s version of the story is that he tugged me to show me the shark and I went back down in the cray hole to get more crays, which I must admit I did. I was very confident, since Lew had his big camera with him, that if it did have a go at us Lew could use his camera to push it off.

Lew decided to try and get a photo of it, so he swam out from the rock and I followed. When we got out about five or ten metres, there was just a flash and the shark disappeared. We swam back to our rock and there it was circling the top of the rock waiting for us. Lew pointed out the anchor warp and started swimming up. I went to follow him, but I had my bag of crays and in my excitement I hadn’t compensated too well and couldn’t get off the bottom. Lew was just a pair of flippers in the distance when I figured out what was wrong. I suddenly realised I was all alone with this shark, and thought, ‘Oh God, what will I do now?’ I decided I would have to give it the bag of crays if it had a go at me. Then I thought that would be a bit wasteful since I had worked hard for them. So I took the top cray out of the bag and held it in my hand. If the shark did have a go, I planned to throw the cray at it or something. The closest the shark got was swimming under my feet when I was about four or five metres off the bottom. Whether it was in pup or just old age I don’t know, but it had a hell of a gut on it.

Once I met a hammerhead shark coming around a rock at Matapouri. In fact I was diving with a friend who met it first – face to face. The shark got such a fright it flicked its tail and was gone. Another time I was with two other divers in Tie Dye Arch at the Poor Knights. The archway was full of fish and really dense with rays as well. Lying on the bottom was a bronze whaler that must have been three to four metres long. When we arrived it reared itself up on its fins and then took off round the archway. We must have spent about ten minutes with the bronze whaler. I know it was about that long because my friend took several photos of it and you could only get a photo when it came past the entrance. The whole thing was pretty hairy, as out of this wall of fish would emerge a black shape, sometimes a diver, sometimes a ray and sometimes the shark. I thought it wouldn’t be interested in me as the area was packed with food. An old bugger like me would be too chewy anyway – especially with my wetsuit on.

Towards the end of the dive we went out of the arch and found a nice rock at about 25 metres. The shark was out there doing a figure eight through a school of very large snapper. The snapper would have been between five and nine kilograms. They would open up and the shark would swim right through them, except for the two largest that were swimming with it. After the dive we thought we would catch ourselves one of these snapper – this was before the Poor Knights were a marine reserve. But we couldn’t get the line to the bottom, either the snapper were too big or the shark was taking it. Either way, we didn’t get any snapper.

Have you had interesting encounters with other animals while diving?

Diving around Wellington in the ‘60s there were some very large conger eels. There was one in particular at Houghton Bay that I would visit when coming ashore after each dive. It lived in a cave behind a big boulder. There were also crays behind the boulder, and one day I reached in and this conger eel came out to greet me, giving me a hell of a fright. I started feeding it with paua, which there were piles of in those days. From then on I would bang the rock with the blade of my knife before I would feed it. After a while it got to the stage where all I had to do was bang the rock and out he would pop. I decided to try and lure it out by putting a piece of paua in the end of a sock. This worked well and the eel would grab the sock and tow me around. The conger would pull me around as he pulled the paua in the sock, sometimes 20 or 30 metres. I did this several times but people wouldn’t believe me when I told them. So I decided to show some friends. I put a piece of paua in a sock and enticed the conger eel to follow me up to the surface. I lifted the sock out of the water and the conger eel stuck its head out by about 30 to 35 centimetres. My friends had to believe me then.

What are you doing now?

I have been to Indonesia five times in the last five years, so I have dived there fairly substantially. I find the warm water very comfortable. Also, I now do a hell of a lot of snorkelling and I find it good. For example I have swum right around Manjangan Island in Bali. I suppose I would do between one or two kilometres at a time. I have also dived the walls using scuba, but I find that snorkelling you see so much more in the clear water and you can travel much further than on scuba. Snorkelling around the island, I swam over a sleeping shark and saw others that weren’t sleeping, little white-tips that come up and have a look at you. They are very curious but don’t come too close. I also snorkel around Matapouri. I snorkel from here to one of the nearby bays, and walk back carrying my weight belt. A friend of mine reckoned one of the best ways to keep fit was to go for a walk with a 10kg weight around your middle. I did that for a year or two, just to keep fit.

Mac, you are an inspiration to us all. I hope I am as active as you are when I reach your age. Thanks for sharing your memories with our readers.

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