Deep South Stewart Island, New Zealand

DEEP SOUTH

text and photography by Tobi Bernhard

Next stop Scott Base … I imagine the announcement by the Foveaux Express driver as it docks in Oban, Stewart Island, New Zealand. The punters who would be in the market for the ‘I survived Foveaux Strait’ T-shirts don’t seem to be much in souvenier-shopping mood. For those with the stomach, the ocean surrounding the ‘other South Island’ offers a wild and powerful beauty as far removed from our balmy waters of Northland as they are in turn from the tropics. Small surprise. It is the same distance from the Poor Knights to Stewart Island as it is to New Caledonia.

I had just glimpsed another breathtakingly beautiful New Zealand dive location for the first time: Fiordland. Too little time to explore there left me itchy and I don’t mean from the sand fly bites (they are overrated anyway thanks to the numbing effect of the cold).

I wasn’t quite sure what the lack of dive boats on Stewart Island meant because I found what must be described as the most under-rated dive destination in New Zealand. I also found Dave at Oban Tours and Taxis who provided tanks, taxis and local knowledge. For a pampered Northerner the idea of shore diving from lack of choice seemed quaint at first, but I manged to overcome this indignity on my first dip under the wharf in Oban. Even from the dock you can spot sea tulips dotting the pilings in hues of red and orange like in an underwater greenhouse. These tunicates on a stick do look remarkably like the flower they are named after. The sun throws spots of light between pilings and fishing boats forcing your focus on ever changing scenes of wandering anemones, kelp, starfish and goby species. Southern pig fish, docile creatures, drape themselves over the rich invertebate growth on the assembled sunken construction materials. They are not shy at all, relying on their mighty dorsal spines for protection. Even blue cod, despite the everpresent bait and hook menace, invariably come over to see what you are up to. Shoals of fish weave their way between the structure in and out of the light. Even on stormy days visibility was never less than 15 metres. Of all the dives in Stewart Island the wharf remained my favorite despite the persistent queries from bystanders, asking what I was diving for (meaning what kind of food). Pictures as an answer didn’t satisfy anyone – ’what, pilchards?’

My second dive was off the beach in one of the sheltered coves in Halfmoon Bay. One of the main draws for me to come down here was to dive in the Macrocystis kelp forest. Good kelp forests are about as hard to find as trees in the proverbial forest around Stewart Island. The things the light does filtering through the ever swaying canopy of kelp fronds 10 metres above is enchanting. I found a seahorse clinging to the kelp on that dive, its head tucked down shyly and I was in love.

On another dive, I had finished my film needless to say, a crested weedfish teased me by posing on a leaf of kelp for me to focus on at leisure. Despite knowing better from past near-misses, I went back to dive the same site that afternoon and, miracle of miracles, found another cooperative weed fish. Once you learn how to focus your sight just one layer below the cover of kelp, so I discovered, they are not that uncommon. Anemones that look like hard candy in orange and blue stripes populate the kelp everywhere. An inquisitive octopus left suction marks on my lens. Spiny dogfish, most of them filleted, were the only elasmobranch species I spotted in the sheltered locations I had access to.

The only way to get out to the numerous offshore rocks and islands I could find was to join a bird watching or fishing trip. I opted for bird watching with Bruce (a southern gentlemen) on the Thorfin. Stewart Island is a popular destination for serious ornethologists on land and sea. I felt a bit left out, not knowing my flesh-footed shearwater from my Bounty Island mollymawk. The water is much clearer around the off-lying islands. I would have loved to explore them in depth, diving with the fur seals and shags. As it was, the albatrosses (or were they mollymawks?) provided a great substitute entertainment. They hang out behind the cod fishing boats in hope for a free meal. They are as essential an element to the Southern Ocean impression as the ever persistent westerly wind and swell. Crested penguins made themselves a bit scarce. I spotted a couple waddling out of the water to their burrows, giving the resting seals a wide berth. If you believe the locals, the poor krill season as a result of a mild el niño year is to blame for their absence. For watching birds on land a short boat ride to Ulva Island, a predator free sanctuary for natives, is well worth it.

Despite a steady influx of visitors, Steward Island maintains some of that lovable charm of backwardness that has been sadly lost in most other places around New Zealand (with the exception of the Beehive).

Nothing like sitting on the terrace of the old South Seas hotel with a pint of Speights and a feed of fresh oysters, enjoying the shadows growing longer after a days diving in the Deep South.

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