By Monty Halls, images Dan Burton
It was a slightly odd sensation to taxi slowly towards the terminal in Auckland Airport and watch the rain lash against the perspex window of the aircraft. Rain has become something of an alien concept to us, and we all looked slightly incongruous in our Hawaiian shirt wearing, skinny legged splendour. We huddled together like juvenile penguins and shuffled through the departure lounge to the waiting bus.
The Poor Knights Islands are arguably the best cold water diving location on earth. These two large craggy islands sit 14 miles off the coast of North Island in New Zealand, and are a 400 hectare oasis of life. Declared taboo in Maori law since 1820, they were also declared a nature reserve in the early 1980s, making them amongst the most protected pieces of land in New Zealand. The result is a bewildering number of fish on the steep reefs around the islands, with most of the 120 species of this region strongly represented in dense shoals.
The wrecks team spent a whirlwind two days diving the islands and experienced the full gamut of the caverns, caves and reefs that make up the Poor Knights experience. Guided by the incomparable Dive Tutukaka team, we drifted through emerald arches flanked by great shimmering masses of blue maomao and trevally, lay on white sand as massive stingrays passed overhead, and attempted to take in the packed walls and glum looking scorpionfish the size of rugby balls.
Wonderful though the Poor Knights were, we were here for the wrecks, and before departing down the coast to explore the Rainbow Warrior, Dive Tutukaka had a few tricks for us up their sleeve in this department. Jeroen, one of the co-owners of the operation, is a man of vision and drive. Aware that he had the potential to establish one of the greatest cold water dive destinations on the planet, he made the decision in 1999 to purchase and sink a 60 metre hydrographic vessel from the New Zealand Navy in the waters just off Tutukaka. This was such a triumph that he decided in 2000 to do it again, this time buying a 113 metre long frigate called the HMNZS Waikato and sending her to the bottom on 25 November of that year.
The real treat for the team proved to lie in the wide passages of the Waikato. We were surprised during the briefing to be told by the guides that we could penetrate through the entire length of the hull (minus a short section of the bow that has broken off) and emerge at the far end. This is a penetration of some 85 metres, and I imagined that some complex lining off and light systems would be required. With hearts thumping, we slipped beneath the surface, anticipating a gnarly passage through silty twists and turns with the blood roaring in our ears and pulses hammering.
But, of course, the wreck is set up specifically for divers, and this penetration proved to be one of the most rewarding of the entire expedition. Entering through a hatch right at the stern of the wreck, we started to make our cautious way down a long passage on the starboard side. To my surprise after only 10 metres we came across a large cut in the hull, allowing us easy exit if required. Further down the passage was another, and another, and then yet another. This is a beautifully thought out dive, and allows for a massive penetration, most illuminated by natural light streaming in through these cuts, as well as perfectly safe exploration of the many rooms off this main passage. These include the medical room, the operations room (complete with massive banks of machinery and electrical kit), and accommodation areas. We emerged triumphant close to the bow section, exchanged steely stares as befits hairy palmed penetrators of mighty wrecks, and swam off to pose beside the bow gun.
We couldnât visit the North Island without paying our respects to the Rainbow Warrior. Many of the sites we had dived over the last two months have had stories of mystery behind them, but the Rainbow Warrior really does take the biscuit. Two explosions rocked her at her mooring at Marsdenâs Wharf in Auckland just before midnight on 10 July 1985, an act of state funded terrorism that shocked the world. Hers is a cloak and dagger tale of espionage and intrigue that would grace any Tom Clancy novel. Two agents from the French Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure â the Secret Service â were arrested and charged, and the recriminations rocked relations between New Zealand and France, leading to the resignation of the French Defence Minister. Two years after the sinking, the Rainbow Warrior was towed to the Cavelli Islands and sunk as an artificial reef. Overlooking the wreck site is a monument to the vessel, a sweeping arc of rounded boulders with the propeller set in its centre sitting on top of a hill that dominates the surrounding bay and islands.
This wreck is one of those atmospheric sites where the tale of the sinking gives an added poignancy to the dive. The launch site was absurdly beautiful, with water gardens of twisted bonsai trees clinging to dark rocks overhanging sapphire water lapping at the sand of the main beach.
The wreck itself is quite small, 40 metres in length, and is quite easily explored in a single dive. As we drifted down the shot line, it was possible to make out much of hull and superstructure. Landing on the deck, we headed towards the stern, exploring the dark entrances to the bridge and accommodation. On the port side of the vessel, aft of the shot line, it was possible to make out the damage to the plating from the blast that killed photographer Fernando Pereira. Finning back past the line, we headed for the bow and the iconic shot of the Rainbow Warrior. The bowsprit still reaches out from the bow as the ship sails through the sand of the sea bed. On closer examination, the bow is encrusted with millions of kaleidoscopic jewel anemones. As with all wrecks, the sea is slowly claiming the vessel. In the case of the Rainbow Warrior, it is choosing to do it in a riot of colour.