Diving the Volcano

Diving the Volcano

by Donovan Gibbs

Have you ever dreamed of diving in an exotic location, in crystal clear, aqua-blue water, gently drifting through schools of fish swaying in the light current?

I had always wanted to dive White Island, and my opportunity arose over Easter this year. Things got off to an adventurous start when a Grade 2 warning had been issued for the area surrounding White Island, 50 kilometres off the coast of Whakatane, Bay of Plenty. Plumes of sulphurous smoke billowed out of the volcano, and light ash fell around parts of the Bay.

Organised by Petone Dive ‘n’ Ski, our team of eight arrived in Whakatane at 9.30pm on Thursday evening. There we met John ‘Tuna’ Baker and his deck hand Brett, and packed our gear on the Ma Cherie, a 13 metre live-aboard displacement boat. We left at 7am on Easter Friday, over the swirling Whakatane sandbar and out into the ocean where the swell was a bumpy two metres. The trip was four hours long at six to seven knots. The Pahia Bombs (you can order them from Pahia Pharmacy) worked wonders against seasickness.

Spearfishing At White Island

Upon arrival at White Island, we gazed at the spectacular funnel of smoke that stretched across the blue sky. From the safety of the boat John gave us a mini tour of the old sulphur works destroyed in the 1930s by an eruption. The swell was moving in one direction, the wind in another and finding an undisturbed spot to dive was becoming increasingly difficult. Suddenly schools of blue maomao and trevally were spotted feeding close to the surface. A mad panic ensued to get the freedive gear on and into the water.

Entering the electric blue water, John shouted, ‘watch out for makos, I’m not joking’

I carried a home made speargun (thanks to Paul, a Wellington dive buddy) with a five foot shaft and double rubber. Levelling off at five metres, I swam up to a school of large blue maomao and ed dinner. Des, Nick and Tony joined me in the water and, diving again, I encountered a school of large trevally swimming in formation. I pulled the trigger. Then it was all on. I reached the surface and the gun pulled tight, with a gasp of air I was pulled a metre underwater. I swam as hard as I could until the trevally tired (just before I did). Swimming with the fish in tow, the crew yelled to me to get back into the boat. No, not a shark, the wind had changed and the ash was falling on the boat and getting into our gear and lungs.

We made our way from White Island to Volkner Rocks. I was ecstatic about the beautiful fish I had caught. Spearfishing is an exhilarating sport, is completely ive, and allows a freediver the quietest of entries into the underwater world.

Diving Volkner Rocks

Volkner Rocks is located five kilometres north-west of White Island and was once an Air Force bomb practice site. Our first scuba dive was into clear water at 20 degrees, somewhat warmer than my Wellington dives. Tony and Nick came across a moray wrapped around an old rusty bomb on the ocean floor. At 17 metres we were met by a huge committee of fish, including red snapper, demoiselles, wrasse, blue moki, black angel fish, scorpion fish, pink and blue maomao and porae. It was an array of colours. The visibility was a crystal clear 15 metres. We took the time to ‘sit back’ underwater and admire the creation around us. The ‘hunter within’ struggled though when a large kingfish cruised past.

Over the next two days John took us to a number of fantastic dive sites around the Bay. We dived Taioma off Motiti Island, a 310 tonne tug, sunk in March by the Taioma Reef Society. Liz and Leanne inspected the boat while the guys all strategically missed the boat and hit the bottom. Other highlights included a rock wall dive off Plate Island and an open ocean drift dive. The conditions were not good around White Island, so a decision was made to dive off Volkner Rocks again.

Diadema Rock Off Volkner Rocks

Diadema Rock is a pinnacle dive, named after the Diadema sea urchins that reside there. We levelled off at 28 metres mid way down the pinnacle. Des and I sat still at 25 metres and watched a school of large red snapper basking in the rays of sun. Yellow and mosaic morays peeked out from the rocks. Curious Lord Howe coral fish scurried around busily. Nick and Lezanne swam to a second pinnacle, 50 metres further from the boat, and were stunned by the large school of kingfish that surrounded them in the blue water.

Diving Spot X

At one of John’s secret spots, we paired up and entered the water straight into a school of trevally. Finning through rock valleys, we were escorted by large blue moki and porae, swimming at a gentle undisturbed pace. Rounding a corner, true to John’s word, a large school of golden snapper lay tightly packed under a rock overhang. Leatherjackets cheekily swam around us on the ocean floor. Blue and pink maomao, red moki and black angel fish fluttered lazily in the gentle current.

John jumped over the side for a scuba dive, sporting only a pair of yellow undies covered in smiley faces (he must have liked the water temperature!). Sitting on the boat we could make out a flock of birds in the distance, yellow fin tuna and kingfish harassing a large school of bait fish on the surface. The yellow fin splashed and crashed into the baitfish furiously. The cabin talk moved to fishing and once John was back, Des, Tony and Nick were into the fishing. After a couple of hours trawling the area, a few skip jack tuna were pulled in, and also a couple of nice kingfish, which much to the guys’ dismay, were returned to the ocean.

The final day was too rough for diving and we returned to Whakatane early. We left Whakatane for Wellington later that evening after dinner at a local restaurant, and arrived at 2.30am the following morning. Fortunately, we missed the snow which put traffic at a stand-still through Desert Road later that day.

John Baker is passionate about the need for a marine reserve around Volkner Rocks, and after diving there I am sure the crew were all in agreement. It is important to have reserves that are well managed, not only for the benefit of future generations, but also to replenish life around and ultimately beyond the reserve.

Special thanks go to Petone Dive ‘n’ Ski, John Baker at Baker Marine Charters, Nick our dive controller and to everyone on board who enjoyed this challenging and unforgettable experience. For further reference in planning your dive trip, you may wish to check the following web sites, Baker Marine Charters


, and a useful Whakatane website for accommodation and tours


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