Rich and Rugged, Wellington’s South Coast

Rich and Rugged, Wellington’s South Coast

Text and images by Dave Abbott

Mention diving in Wellington to anyone north of the Bombay hills and they usually look at you as though you have suggested they put Vegemite in their latte! …well it may not have the 20oC-water temperature and 30 metre visibility of the far north but diving around the Wellington south coast has a lot going for it -including plenty of easily accessible shore diving!  A recent trip to the windy capital found us exploring the rugged south coast where I first started diving, and enjoying some underwater terrain and marine life very different to that of our customary Poor Knights.

Frequently pounded by heavy southerly swells and bordered by the cool waters of the Cook Strait don’t expect sandy beaches, blue water and subtropical fish species here; – Wellington dive sites instead offer great diving around rugged rock reefs, narrow anemone-lined guts and seaweed forests populated by fascinating cold-water marine life literally a stone throw from the road.

At Owhiro Bay only 10-15 minutes from downtown Wellington we were able to saunter 20 metres down the pebble beach and swim out through a narrow rocky gut to the wreck of the Yong Penn 50 metres offshore and in only eight metres of water.  This rusting hulk is an interesting dive; encrusted in anemones, tunicates and seaweed and home to large marblefish, dwarf scorpionfish, small crayfish and various crab species, there is plenty here to keep a macro photographer busy.  Further out are the remains of the Progress, a bit of wreckage and a large boiler that has its own population of juvenile crays as well as a resident magpie perch – a rare visitor from South Australian waters.

Nearby, Island Bay offers another shore dive within minutes of town – a shallowish bay with extensive seaweed gardens it holds good fish life, and an octopus or two can usually be found to play with, as well as the occasional seahorse entwined among the weed stems.

Further around the south coast beyond the road end is Karori Rock, reached by a rugged four-wheel drive trip that is an adventure on its own – even without the prospect of a great dive at the end!  Being a bit less accessible it boasts good fish life, some big crays and often you will be buzzed by curious fur seals but be aware of the powerful surge and strong currents around this bit of coast.  Swim too far offshore here on the wrong tide and you will end up somewhere in the Cook Strait!

South coast diving in general demands some respect, it is not a place for a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.  There is plenty of safe sheltered diving to be had around Wellington but it pays to keep a real eye on the weather as conditions here can change rapidly.  The waters around the strait are cold, strong currents abound and a short way offshore the wind can pick up to a gale in no time.  As long as you are aware that Wellington can provide great diving for anyone from novice to advanced.

Most of the south coast is fairly sheltered from the prevailing northwesters that blow through Wellington like a post-curry morning, and after a few swell and wind-free days visibility can reach 15m+.  However once a southerly blows in forget it!  In a stiff southerly the only option is to head up the nearby Kapiti (west) coast where there are a few places to tuck in for a shore dive such as the north side of Titahi Bay.  This is a nice little dive with shallow weed forests, small octopus and seahorses, butterfish, blue cod and even the occasional stingray to be seen.

If you have a boat there are some excellent dives around Kapiti Island both inside and outside the marine reserve and Mana Island also offers good diving. There is Hunter Bank well offshore and between these two islands if you are looking for a really exciting dive!  This current-prone site is best dived at slack tide and in calm conditions; the reef comes up from over 40m to 18m at its high point and is covered in encrusting life and home to monster crays.  It is also a good spot to see large kingfish and the occasional shark!

South Coast life: On most dives around Wellington you will see small blue moki, spotties, scarlet wrasse, surgefish and various triplefin species as well as alien-looking wandering anemones quivering across the bottom like moulded jellies!  Weird sea tulips sway from the walls and brightly coloured biscuit starfish roam the bottom.  You may see the occasional terakihi, red moki and butterfish around, although many of the edible fish species down here are becoming scarce due to pressure from spearfishing.

Octopus are reasonably common, and you are also sure to be approached by curious blue cod who will often swim right up to your face to pout at their reflections in your mask! If you are a nudibranch fan, New Zealand’s largest species, the Wellington’s nudibranch (up to 20 cm long) is found here, and on night dives large conger eels will make your cray hunting a bit more exciting!

These southern crayfish and paua found around the coast put our northern cousins to shame; some of the crays here are big enough to drag you down and eat you, and the paua are the size of dinner-plates!  Unfortunately overly-greedy divers and some serious poaching in the region has wiped out the original large populations of paua that used to cover much of the reefs around Wellington, and a bit of local knowledge is required to find really good cray spots now.  One of my favourite creatures  frequently encountered on south coast dives are the fur seals. They seem to really enjoy buzzing divers and will circle around you like a friendly dog, great when you know they are there, but when you are not expecting them that first large dark shadow cruising past can really tighten your foofoo valve!

Reserve Proposal: Something that divers can really look forward to is the proposed marine reserve for the Wellington south coast.  The idea of a reserve has been tossed around for at least a decade now and hopefully it is finally getting closer to becoming a reality as it is long overdue. The area is naturally prolific and I would guess that within a few years of having full protection, crayfish, paua and fish populations would recover sufficiently for the diving to become outstanding – providing an asset that few capital cities around the world could boast of having right on their doorstep!

Wrap: Being home to a lot of active divers the greater Wellington area is well serviced by dive shops and charter boats, and they are generally a friendly bunch.  Right on the south coast there is Splash Gordons; – step out of their door, cross the road and you are in the water! (They also run boat charters).  Island Bay Divers is also close to the coast and has been looking after Wellington divers for many years, then there is Divers World a bit handier to the city.  On the Kapiti Coast DiveSpot at Mana have a good facility and dive charter boat, and for the Hutt Valley there is Adventure Education in Petone.

So no excuses; – if you have not yet checked out the diving around our Capital City grab your buddy, your 7mm wetsuit/drysuit or a GHP (get hard pill) and discover some REAL diving!

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