Aldermens – Mecca on our doorstep

by Alan Warner  photographs Keith Lyall

Nine o’clock at Dave and Donna’s (Tairua Dive and Fishinn) we six divers listen to the day’s briefing by Steve and Brenda, operators of Tairua Dive Charters. Destination- Aldermen Islands off the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. This Christmas/New Year period has seen the best weather in the last three years; fine with light sou’easterlies and easy seas.

Gear packed on board, we leave the jetty adjacent to the dive shop and motor slowly out of the Tairua harbour entrance. Then, with power on, we pass between Shoe Island and Slipper Island. I remember the days when the New Zealand Underwater Association endeavoured to have the Rainbow Warrior laid to rest behind Slipper Island. Had it not been for the objection of the Ngati Hei it would have been an easily accessible wreck dive for a large number of divers, rather than its distant resting place at Matauri Bay. Tairua Dive may well have retained its original name of Rainbow Dive, given the expectation of the Rainbow Warrior lying off Slipper Island.

As the waters turn from tidal brown to green, to blue we strike towards the Aldermens. I recall the many times we have seen dolphins, orca and sperm whales in this area. Only two weeks ago there was a pod of three orcas playing in the harbour entrance.

Sitting in the comfort of this eight-metre Stabicraft, somewhat larger than my small Bonito that has made this trip frequently, I have time too recall past experiences and look forward to the day’s diving ahead.

Thirty minutes on we pass the north-western edge of Flat Island, the closest of the Aldermens to Tairua. It was at this very spot that I had my first sighting of a striped marlin in the water. Fantastic!

Running up alongside Middle Island, then past George Island we head toward our first dive destination, McGregors, a pinnacle to the north-east of the Aldermen group. It rises from 60-plus metres to break the surface at low water. This pinnacle equals the best I’ve dived. A low swell sweeps over the rock and in the white water the blue maomao can be seen in the sunlight.

Kitted up and over the side, breaking the surface into 15 – 18 metres visibility we are immediately surrounded by literally thousands of trevally with kahawai intermingled. Outside these swarms can be seen the blue maomao with pink maomao underneath. Dropping down the outside face we pass the prolific near-surface growth and life on the rock, running down deep vertical cracks until at 35 metres we have the opportunity to explore the huge cavern and cave formations.

Moving around the corner at 25 metres is the resident school of golden snapper. In the clear water and fine overhead conditions, they glisten as they swirl around, darting into the shade and out again. Gauges checked, time to move shallower, once again swimming into the school fish with the occasional eagle ray gliding by. Always on the look out for the kingfish I so often see on this dive, they are surprisingly absent today. Maybe someone has been here before us and they have moved away from McGregors.

Thirty minutes after starting we are on the surface with the boat close at hand. Willing hands take our gear and help us back on board. Certainly one of the best dives you can have and once again it has not failed us.

As Steve takes the boat into the shallows of middle island, a cup of tea goes down well, before I’m over the side again for an hour of enjoyable snorkelling, snooping around for the elusive big snapper and searching out crays in the shallows. On board again we kit up for our last dive, a cray hunt on the south-western of the Aldermen Island. Mixed fortunes on the crays, but once again an enjoyable dive through magnificent underwater terrain, with drop offs, caves and kelp forests. Last time I dived this location I came up with an intact paper nautilus shell, now one of my prized possessions.

As we head back to Tairua after a great day out, it seems amazing that this offshore island mecca is only a one and a half hour drive from Auckland, Tauranga and Hamilton and a 30 minute boat trip from Tairua. Once dived it is the type of area that draws you back for more.

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