Poor Knights – Taravana Cave

Poor Knights – Taravana Cave

By Wade Doak

The  most complex cave system so far discovered at the Poor Knights is Taravana. This is a Polynesian word meaning crazy. It is also their word for the bends. Divers thought Taravana was an appropriate name for this very special dive site. It reminds us of the need to explore the cave with careful planning to avoid a terrible diving illness.

On the west side of Tawhitirahi Island is Landing Bay which runs south to where Blue Mao Arch completely penetrates the island to its eastern side. Just before this narrow passage there is a huge flat section of wall. Twenty metres below is the roof of Taravanas main cave, with vaulting walls curving down to white sand 40 metres below. This cave entrance is some 20 metres wide. A little further to the south another smaller cave 10 metres wide opens in the cliff. Early divers discovered that if they stuck to the right-hand wall of the big cave and swam some 140 metres into the darkness, they came to a U bend that led around into the smaller cave and back out to sunlight. There were several blind offshoots. One has whale bones. Another turned out to be a narrow linking tunnel, a shortcut that gives the whole system a letter A configuration. I have found the most rewarding part to explore is the main entrance. It resembles a great cathedral arch, elaborately adorned and singing with choirs of fish. In mid-October I was filming in there alone on the end of a cable-to-surface television system. The upper walls and roof were sprigged with translucent blue clumps of simple sea squirts called Clavelina: little clubs.

This is a seasonal event; they appear in caves, arches and on shaded walls in springtime. Amongst them on the arching roof a spanish lobster is clinging, almost invisible amongst the dense encrusting sponges and bryozoans. Across the roof, belly up, a male red pigfish pursues a female. Many of the fish are swimming upside down: about 20 pink maomaos, a pair of mados, big eyes and butterfly perch. At the entrance the roof has a big architrave or descending lip. Behind this I find a well nourished encrusting community to explore including, near the middle, a luxurious pendant bush of golden yellow zoanthids with their long graceful columns and daisy-like circlets of tentacles. They have colonised a hapless gorgonian fan; a different species from those that colonise patches of sponge. At the foot of the northern wall I find three strange spherical, sponge-like creatures swaying on white stems like magnetic mines on cables: a new stalked ascidian. Nearby, just above the sand, a colony of large cone-shaped, deepwater sponges glow salmon-pink in my lights. Beside them a scorpion fish clings head down. On the opposite wall several clefts house sleepy pink maomaos and butterfly perch.

Then I sense something out in the cave middle above the sand. Something big. Being close to the end of my dive time all I can do is make a filmed approach to the strange shape: a long, ghostly white tube. A serpent from the abyss! This is the first time I have seen a giant salp for 20 years since the day we first discovered them out there. The water suddenly feels warm. I traverse its length from the rear bell-shaped opening to tapering tip: about nine metres of lolly-pink fibrous jelly, frequently holed by reef fish. I have been yearning to document this rare ocean creature. A few years earlier cameraman Andrew Penniket filmed one but he was alone and had no way to establish its huge scale. With my last breaths I expire a little air into the fleshy cylinder so that it balloons up above me like a giant pink stocking – or whale condom.

At the surface I was met by a delighted executive producer Neil Harraway and co-cameraman, Ian Briggs who took over from me. Delighted I watched on the TV monitor as Neil swam around it; tracked along its seemingly endless length; held it close to the lens for detailed scrutiny of the tiny colonists that made up its walls. Each red speck is an individual inline sea squirt with its intake pore in the outer wall and output to the interior. The combined flow of water, any nutrients having been filtered out, jets out through the bell-shape stern. But once this deep sea colony is swept to the surface by springtime upwellings and gets within range of a reef fish community its doom is sealed. Holes chomped in the walls destroy its jet propulsion system.

Then Ian had the brain wave of ing the camera port into the stern opening, giving us a unique view along a curving passage to the edge of vision- a nice simulation of one of those space strings which astronomers say offer a potential for time travel- or perhaps the original birth canal through which we once voyaged to this planet.

Now it is April and I am filming in Taravana with my wife Jan carrying the movie light. Silhouetted against the blue she directs the beam on a school of deep-bodied big eyes near the portal. They are daytime cave dwellers and don’t appear to swim upside down when close to the walls. We drop to the sand. At this depth I am not surprised to find some splendid perch, deep water plankton feeders sheltering in here on a day when the plankton out in open water are probably not available. Near an alcove one swims with its relatives, pink maomaos and butterfly perch. Another roosts in a crevice as half-banded perch crosses by. In October, down at the verge of diving range, splendid perch perform a graceful courtship dance wherein the distinctively liveried male curves around groups of females, all his fins erect, a sight I dream of getting on tape. I count myself lucky to get footage of these females with their gorgeous orange-red bodies.

In April of another year Jan and I are with the Deep Blue team filming Castle in the Sea. Evohe, the 30 metre expedition yacht, is anchored alongside the flat section of cliff wall above Taravana. The ocean is the clearest I have ever seen out there, indigo blue and flat calm. We were preparing to film a complete traverse of the cave system. In the saloon the team prepared the dive plan. With a cave diagram on the wall, safety officer Ed Jowett outlines the two tunnels, linked by a U-bend. The team will use the narrow short cut passage. Safe diving procedures were discussed.

Advance divers thread a guide line along the pathway. Our two presenters, Ole Maiava and Peta Carey nervously follow the camera crew down the cliff to the entrance of the smaller cave. Peta in particular is anxious about venturing deep into the island, but she is resolute. If she feels endangered, she plans to pull back. She’s learnt never to follow others beyond her own capacity.

Their fins vanish down a deep corridor to the cleft where the short cut passage opens. Close to their fin tips our son Brady pushes a hefty camera and Ed holds a movie light. One by one they penetrate the metre wide lava tube. They cannot avoid disturbing the sand floor and for a time have to swim blind. At the other end, in the main cave, Peter Thompson waits with the other camera, picking up the glow of their lights. Strange click chains such as whales emit, come from the cave recesses, probably produced by a crayfish in daytime hiding. A blizzard of slender roughies storm from the opening. The light expands to blinding radiance and one by one the team emerge into the main chamber, finning swiftly toward the distant blue glow. Out in the portal with a movie light Jan awaits them. Ole’s air is getting low so there is no time to waste. Up the ascent rope they rise to their first decompression stop. By then Ole needs to use that spare hang tank. At length all the divers surface safely, their faces glowing in the late sun. Perfect team work has led to total success.

Extracted from Wade Doak’s  Poor Knights Library:



Related reading: Poor Knights Wonderland a field guide by Glenn Edney. Available through the Dive New Zealand store.

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