Tauranga Reef Diving
By Raewyn Rouse
We left the marina just after 8.00am, headed for Astrolabe Reef, which lies 25km north-east of Tauranga. There were eight divers and the skipper aboard, fully geared toward a day of diving. Gentle swells formed around the bows of the Gamebreaker II as we steered out of the harbour, passing the Maori warrior standing guard in the waves below Mt Maunganui. The air was quite warm in spite of the steady rain misting the shoreline receding swiftly behind us. Mirroring the sullen clouds above, the sea was a steely blue/grey colour, relieved only by our creamy wake. Less than an hour later, we saw white tipped waves breaking over a barely covered point of rock.
Surrounded by open sea and framed by a leaden sky, Astrolabe Reef looked lonely and desolate as we pulled in. Fully exposed to the ocean elements, the surge of strong currents can be felt even at depth around the reef. About two acres in area, the rocky outcrop that forms the reef descends steeply to a depth of 73 metres on the ocean side. The landward side has a gentler slope in comparison, easing back in a downward jumble of outcrops and fallen boulders. The area is recommended for more experienced divers and is best dived on a slack tide when the influence of currents is less.
Lungs inhaled sharply at the first rush of cold water entering our wetsuits as we dropped in a free descent 12 metres above the rock surface on the ocean side of the reef. The boat continued to circle, depositing divers as it went. Astrolabe is no place to drop an anchor, as was later proven by one of our team who recovered an anchor complete with chain, another trophy for the clubroom walls.
As we descended, we could see the uneven upper areas of the reef, which sloped down in a grey coloured wall of nearly sheer rock that plunged away into the depths. As we swam along the wall face, we saw orange and white nudibranchs perching on rock surfaces and shelves that were covered with encrusting sponges of varying colours. The visibility was about 20 metres although the light was dim due to the overcast skies. Small schools of juvenile mackeral flicked around us, flashing silver for a moment in the filtered light before changing direction and fading again to a blue grey.
The upper reaches of the reef are formed into rocky spurs studded with tumbled boulders. A crayfish, lingering on a small ledge, was added to the catch bag while another, bigger of course, retreated hastily into the depths of its hole under the boulders, too far in to be added to the haul. In the valleys, triggerfish and wrasse hovered, occasionally moving in and out of the thick yellow/brown kelp growing on the rock surfaces. A cluster of squid eggs swayed into view, hanging from the stem of one kelp plant. Soft sponges were plentiful, particularly prominent examples of larger purple/black and pink varieties were dotted about. The silver belly of an inverted conga eel reflected the camera strobe as it basked halfway out of its hole at the base of a small cliff. A coil of nudibranch eggs clung to one side of the cliff, framed by the encrusting sponges that decorated the rocks. Out of time, we circled back across the upper slopes of the rocks, moving against the currents and surges that kept the kelp moving in an endless dance.
On surfacing we found that our lonely rock had been surrounded by game fishing boats. Lines hung every which way over the sides, dipping and swaying with the boats. Due to the weather perhaps, the decks were barren of people, only the rods moved to the silent rhythm. This is a popular fishing spot known for its catches and can be extremely busy in the weekends.
We headed for the shelter of Motiti Island for lunch. The rain was still falling steadily, though the sea was still very flat, with only a faint swell. In the lee of the island it was not much drier, so after a quick stop for a cup of tea, we headed on to Okaparu Reef.
Located about eight kms inside Astrolabe, Okaparu is a fully submerged, rocky garden covering five acres. The upper surface is about five metres below the water with the slopes of the rocks falling away to either side. Okaparu is also subject to the surging of the seas around it. However, the currents are not as strong as those at Astrolabe. The area is an explorer’s wonderland of valleys and rocky crags, busy with interesting sea life and full of colour. Crayfish are found there if you care to hunt for them. Visibility was similar to Astrolabe with the water generally clear of floating debris.
Dropping down the anchor chain to a depth of 25m, we found a natural archway that looked as though it had been punched through the rocky spur a few metres in front of us. In front of the archway was a tumble of boulders, resting on the coarse white sand which carpeted the sloping bottom.The arch itself was about 15 metres long by 10 wide and opened out to a busy rock valley beyond. Stretching upward in front of us, the craggy rock surface dominated the landscape, raising the rocky spine of the arch toward a distant surface. Inside, Mao Mao hung around in ghostly blue grey groups, with trevally interspersed between them. The walls were lined with encrusting sponges of varied colours, white, pink and orange. Near the far end of the arch, we found a small octopus and encouraged it to come out and play. After sliding along the sand for a short distance on rolling brown tentacles, it took cover against a rock and declined to play any longer.
Just outside the archway, a small northern scorpion fish pretended to be a rock, as it crouched against the white sandy bottom. Demoiselles hung around in the valley beyond the archway apparently looking for photo opportunities. The walls were studded with common yellow/brown algae stems. The ever present encrusting sponges did not disappoint, their blocks of colour bright against the rocks. Naked kina shells were scattered around, perfectly complete examples rested hidden from harm, tucked in the shadow of boulders. The white sand stretched out in front of us, folding around corners to enter further valleys opening from the one we were in. With no time to explore further we returned through the archway, finding that the current was quite strong, requiring some effort to make headway back to the anchor chain.
We surfaced to a strong swell, the wind had come up although the rain had yet to cease. Crayfish were measured, kept or discarded. Discoveries were compared and the lack of time to explore further bemoaned as we stripped down the gear, preparing to leave. Chasing the swell we headed back into Tauranga standing in the steady rain at the back of the boat. Behind us the sea reclaimed its own, our presence unfelt and perhaps unknown – except to a few camera happy fish and one flustered little octopus.
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