White Island Magic – above and below

White Island Magic – above and below

By Tony and Jenny Enderby

White Island is a magical yet alien world. The diving on the reefs and the walk on the island itself can only be described as unique.

The water below glowed a strange shade of yellowy green. Streaks of pure yellow bordered the edges and steam spurted from the cliffs creating clouds that eclipsed the sun. The alien world was added to by blue-headed shapes not far away with strange protruding nostrils – and the lack of a mouth. It was like no other dive trip as we stood above a lake that we had no intention of diving into.

We were on White Island or Whakaari, an active volcano off the east coast of New Zealand’s north island. Taking advantage of the calm conditions between dives we had ventured ashore to see the volcano close up. The calm conditions that allowed our group, resplendent in their blue safety helmets and gas masks, to venture to the edge of the crater lake, was a bonus. On most dive trips the least pleasant gas talked of was nitrogen. Here it was replaced by sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide making our eyes feel itchy and gritty.

The island sits 48 kilometres offshore from the Bay of Plenty with the nearest port being Whakatane. It is part of a large volcanic plateau, similar in size to the Mt Ruapehu area, and comes up from the deep sea floor to about the same height. The fast dive boats that head out to the island have cut the trip down to just over an hour.

We anchored between White Island and the Volkner Rocks, on the remnants of another high volcanic point. Laison’s Reef, was a blue-water dive with the highest point 12 metres down. There was a second peak a further six metres below, then virtual sheer walls to 250 metres. Looking down the anchor line was mind-blowing – visibility about 40 metres and heaps of fish.

The East Auckland Current that runs south from the subtropics ended somewhere near here – and the 23degC water was an indication of its origins.

As we neared the pinnacle we were greeted by a flash of yellow and black – a Lord Howe Island coral fish, a migrant from the subtropics, that followed its companion back under the kelp. Decision time – should we stay with the coral fish or head over the edge through the schools of blue and pink maomao.

Common sense prevailed – the top was an ideal shallow end to the dive, prior to a safety stop back on the anchor line. Looking down there was nothing but blue mixed with schools of fish. Several larger shapes moved upwards as a school of kingfish panicked the smaller fish. Against the cliff, cracks and caverns revealed golden snapper hovering above the invertebrate life, anemones, hydroids, ascidians, sponges and solitary corals, that glowed in the torchlight.

At 30 metres the surface waves created patterns, broken by a few snorkellers. Below us the fish schools swirled incessantly and although we saw large blue moki and porae, there were no snapper amongst the mass of fish.

Back on the reef top was coral fish city with pairs of the yellow and black striped fish everywhere we looked. Above the kelp large leatherjackets hovered – all coloured to match the kelp. Scarlet, banded and Sandager’s wrasses ducked in and out and bright red pigfish peered inquisitively. Every so often one or more kingfish raced through, causing us a distraction that was nothing to the panic in the baitfish schools they were most interested in. The schools swirled and tightened, flashing in the sunlight, making a single target for the kingfish difficult to identify.

Back on deck, warm up time and reality. The clouds of steam that drifted above the island warned that we were privileged visitors. Whakaari wasn’t in a threatening mood this time – just the occasional puff of steam let us know of the power that sat not far below.

Lunch disappeared quickly with the thought of a walk on the island, that became a reality as we splashed ashore. Barefooted, we became aware that the sand temperature was way higher than the water above. Boots on, helmets and gas masks in place we headed off across the grey, alien landscape. The remains of the sulphur works lay in front of us with bits of machinery lying at odd angles. The cliffs glowed in an array of colours and bright yellow lines of sulphur lined the rain channels. A depression in the ground about two metres across had a large piece of rock protruding from its centre. We were still about 500 metres from the crater, where the missile had originated, on a day with a bit more volcanic activity than we were experiencing. You could almost hear everyone’s thoughts ticking over – if it went bang, how quick could we get back to the shoreline? It didn’t bear thinking about and we continued up to the edge of the crater and its glowing green lake.

Dive number two was at Homestead Reef, in the lee of the island. A series of boulders dropped to sand at 25 metres through masses of kelp. Our descent was through fish schools as thick as those at Laison’s Reef, blue and pink maomao, demoiselles, trevally and closer to the boulders wrasses, red and blue moki and scorpionfish. Nowhere else in New Zealand, apart from the protected waters of the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, boasted fish numbers like this.

Under the rocks masses of orange soft corals also known as dead man’s fingers covered everything. Then a head with an impressive set of teeth peered out – about a metre of mosaic moray eel protruded – with maybe that much further back. Rather than the aggressive animals portrayed by their looks, mosaic morays usually just showed their teeth to intruders. Their display was usually enough to ensure no harassment.

Upside down on the roof where two large boulders joined was another alien shape, a Spanish or slipper lobster, related to crayfish, at its southernmost habitat. A look around the rest of the gaps didn’t reveal any more – or any of their spiny cousins. During late spring each year large numbers of packhorse or green crayfish arrive at White Island to moult and mate before heading back to deep water.

Around the same time, paper nautilus, relatives of octopus, with perfect white-shelled egg cases, may also be seen. They used to be common around the offshore islands of northern New Zealand but have gradually decreased in number over the past couple of decades.

White Island or Whakaari, whatever you call it, is a magic yet alien world. The diving on the reefs and the walk on the island itself can only be described as unique. If you add the excitement of a whale or dolphin encounter on the way out or back, and you have the makings for the ultimate dive trip anywhere in New Zealand . . . or maybe anywhere . . .

Tony and Jenny dived courtesy of Dive White

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