Into the jaws of alligator, Alligator Head, Pelorus
The South Island had been battered by strong gales for much of the previous week and continuous downpours had long since quenched the thirst of the parched earth. As I prepared for a day’s diving the saturated earth was ejecting hundreds of litres of discoloured water. Already swollen streams had turned into flooded rivers which swept up anything in their path as they made a desperate race towards the sea. The weather map showed a deep depression, moving slowly northwards, with its associated isobars creating a pattern of ageing rings like an ancient tree trunk, giving little confidence for any great diving.
Not surprisingly, by the time all our gear had been stowed aboard Miss Akaroa, nearly everyone was soaked. However, with a warm, dry cabin and a hot cuppa it was soon forgotten as we steamed out of Havelock and headed down the Pelorus Sound.
This inner part of the Sound seldom has clear water. It is fed by the Pelorus River, the numerous reaches and small sounds, (many with shallow mud flats), create a large catchment area. Its waters are visually discoloured and, after a week of solid rain, it was not surprising that the water clarity was worse than usual.
Finally the rain stopped and the mist lifted to reveal Forsyth Island and a flat calm, but much diluted sea. Once again the unpredictability of the weather forecast had gone in our favour.
These outer parts of Marlborough Sounds are actually further north than Wellington. Here the D’Urville current picks up the tail end of the warm west Auckland current, combining with Westland and Tasman currents. These combining waters give rise to a variety of marine species and are great fun for diving as you never know what you might find. It is not uncommon for paper nautilus shells to be found around D’Urville Island and the outer parts of Pelorus Sound.
Reaching the outer shores of Forsyth Island it was time to suit up in the brilliant sunshine that had appeared. In spite of Miss Akaroa’s 4.8 metre (16 foot) beam, it was amazing how divers had spread out, cluttering up all the available deck space. Neil and Glen Peek, who have owned this vessel for over 11 years, have plenty of experience in this area and can take you to special spots that the other charter vessels don’t go to.
One giant stride and I hit the water. Criiiipppes it was cold! I had forgotten to get the zips replaced on my booties and the cold water was rushing up my legs. However, there was no time to hang around on the surface, so I raced to the bottom. Neil knew of a rock at 20 metres and I wanted to get to it before the current took me past its small plateau on top.
Before I realised it, I was there. Blue moki hovered in the water in every direction, and the visibility was mind blowing for this area at 10 to 20 metres. Neil prides himself on being able to find clear water, regardless of the sea conditions – perhaps this is why he calls his company Blue Water.
Like a swarm of bees, butterfly perch darted around me. In the distance large blue moki cruised, hanging in the waters like eagles in the sky. Large rocks reached up towards the distant surface, many with large holes and crevices in them. A diversity of triplefin and blennies mixed with blue cod crowded around, using these massive rock structures for protection. All too often evidence of fishing parties clung to sharp pieces of rock. Fortunately many hooks were rusting, posing less threat, but much of the nylon was covered in weed as it adjusted to its new environment. Strung between rock tips, it was ideally placed for catching divers or their gear.
Sandy patches between these underwater mountains provided shelter for scallops and small forests of hydroid trees – many of which contained Jason mirablis nudibranchs. Occasionally the sandy area was broken by large tube dwelling anemones and a scattering of starfish, sea eggs and many types of sponges.
Once into open water, the tide soon takes you on a roller coaster ride. Drift diving has been a touchy subject in the Sounds since the French Pass tragedy, but at Alligator Head you can enjoy the drift with safety. Once round the point the current drops off sufficiently for you to be able to swim back to the shallows in calm, slack water.
While swimming, grab a cray for tea. Many of these shallow areas have excellent cray holes, and at certain times of the year a limit bag can be obtained with ease. Kelp beds of numerous species make up a plentiful food source for butterfish, marblefish, leatherjacket and blue cod. Deeper rock faces are covered in a rainbow of jewel anemones, making a dive into the jaws of the Alligator Head one of Pelorus Sound’s better diving spots.
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