The Kermadecs – New Zealand’s best diving

By Dave Abbott

Diving the Cumberland

The Kermadec Islands captured my imagination as an ‘adventure diving’ destination from the very first moment I heard about them; extremely remote and seldom visited, totally undeveloped and unspoilt, New Zealand’s largest marine reserve and one of the biggest marine reserves in the world possessing a unique assemblage of tropical, subtropical and temperate water species in one geographic location. How could it not exert a magnetic pull to any diver with a love of wild places and spectacular marine life?

I was on a 14-day research expedition to the Kermadec’s to document the marine life found in the reserve for the Department of Conservation. Not only was I going to dive and film in the rich waters of these remote islands, but I was also going to have a unique opportunity to observe marine scientists from NIWA, Te Papa, Victoria University and the Department of Conservation undertaking a variety of subtidal research and monitoring projects within this remote reserve.

Getting there The Kermadecs lie between 400 and 600 miles off mainland New Zealand so there are three days of open ocean passage which is an adventure in itself. We were on the Southern Salvor which is a 50 metre steel vessel ideally suited to long passages and which absorbed the three metre seas and 25 knot winds beautifully.

We reached Raoul Island in the late afternoon and it was very nice to be in some calm water again! No time was wasted in getting the mountains of dive and surveying equipment out of the hold, and then it was into the waters of Denham Bay for our first Kermadecs dive!

The diving The first dive alone made the trip worthwhile! The terrain was a mix of low rocky reef, boulders and sand gardens with an extraordinary combination of hard coral formations and low lush red and brown seaweeds which was totally unlike anything I had ever seen. The water temperature was a pleasant 20oC, about 5oC warmer than New Zealand waters for early November and visibility was around 30 metres…a good thing as there was so much to see!

First to grab my attention and most obvious of all were the huge black spotted grouper. Around 1.5m in length and probably over 100kg, these beautifully patterned and charismatic fish were as inquisitive and sociable as big dogs. They would swim right up and eyeball us from half a metre away with an expression of friendly curiosity on their faces and big mouths half-open in a dopey pout. I don’t think we did a single dive where we didn’t see at least half a dozen grouper.

Galapagos reef sharks also put in an appearance on most dives and were unnervingly confident and curious, often approaching quite closely. Although beautiful, cleanly marked and graceful sharks, this species have a reputation for aggressiveness. It was fortunate that most of the individuals we encountered were only around 1.5 –2 metres in length.

Fish life in the reserve was incredibly diverse, prolific and colourful, with a fascinating mix of tropical, subtropical and temperate species. In fact one of the interesting and slightly disconcerting things about diving at the Kermadecs was seeing familiar fish such as sandagers wrasse and blue maomao intermixed with tropical species of lionfish and trumpetfish against a backdrop of hard corals. It seemed so out of context! Some of the more notable subtropical fish we saw included schools of yellow goatfish, numerous electric-blue gold ribbon grouper, yellow banded perch, spectacular lionfish, painted moki, blue-spotted wrasse, squirrelfish and bizarrely shaped trumpetfish. Buttercup-yellow drummer ‘colour-morphs’ stood out from their grey cousins, and silvery knifefish flashed at the undersurface against the lucid backdrop of blue water. Swimming quietly by on every dive were boxfish, surgeonfish, bannerfish, striped boarfish … there were loads of species that are extremely rare and considered a ‘special’ sight at the Poor Knights yet seemed to be as common as spotties up here! (There are no spotties at the Kermadecs by the way).

The invertebrate life was also mind-blowing. Numerous species of colourful starfish from soft brilliant orange cushion-stars to wickedly spined crown-of-thorn starfish draped themselves over the reef. Giant Limpets (at over 100mm in diameter the world’s biggest) dotted the shallow boulders, large sea hares swayed amongst the low seaweeds and at least two different species of Spanish lobsters were found. Both the hard and soft corals were spectacular in form and colour, and were sometimes host to small spider crabs and shrimps. Equally as interesting was what I didn’t see: Crayfish for instance (none at all!), nudibranchs, only three; rays… no stingrays, and only a couple of eagle rays.

Some of our more exciting dives included Parsons Rock, further out from Denham Bay and more exposed to the wind and swell but alive with swirling schools of kingfish and numerous sharks; the Meyers islands with their more spectacular vertical terrain and soft coral walls and canyons; and the Chanter Islands, most exposed of all with deep walls, clear water, strong surge and yet more sharks!

Research

Almost everyone on this expedition was diving with a specific purpose; from gathering data on the diversity of fish and invertebrate species present in the marine reserve to measuring (live!) sharks, collecting new species records, classifying the different subtidal habitats around the island group, logging marine mammal sightings and identifying endemic seaweeds to name just a few. There were also a couple of bird researchers who were in their element with so many seabirds to observe, capture and tag; and with all these scientists on board the knowledge base was overwhelming and the enthusiasm for getting as much done in as short a time possible contagious!

North to South

The Kermadec Island group spans nearly 200 miles from the Meyers islands in the north to Curtis in the south, and there is a corresponding variation in the fish species present around the different islands. It was very noticeable as we progressively dived our way back southward through the island chain that the tropical and subtropical species such as lionfish and Galapagos sharks are more abundant at Raoul and the Meyer Islands, while around the southern islands more familiar New Zealand species such as golden snapper, trevally, pink maomao and pigfish started to make an appearance. There was a lower abundance and diversity of hard corals too around Curtis and the visibility and temperature dropped noticeably!

From the surface

Even above water the Kermadecs is an exciting place. There weren’t many days when we didn’t see humpback whales breaching in the middle distance and on the way back past Curtis and Cheeseman we came alongside a pod of 14 sperm whales travelling in formation at the surface. The various islands themselves were fascinatingly diverse in appearance; from the ruggedly barren and volcanic landscape of Cheeseman Island to the lush green subtropical vegetation of Raoul Island, there was even a lone Coconut Palm on the edge of Denham Bay’s grey shingle beach!

It’s special!

The Kermadecs are not an easy place to get to, and therein lies a part of their allure. If you like being pampered at fancy dive resorts then this remote island group is not for you. However if you are into unspoilt diving and teeming marine life then the Kermadecs offer a diving experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. I’ve dived a good number of spectacular locations both in New Zealand and overseas, but I would have to rate the Kermadec Islands as one of the most unique and addictively fascinating places I have dived, and I will certainly be doing my best to get back there again!

Fact file:

The Islands: The Kermadecs consist of five main islands and numerous rock stacks spanning approximately 200 miles. They are New Zealand’s most northerly island group and are a full no-take marine reserve.

Getting there: There are no boats making ‘regular’ dive trips to the Kermadecs at present, but the Stony Creek Shipping Company who run the Braveheart and the Southern Salvor (our vessel for this expedition) will organise dive trips by arrangement.

The Southern Salvor: Dimensions 50m x 11m beam, 500 tonnes, powered by two 1200 Hp Listers using 3300L per day, draws 3-4m , deck crane 4-tonne short, 750kg max extension, 18 berths/8 for crew, fuel capacity 240,000L, 80,000 and 15,000L of domestic and drinking water, 500,000L water ballast.

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