Kayak Diving

By Matt Aukett

Images Darrell Bird

Diving the Cumberland

There is just something special about kayaking. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that we are, by nature, an inquisitive lot. Kayaking allows us to explore hidden coves, caves and inlets in ways that regular boaties just cannot do. Adventure is all around, the tranquillity of these hideaways helps to amplify the mood and enhance the senses. The only sound that is heard is the occasional slap of water on the boat hull or the slight gurgling sound that the water makes when your paddle slices through it. There is a real sense that we are seeing, feeling and exploring something untouched and unknown.

Those feelings are heightened by the proximity of nature. Getting up close and personal with all that lives on and under the water is a regular occurrence for kayakers, even in the bleakest of urban wastelands. I remember taking a group of school children out on a trip around Okura (A popular spot near Auckland’s Long Bay) and our trip was accompanied by a seal that playfully poked its head up between our boats and swam around us all day. This encounter certainly made the kids’ day an unforgettable one. Amazingly though, meetings like this are not that uncommon – even in Auckland. Admittedly, I paddle a lot – it is my job. I regularly have encounters with seals, dolphins, penguins and all kinds of bird and ocean life that regular people might miss. But you do not have to paddle every day to find these experiences. They are well within the realms of anyone who wishes to find them. The New Zealand Herald ran two pictures last year that highlighted that – The one that particularly caught my eye was the picture of a whale a kayaker snapped while paddling around the northland coast1 . I am constantly amazed by the stories of people and their kayaking adventures up and down the country. Kayaking is no longer something that gurus and Eskimos do. And kayaking is no longer a pursuit that is done in isolation. Something I found out not so long ago.

Earlier this year while guiding a kayak trip back from Browns Island in Auckland, New Zealand, I was surprised and heartened to encounter a group of police and MAF officers at the boat ramp checking our ‘catches’. Fishing from kayaks, apparently, had become a popular enough activity for the officials to take an interest in. After a brief discussion with the officers I assured them that this group of tourists was not the type of kayakers they were looking for – but they were more than welcome to take our freshly bought bag of mussels from Foodtown if they so desired. I spent the drive back to base thinking about this encounter and how quickly kayaks had established themselves as not only a great outdoor activity in their own right but also a great platform to enjoy other outdoor pursuits. It seems that now there is nothing that cannot be done from a kayak, including diving.

Diving from a kayak certainly makes sense. Kayak diving is cheaper, easier and offers more opportunities for adventure than other forms of diving. There is no need to think about all the hassles and costs involved with taking out a boat, all you need to do is drive to the local beach, take your kayak off the roof rack (or out of the boot if you have one of the inflatable ones) and you are off! And there are so many places you can go that you could not visit before.

The opportunities for adventure are endless, yet in New Zealand kayak diving is still largely unheard of. This is mostly because of developments in kayaking rather than New Zealanders’ lack of interest in adventure. The first ‘sit-on-top’ kayak washed up on New Zealand shores very recently and it met with a lot of opposition from kayaking aficionados. It has only been the last five years or so that these sit-ons have gained acceptance and consequently divers have found a new opportunity.

Sit-ons have enjoyed an explosion in popularity over the last few years because they are so accessible. They require no special knowledge of paddle technique or kayaking skill, they are stable, and are cheap. For divers they are the ultimate platform. They are easy to get on and off, you can store all equipment easily, you can comfortably tow it while you are diving or anchor it nearby and you are able to get into the places that other divers cannot.

The difficulty with kayak diving is where to start. Kayaks unfortunately are not necessarily an off-the-rack type of purchase. There are an ever increasing and bewildering number of manufacturers and designs available these days. Even with all this variety it is difficult to find the perfect boat. Whatever boat you decide to get you will probably have to make some adjustments. For kayaks it is worthwhile remembering that designers have to juggle some key elements – speed, stability, manoeuvrability and functionality. The general rule of thumb is that the longer a kayak is the faster it will go (but it will be more ‘tippy’), the shorter it is the quicker it will turn (but it will not travel long distances well) and the wider it is the more stable it is (but it will not be very fast). To get a handle on all of these vagaries it is best to do a lot of talking with people who are doing it, selling them and finally – try before you buy.

Now you have your kayak organised it is worthwhile doing a few practise runs in it. A few questions that are worth checking out before you set off on your first kayak diving adventure are: How does the kayak paddle – both loaded and unloaded? How and where do you load your dive gear? What do you do about the paddle while you are underwater? What do you do with the boat while you are underwater? And where do you put a dive flag?

Once you have the answers to these questions, and the thousand other questions that you came up with on your first trip out you are more than ready to go and explore. Where you go is up to you. The possibilities are only really limited by how much paddling you can do safely and comfortably. Remembering of course that as well as the energy exerted diving you are also exerting a lot of energy paddling. Staying within your limits is a very important consideration.

Kayak diving is a new and developing sport which gives paddlers and divers alike tremendous scope for both experimenting and adventuring. Unknown bays and coves abound around the New Zealand coastline and these are prime areas for kayak divers to start exploring. Our natural flair for adventure and innovation promises exciting things to come for kayak diving around the country.

About the author:

Matt has been paddling and adventuring for most of his life. He has a diploma in Outdoor Recreation Leadership from AUT and nationally recognised sea kayak qualifications from SKOANZ (the Sea Kayak Operators Association of New Zealand). He has worked as a professional instructor and guide for over 10 years and currently works with Outdoor Discoveries – a company specialising in corporate team building, kayak tours and instruction.

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