Explosive White Island

by Alison Perkins

images Elliott Jones and Alison Perkins

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the waters around an active volcano was a disturbing prospect. As it turned out, the White Island experience WAS explosive – for its beauty, not its eruptions.

They emerged from the surface above. My pulse quickened. Would they be aggressive, friendly, disinterested? They circled the group. Then with a flick of their flippers, the New Zealand fur seals vanished as quickly as they had appeared. Ahead, divers finned their way through an arch in the rock, kicking up sand that obscured the 20 metre visibility. I ventured into the haze. From a gloomy recess a clown toado peered at me in alarm. I emerged from the murk to discover the rest of the group had vanished. I learnt later that they had been drawn ahead by a ray that had swiftly winged an escape. I caught up with the group round a bend and relaxed, drifting past white clusters of squid eggs and cleverly camouflaged scorpionfish, hoping for another glimpse of the fur seals.

Also known as Whakaari, White Island is located 50 kilometres north of Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano and is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a narrow belt of volcanoes extending north-east from Mt Ruapehu. It is best dived from a live-aboard boat, to avoid the uncomfortable three hour sea journey twice in one day. Since unprofitable sulphur mining attempts on the island ceased in 1933, it has become a scenic reserve and a well known diver’s paradise, albeit an uncrowded one due to its distance from the mainland.

Thinly sliced yellowtail kingfish sashimi skewered with a toothpick and dipped in soy sauce and wasabi made the perfect mouth-watering snack before a pre-dinner night dive. Plunging into the cool September water (14oC), I quickly located some gem nudibranchs. In the pitch black depths goatfish glowed an iridescent red-pink in the torch light as they probed the sandy bottom for prey with their whiskery barbells. A speckled moray eel squirmed away from the light. I settled on the sand with the three other divers and we turned off our torches in unison. A frantic waving ensued as we each triggered swirls of phosphorescence. My bubbles generated a galaxy of twinkling above. When the novelty wore off, we returned to hunting for starfish trawling the sand in search of a carcass to scavenge or wrasses sleeping tucked under ledges.

Sea conditions were still poor on the second day but we made the half hour trip west to Volkner Rocks anyway, and judged the conditions diveable. It was a challenging gear up and entry but below the surface it was tranquil and current free. We dared not venture far in fear of a long swim through rough seas to

Ma Cherie

. Demoiselles schooled around us and pink maomao, red moki and blue moki lingered close to the rocks. Without warning, a New Zealand fur seal appeared. From not more than a metre away it examined me with enormous round eyes. Curiosity satisfied, it reeled away, disappearing into the deep. We circumnavigated the rocks. Abundant scorpionfish blended in so perfectly it wasn’t safe to get too close to the shelf. This rich wildlife will soon be protected if legislation to convert Volkner Rocks into a marine reserve is approved, though there is opposition from fishermen who target the yellowtail kingfish in the vicinity. I dreamt of diving there again in better conditions, to try and see the bomb casings left behind from when the rocks were a practice firing range for the New Zealand Air Force and Navy.

The superlative diving of our three days at White Island was found on Homestead Reef. Roguish captain John Baker expertly dropped us on the most stunning section. We were immediately surrounded by a school of blue maomao on descent. At 30 metres there were tarakihi and a red crayfish that lounged in the open on top of a rock. Before it could realise its error, it was snatched up and stuffed into a catch bag. The diver responsible danced a comical jig, mimicking the actions of eating the unfortunate captive. We weaved our way up through the thick kelp forest over yellow-black triplefins that sat motionless. A variety of nudibranchs and starfish clung to the landscape. A male green wrasse with conspicuous white fins swam at my mask, diverting at the last second and giving me the distinct impression that he was annoyed at my presence.

Suspended in open water, the giant barrel-like salp could have been a prop straight out of an alien horror film. It was scarred with bite marks and a school of leatherjackets attacked it in a famished frenzy. Gelatinous ripples travelled its length. A kind of extraterrestrial green bug, a Spanish lobster, skulked on a rock. From the depths of a crevasse gazed an enormous golden snapper. Black angelfish circled warily around their territory and the gaping maws of grey, speckled and yellow moray eels tracked our movements. It could have been a horror movie set if only the terrain weren’t encrusted in gaudy corals and sponges. They certainly spoiled the fearful atmosphere but left me wondering at the magnificence of nature.

Three days and seven dives down, our captain John guided

Ma Cherie

back through the swell to the bluff, a knowing grin on his face. He understood the White Island magnificence we had experienced. But the excitement was far from over yet. A massive skipjack tuna seized the trolling lure and was hauled aboard. At the Whakatane Sport Fishing Club the scales read 10.4 kilograms, not far off the New Zealand record. Volcanic White Island had simmered without incident throughout our adventure, but in the waters surrounding her, the diving was a blast.

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