The Chathams

By J & T Enderby

Long strands of giant bull kelp swirl away from the rocks, then flick back. Beneath them, wider strands of Chatham Islands bull kelp do the same. There is no gap to jump into, but on the next surge the kelp opens and I slide into the water. It is cool at around 12˚C but not as cool as anticipated.

Any thoughts about the cold are forgotten as my gaze settles on the countless raised shapes on the granite rocks around me. Thousands of big paua sit attached to the rocks. Every so often one lifts its shell clear and spins through 180 degrees as if to rid itself of some annoyance. Maybe it just needs a little bit more grazing room on the algal growths that cover the rocks between the paua shells.

The paua are almost all the black foot variety Haliotis iris, the black gold of the Chatham Islands. For the last week we have waited for the swells and wind to drop enough to get into the water and today it has, at least enough for a snorkel dive close to shore.

The Chatham Islands, around 860 km east of Christchurch, are the least known of New Zealand’s inhabited offshore islands. About 700 people live there and farm, fish or work in the service industries or government agencies. It is a friendly place – where else does everyone wave to everyone else as they pass in their cars? And of course there are other waves here too. Ohira Bay is best known for its magnificent volcanic basalt columns. On our visit, blue mountains of water climbed over an offshore reef to six metres. With the wind whipping the crests back in a trail of spume some 50 metres behind them, each wave was an impressive sight.

A rocky headland protruding into the bay seemed to protect a cove amongst the basalt columns. We ventured into the clear water off a small beach. Numerous black foot paua and a few smaller yellow foot paua, Haliotis australis, dotted the rocks amongst the bull kelp.

What we never expected was the huge surge from the swells. Every couple of minutes an unseen force invaded our cove. One minute we were in the cove and the next we were 40 metres out, only to be washed back in by the surge the big swells created. Visibility dropped noticeably and drifting seaweed and kelp floated around.

Another prospective dive site was an area along the coast, south-west of Waitangi, the main town. We had permission to drive across private farmland to reach the shore but most days the swells were too big to consider getting in the water. On one visit we tossed a hand line in and within seconds had caught dinner as a blue cod investigated the hook.

When a calm day with no swell arrives we have no hesitation and carry our gear across the farmland to the rocks. After finding a convenient gap between the bull kelp fronds we step from a rocky shelf into beautiful clear water. Below the surface are masses of various seaweeds. Two species of giant bull kelp and loads of smaller brown, red and green seaweeds cover everything. Spotties, banded wrasse and butterfish work around the edges while half a dozen blue cod sit and swivel their eyes at us from the granite bottom.The paua are most impressive as every rock has a few, with larger niches having thousands. Further from the shore the numbers of blue cod increase along with a few large blue moki and tarakihi. Sea tulips hang on their extended stalks from the rocks and big Cook’s turban shells graze on them.

A big fish pushing through behind the giant kelp and seaweed looks like it could be a hapuku or groper as they are known here. It pops out and I am looking at the largest butterfish I have ever seen. It is nearly a metre long with magnificent fins. Just as quickly it ducks back into the seaweed and disappears from sight.

Out in the deeper water, thoughts of great white sharks come to mind. Almost all of the Chatham’s paua divers have a story and there have been attacks on divers, the last being in 1996. The great white shark stories take us back to the magnificent waves at Ohira Bay. Anywhere else they would have been dotted with surfers.

After more than an hour in the water and a few paua for dinner, we climb out and warm ourselves on the rocks.

From our motel unit, just up the road from Waitangi, the sound of swells pounding the shore the following morning mean a dive isn’t an option. A quick look at the coast confirms our thoughts so the next best thing is a drive up to the Te Whanga Lagoon that covers much of the interior of Chatham Island. The lagoon is edged by sandstone that contains fossils, mainly urchin spines, but occasionally sharks’ teeth.

The wind blowing offshore on our visit to Ohira Bay is onshore along the edge of the lagoon. It doesn’t take long, wandering the tide line to find a couple of perfectly fossilized sharks’ teeth. The lagoon edge is dotted with plenty of small sea shells too. Blue mussels that lay half buried in the shallows often look just like sharks’ teeth. At the end of an hour’s wandering we have a dozen deep blue fossil shark teeth between us.

We are the only people on the beach although several weka wander the edge and turn over the washed up seaweeds. Any sand hoppers or similar underneath are quickly eaten. They don’t seem phased by us sharing their beach.

Back at Waitangi a fishing boat has broken its mooring and drifted in, right in front of the Waitangi Hotel. A crowd quickly gathers and everyone offers help, much of it verbal, while a few locals don wetsuits and get a line onto the boat.

Three other fishing boats line up as we sit and watch the drama unfold. Gradually the boat is pulled off the beach and life returns to normal.

We sit with the locals over a beer and discuss the likelihood of a dive and the best sites. They tell us of long calm spells in January, February and March when plenty of diving happens.

If we can’t dive, the island with its long white sandy beaches will be a good place to wander and explore. Then there is always a feed of fresh fish at the takeaways or the hotel when we get back.

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