By Jenny and Tony Enderby
On a clear day, the Mokohinau Islands can be seen from the Leigh coast north of Auckland. This group of islands sits to the north of Great Barrier Island and offers something for any diver, regardless of experience. Often it is the weather which dictates whether a dive trip will get to the Mokes, or have to settle for somewhere closer to shore with more shelter.
Most of the Mokohinau Island group is very exposed, especially the many rocks and pinnacles. Two of these exposed locations are Groper Rock at the north of the group, with its sheer walls, and Simpson’s Rock at the southern end, with its huge fish schools. The islands lie 30km northeast of Leigh, which means a long boat trip even on the fast, comfortable charter boats serving the islands. For those going there by private fizzboat, weather forecasts need to be heeded. Wind warnings must be treated seriously: it is a long way to the safety of the coast or Great Barrier Island.
Burgess Island, the main island of the group with its distinctive lighthouse, has a deep canyon which almost cuts the island in half. This is known as Marianne’s Canyon, and although it is 35 metres deep at the mouth, it is a safe dive with no current. Further in, the bottom is around 20 metres. Large rocks, which probably made up the roof of what was once a sea cave, come up to ten metres from the surface. The walls are a multitude of colour with sponges, gorgonians and hydroids covering the rocks. The many caves are home to morays and the occasional crayfish. There are small schools of blue and pink maomao and most of the other usual school fish living in the open area near the canyon mouth. To dive this spot in clear water with the light rays filtering through can be an awesome experience. If there was the same fish population here as at the Poor Knights, Marianne’s Canyon would be a world-class dive.
To the south of Burgess Island sits Navire Rock, better known as Submarine Rock. This is different from many dive sites at the Mokes, with a shallow sandy bottom and large amounts of eklonia weed. The area is home to small bottom-dwelling fish and also to the predatory grandaddy hapuku. Large numbers of schooling fish are again present, but reef fish such as red moki, greenbone, snapper and sandager’s wrasses are most common.
In the sand between the boulders, long-tailed black stingrays are found in large numbers, especially during summer. The rays are quite approachable and just ignore passing divers, burying themselves in the sand and becoming part of the sea bottom. Most dives in this area are less than 20 metres and there is minimal current.
Some of the sea shells which are normally only found at the Poor Knights are found here. The strange little trumpet shell (Bursa verrucosa) and the pure white moon shell (Polinices tawhitirahia) can be found in the sand or under stones. Even more rare, the large royal helmet shell (Semicassis royanum) moves in from deep water to breed. This beautiful mollusc, up to 12cm in length, is unarguably New Zealand’s most beautiful sea shell.
At the southern extreme of the Mokohinaus, a good five kilometres from any other land, lies Simpson’s Rock. As you drift down through the shoals of kingfish, snapper and maomao swirling around the rock you feel you are far away from any human influence. At 20 metres among the boulders on the bottom, this feeling changes as you notice the ‘shells’ scattered over the bottom: these were not created by any form of marine mollusc! Rockets and bombs from Navy and Air Force target practice litter the area. It is very tempting to pick one up as a souvenir, but the writing on one of the more recent bombs clearly states ‘Explosive device – do not handle.’ Discretion being the better part of valour, we decide to look for some non-explosive crayfish instead. This will also please our skipper more than if we appear with some unexploded ordnance at the completion of the dive.
The eastern side of the rock is quite protected with a large gut which forms a cave at the base. Normally the other side has more current and less visibility with large fish schools. On most visits here we have seen at least one spearfisher hunting the big kingfish which still cruise the area. At the northern extreme lies Groper Rock, another pinnacle in the middle of nowhere. The rock drops vertically and on a day with near 30 metres visibility we could see the surface from 35 metres, but we couldn’t see the bottom. The walls are covered in colourful marine life. Lower down towards the 50 metre mark and beyond safe diving depths, gorgonians and black corals can be found on the vertical walls and the underhangs. Out on the edge of visibility, big kingfish cruise in and out of the maomao schools. Other big fish also lurk in the distance. A marlin or mako would not be out of place here. They will probably appear on a dive when we only have a macro lens!
Most of the other islands in the Mokohinaus group are sanctuaries and no landing is permitted to protect the native tuatara and other endangered species living there. Burgess Island has no such restrictions, and for the energetic a good way to spend your surface interval is to climb to the lighthouse. The 360 degree views are just magic. The wildlife on the island is also worth a look as well, with native kakariki parrots, yellowheads (an endangered native bird), and skink and gecko lizards all being relatively common. Another interesting spot on the island is the Dragon’s Breath, a long cave coming up from the end of a sea canyon where the ocean swells roar in. It doesn’t take much to imagine something big in the dark depths of the cave creating the low growl rising to a roar every 15 seconds or so as the sea surges in and out 100 metres away.
These islands have been uninhabited since the lighthouse became automated in 1980, after being manned since 1883. At least one lighthouse keeper is reputed to have succumbed to the solitary life and gone mad before the completion of his term. The irregular arrival of the supply boats would have been a welcome sight to the resident keepers. The light itself is said to have played a major part in the sinking of the gold ship Niagara off the Mokohinaus in 1940. The German raider Orion used the position of the light to work out the shipping access lanes into Auckland. The Germans then laid the mines which sank the Niagara as she left Auckland. The lighthouse was then closed down until after the end of the war.
The easiest way to get to the Mokes is by charter boat. Divercity from Leigh and Scubadu from Omaha both offer a fast and comfortable trip out and back. There is also the chance of seeing whales and dolphins on the trip. The large Bryde’s whales (pronounced Broodah’s) are the most commonly seen large whales. Now that the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary has been created, more of the migratory whales have started to move through the area again. Humpbacks, sei, fin and even the massive blue whale have been reported in the area in the last few years.
For somewhere different to dive, fish or spear, the Mokes has got to be one of Auckland’s top destinations. Snapper, kingfish and crayfish are found in good numbers. All you need is the desire to get away from it all, and great weather.