By Tony and Jenny Enderby
Just outside the entrance to Leigh Harbour, New Zealand, the swells and wind waves from the north have turned the coast into a maelstrom. But long ago we found a protected haven just inside the outcrop known as Panitiki or the Outpost, that marks the harbour entrance.
This year with clear oceanic water around the coast it is just as good as ever. Dropping onto the white sand bottom at 12 metres, we are greeted by thousands of goatfish. They sit on the sand, over the rocks, amongst the kelp and some even cruise midwater. The males, resplendent in shades of red and patterned blue, are surrounded by smaller and less colourful females.
Amongst the goatfish are numerous small snapper, mostly around 10cm in length. Over the past couple of years we have seen their numbers increase dramatically both here and the nearby marine reserve at Goat Island (or Cape Rodney to Okakari Point Marine Reserve to give it its official name).
This year schools of even smaller snapper, only 20-30mm, dart around on the sand close to the protection of the kelp forest. Why this increase in recruitment has occurred we can only guess. Whatever the reason it augers well for the Hauraki Gulf’s snapper population in future years.
Along the edge of the kelp thousands of parore dart past in their panic-stricken fashion above blue maomao, sweep and mackerel. Below 12 metres the sponge gardens begin to appear. There are even more goatfish here, in groups up to 30.
On the shaded walls a wealth of invertebrate life covers everything. Dead man’s fingers extend their white polyps into the gentle current. On one, a small apricot nudibranch grazes. Around it the other dead man’s finger colonies show white scarring where more grazing has occurred. The nudibranchs only take enough for a feed before moving on, leaving the colony to regenerate for a later meal.
I almost miss seeing a large short-tailed stingray resting amongst the kelp and the boulders. There is no doubt it has seen me as its barbed tail points upward in a threat display. Behind me Jenny grins and we both back off just a little as the ray settles again.
Not far from it a large porcupinefish peers with its sad cow-like eyes from under a rock. It moves out just far enough for a few photos before swimming away and into the next large crevice. As we move across the rock it appears on the other side, then with pectoral fins working overtime finds another rock to hide under.
At 15 metres I can see the surface and the shape of a freediver cruising back to the shelter inside the harbour. Maybe one of the bronze whaler sharks the freedivers often see will appear for the camera today. We watch in vain as the diver passes above us, trailing an empty float.
Patches of white against the rock wall are hydroids. Jenny looks over the colonies for Jason nudibranchs that are often here but this year the hydroids grow unmolested. Her gaze suddenly changes and I swing around to be met by 30-40 mid-sized kingfish. They swirl in and around us for a quick pass and then just as quickly move off into the blue. The schools of mackerel and koheru panic and race away across the kelp, then reform.
As we move closer to the seaward side of the Outpost, visibility drops slightly. The current increases and there is more movement from the swells passing above. In a crack the feelers of several crayfish protrude. None are particularly big and I follow the philosophy of ‘if it needs measuring to see if it’s of legal size, then it’s too small to take anyway’.
In a deep cleft a dozen butterfly perch hover and below them are dozens of two-spot demoiselles in mating coloration. As I move close a threat display starts and the demoiselles attempt to drive me off by charging at me. Their egg masses cover patches on the rock that the little fish have cleared. We take the hint and move away leaving them to battle real threats to the egg masses, like spotties and leatherjackets.
Half way back to the boat the kingfish surround us again. Perhaps they’re the same school as they cruise in close and scatter the mackerel and small kahawai. Scars on the bodies of some blue maomao suggest they could be on the kingfish menu too.
Above a patch of kelp, a dozen tiny leatherjackets hover. The patterns on their three centimetre bodies match the kelp fronds perfectly. As soon as we get too close they dart into the kelp and disappear from sight.
The white sausage-like eggs of broad squid dangle from the kelp fronds and we become aware of several adults over the kelp. They hover three metres away, their bodies changing colour rapidly. One exhalation of bubbles too many and the squid are gone, leaving a puff of black ink where they were.
Below the kelp a large porae forages. Its extended lips grasp small invertebrates that linger in the open too long. Then the porae is gone, lost in the kelp forest. We watch for a reappearance but the fish is a master at this game and we don’t see it again.
The anchor line appears at the edge of the visibility, about 20 metres away. The chain is pulling up, suggesting the wind has risen even more, but our little dive spot is still protected, as long as the wind doesn’t swing south-east.
We drift up through the chains of salps and other jelly-like floaters in the shallows and clip our dive gear onto our trailing ropes before climbing aboard our inflatable. Maybe tomorrow the whole coast will become undiveable but today our spot in the lee of the Outpost has proven to be a brilliant dive.