Winter Madness

Karewa Island, Tauranga

by Tony Kuiumdjian

winter madness
The weather forecast for Saturday was not looking that good, but Gary Vale and I had planned a dive around the back of Rabbit Island out of Tauranga Harbour (New Zealand). You know the type of dive – a quick trip out, grab a few crays and back? Not too early mind, must be old age but I have developed a distinct aversion to chipping the ice off the dive gear in my dotage. Given the temperature plunge we had experienced this was a distinct possibility.

We headed out from Sulphur Point around 10.30 am into a nasty short chop in the harbour and a brisk westerly. Gary’s trusty open aluminium boat Metallica isn’t the driest in these conditions and in short order we were getting somewhat damp and cold. We hove to at Pilot Bay and donned wetsuits.

Once out of the harbour entrance we were surprised at how good the sea conditions were. Reviewing our plans we headed to Karewa Island which is five nautical miles from the Tauranga Harbour entrance. The island
winter madness
is a national park/reserve (landing prohibited) as it is a breeding ground for one of our national treasures, the tuatara. New Zealand’s iconic lizard.

Karewa Island rises to a sharp triangular peak 92 metres above the sea, from a base of 305 x 153 metres. Its total area is about nine acres. Except for the very top, the nearly vertical parts of the northern and eastern aspects of the island, and the wave-washed boulder zone at the shore-line, the island is covered with vegetation.

Karewa is inhabited by sea birds nesting in the breeding season and the tuatara population. Its surface is honeycombed by burrows of the vast nesting colony of large petrels, or to be more precise the flesh-footed shearwater, one of the ‘mutton birds’ of New Zealand. The burrows of the shearwaters are shared by the tuatara.

winter madness
While researching information on the island, I came across a very interesting paper written in 1953 a by chap called Schmidt from the University of Illinois who conducted a field study of the island and estimated the number of shearwater burrows in be in excess of 70,000 – most of the burrows are covered by vegetation litter making walking on the Island hazardous.

Did you know there is another island called ‘Karewa’? It is also known as Gannet Island. (Karewa is the Maori name for gannet). This is a small island some 19 kilometres  offshore from Kawhia on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Protected as a wildlife sanctuary, it was found to be the country’s second largest breeding colony of Australasian gannets in a 1980 census. The largest mainland colony being at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.

But back to the story … the weather forecast was for west to south-west winds and an easterly swell. So after calling Coastguard to let them know what we were up to we were off. At the island we anchored  fairly close in
winter madness
on the eastern side just out from the cave to try and get out of that freezing wind. Although the forecast said swells were to be from the east, it seemed that they were actually coming more from the north-east, it was a long lazy swell and a large swell would occasionally make its way into the cave, followed by a huge out-rushing of spray and compressed air from the cave. Dammed impressive sight – so engrossed was I that I forgot to take any photos of the spectacle!

On with the gear and over the side. The water felt positively warm and viz was really good at almost 15 metres. We dived to 16 metres and worked our way towards the island. Despite my best efforts, looking under every rock, overhang and ledge, not a single feeler did I spy. I had fortunately decided to take along my trusty little camera and took some quite nice photos.  I spent a bit of time trying to get shots of a couple of triple fins. The cheeky little blighters are quite fearless and if you lie still they will come very close to you to try and scare you away from their turf (No chance!).

There were lots of fish and marine life around: red moki, leatherjackets, morays, butterfish, two-spot demoiselles, goat fish, Jack mackerel, etc. It turned out to be a really good dive despite the lack of crays.

After 40 minutes I was running low on air so returned to the boat to discover my newly serviced regulator was leaking air from inside the first stage – no wonder I was going through the air at a great rate of knots.

After a lunch we relocated to the south as Gary had come across some crays at the end of his first dive. The viz on this dive was greatly reduced due to the heavy surge, but again there was an abundance of marine life. My second dive was for around 35 minutes at a max depth of 17 metres.

Gary returned from his second dive with a nice cray and I was happy as I had gotten some reasonably good photos.

We headed  back straight into Matakana Island as the wind had picked up and sea conditions were becoming choppy. After a slow, bumpy ride, the sea flattened out nicely once we were close to Matakana Island shoreline and we enjoyed a fast, bump and thump-free, ride back into Tauranga Harbour. On shore after washing the boat and gear, we had a much needed hot shower at the Tauranga Fish & Dive clubrooms, they were having a working bee and I could access the showers. It was a relief to stand under hot water as I was now feeling a bit like a stand in for an ice block commercial.

Why the title for this little tale? Well while washing the boat and gear down at the ramp some bright, well rugged up incredulous citizen made the comment ‘You went diving in this cold weather? – you must be bloody mad!’ – I cannot say that I disagreed with his observation at the time, but hey! that’s what makes diving such fun, you get to push your comfort boundaries and despite the cold you really know you’re alive.-Moral of the story? – Don’t let a little cold weather put you off diving-winter diving can be and is fun!

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