By Alex Stammers
Lying off New Zealands north east coast between the Poor Knights Islands and Great Barrier Island is a group of volcanic islands called the Mokohinaus. They are rarely visited by divers but offer some of the best diving in New Zealand.
The Mokohinau Islands are exposed to the same East Auckland current that sweeps through the Poor Knights and down the coast, bringing with it a rich diversity of life and at times, outstanding visibility. When I first visited the islands, I was amazed at how spread out they were compared to their well known counterpart the Poor Knights. The islands are separated into three main groups; Grouper Island to the north is a large rocky island rising from the depths with vertical walls; the islands of Burgess, Hokoromea and Atihau Islands make up a tight cluster of islands in the middle, and laying to the south are Fannal Island and Simpson Rock, that total an area at around 35 km or 19 nautical miles.
Our first dive site was a narrow deep canyon that ran into Burgess Island. The sea was calm enough for a swim onto the open ocean side of the island. As I descended into blue water, I was met by a large school of demoiselle which swam out to meet me from the shelter of a vertical wall.
Swimming on the open ocean side of the island, I was met by a colourful school of pink maomao, which huddled together against unseen predators. Whilst on the wall, several grey moray eels swam freely in and out of the nooks and crannies. As I followed one eel, it led me past a rarely seen Spanish lobster clinging to a ledge.
I was able to get a close up photo of its eye – unlike its cousin the crayfish which would have detected me with its feelers and retreated, the Spanish lobster did not move, allowing several shots. Returning towards the cannon, I scanned the wall for more subjects; a glimpse of pink stood out from a hole in the reef. Moving closer revealed a large pink scorpion fish resting within. I was just placing my camera before it when movement next to the pink scorpion fish caught my eye. A red scorpion fish sat staring at me, looking quite annoyed that I was disturbing them. I managed a couple of photos before the pink fish made a quick exit stage left and disappeared along the wall. As I swam away the remaining scorpion fish glared back at me, looking a deeper shade of red.
Rounding the corner and swimming into the canyon the terrain presented a tie-dyed colour wall of reds, oranges and yellow sponge life, dotted with the odd blue eyed triple fin fish sitting amongst, adding to the colour.
Our second dive took us into a sheltered cove within Burgess Island. Pohutukawa trees reached over the cove adding shelter from the February sun. Descending below the boat, a shallow and healthy kelp forest tumbled down to a sand gully and rocky reef. Sanddagger wrasse and pig fish swam around us. Over the sand a lone eagle ray flew past, beating its wings in retreat from approaching divers. Amongst kelp covered reef several cray fish hid from the invading divers. A wall of kelp hid a school of bait fish, which swam in fluid movement amongst the fronds.
Nearing the end of the dive, I swam a metre below the surface along the side of the island underneath the Pohutukawa trees. Peering into a tangled forest of waving weed, I discovered a large scorpion fish nestled within, waiting for a unsuspecting fish to ambush.
As our dive boat began the return journey to the mainland, I found myself regarding the islands diving potential as on a par with the Poor Knights. The islands offer the same topography with numerous outcrops, pins and rocky reefs, where vertical cliffs drop away into the deep blue waters. Around the islands both above and below are caves and arches for exploration.
The Mokohinaus is a great New Zealand dive site for the photographer offering rich and abundant marine life. If hunting and collecting is your passion crayfish are not as abundant as other islands near by. Spearos will also find rich pickings amongst the islands, with plenty of massive snapper and kingfish and pelagic species passing through in the summer months.