Smok’n White Island
By Gabrielle Beans’
We slipped out of New Zealand’s Whakatane on a crisp winter’s morning. We were excited and eager to get out to the island on the horizon with clouds of smoke billowing from it and fish spilling everywhere under it. I’ve dived some spectacular New Zealand spots since moving here six years ago, but never near an active volcano! Whakaari or White Island is the Pacific Ocean’s most active volcano, about 200,000 years old, and has the reputation of being one of New Zealand’s best dive sites.
My expectations were high!
In May there’s not as many divers as during the summer season, and our trip might have been cancelled were it not for Tony Bonne (Dive White Island) and the crew’s eagerness to get into the water as well. This meant that we went out with just six people on board – epic luxury compared to the high season! A bumpy yet zippy hour and a half later, we were circling the beautiful marine volcano looking for a place to dive, finally settling on the nearby Volkner Rocks. After a dive briefing and history lesson on the reserve’s prior status as an Air Force training site (look out for unexploded bombs!), we were bouncing and ready to go.
I grabbed my camera and prepared for my first ever volcano dive. The water was still a very reasonable 18
C as we dropped into the kelp by Big Volkner. Surrounded by deep blue water and 20m+ visibility we were met instantly by curious pig fish, groups of blue and pink mao mao and were enjoying a leisurely, beautiful dive when we were schooled by an immense cloud of swirling jack mackerel. As if the fish themselves were confirming reports of the fishiness of White Island, they surrounded us in a silver and yellow maelstrom, and we swam within and amongst them while I snapped as many shots as I could.
I attempted to communicate with my newly-certified dive buddy to position him into a photogenic location within the school however, our photographer-model communication is still as new as his dive certification and mostly I got confused looks for my bubbles and hand waving. To see if I might be able to show him what a model in a school of fish should do, I passed him the camera and swam down into the vortex of fish still stalking us, and back up in the centre, only to find that holding a camera was proving too much for my buddy’s buoyancy as he bobbed up towards the water’s surface.
Later on I wanted him to look in awe and wonderment at rock encrusted with colourful invertebrates; for some reason my shoving his face into a rock did not convey that fact either! Lesson learned; we need to work on our signals. The massive school followed us closely as we moved through the dive site. Wondering why, I looked round the edges of the school and spotted several of the massive kingfish the Volkner Rocks are known for, stalking the mackerel as they clung to us for safety.
Finally leaving the school for the rocky kelp-surrounded outcrops of the sea floor, we completed our dive amongst grey moray eels and more scorpionfish than you could shake a sea cucumber at, culminating with a safety stop on a colourful rock stalking several clown nudibranchs and triplefins. My buddy proved far more skilled as a tiny-critter spotter than a model, which will be a great asset to me when we dive together in the future!
Back on the boat the crew had been busy and greeted us with freshly made date scones, cups of coffee, tea/soup, and sandwiches! I’m sure a scone never tasted as good as that warm, butter-encrusted marvel. A short drive over to Little Volkner and we were back in the water. My buddy was eager to prove himself with more critter spotting, and spent the whole of our highly scenic dive through dramatic swim-throughs and narrow canyons finding every scorpionfish and grey moray he could, as excited about the tenth of these as the first, and becoming increasingly indignant if I did not instantly catch on to his invented critter-gestures. I had to laugh, filling my mask with water, as I realized he was right. We should always get excited by what we observe and never take it for granted. Any day now, this beautiful underwater world could be destroyed if not taken care of properly, and even the most common fish we see here could be endangered.
I encourage anyone who has a chance to dive at White Island to make the trip and get out there! I only wish we could have stayed and gone out a few more times to visit other fantastic dive sites.