It is Matheson Bay that they have in mind, also in Leigh, but outside of the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve, close to urban areas. Aucklanders learn about the place during their open water course but forget it later as they know it only as a suitable training location. I learned to dive in Europe so missed their experience which is why I decided to check the place from the perspective of an Aucklander keen to dive not only during holidays or weekends and mostly for photography, not to collect sea food.
It was winter when I first visited Matheson Bay. The sea was calm, visibility quite good and nobody around. I entered the water on the left side of the beach, in front of the parking area. I quickly passed the flat sandy area with occasional rocks and yellow nipple sponges protruding through the sand. When I entered the forest of seaweed two facts surprised me. First, I realized how colourful it was. Brown, red and green algae of various shapes formed a beautiful environment. Secondly, I could see no fish. When I moved deeper into the channel between the rocky shore and the small island in the bay leatherjackets started to appear. I also noticed a few spotties. After a couple of dives I realized leatherjackets were everywhere. In shallow water hiding behind large boulders, hovering above kelp forest in deeper water, resting in cracks in the rocks surrounding the channel. They were shy most of the time, following me with great curiosity but turned their back when I tried to take a picture. Fortunately there were exceptions. I remember one that tried really hard to bite the glass port of my camera housing and I had to chase it away to get it in focus. Another one was apathetic, it just hovered above the sandy bottom and let me approach it to take pictures from various angles. Thanks to these guys I was able to get the close-up shots I really wanted.
I heard somewhere that Matheson Bay is a good spot for photographing nudibranch. I admit my eyes are not that great, or perhaps it was my bad luck but I cannot say I’ve seen a lot of them there. Yes, I’ve seen some, mostly clown nudibranch, and usually big ones, but for me the bay fell short of its reputation.
I did, however, see octopus. Big and small, hiding in narrow crevices and moving along boulders in the open. They are so great, usually patient, offering a diver enough opportunity to observe their abilities to change colour and skin texture. Because of that ability they can be difficult to spot. If you move they are invisible but stop for a while and you see a rock surface moving slightly and it has eyes and a funnel to pump water through.
While there werent many fish in the bay the situation changes rapidly when the water warms in summer. Wrasses and goatfish are abundant, schools of trevally and mullet pay a visit, young snapper become less shy and swim closer to divers. On a good day the bay can transform into fish soup. Add to it an occasional stingray and the well known incident of a freediver and dog scared out of the water by a pod of orcas (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8V97_DKfhw) and the bay quickly turns into an oasis of marine life.
Matheson Bay faces to the east with a reasonable protection from north and south so is suitable for diving in most conditions and tides. Be aware though that even a mild surf can destroy a mediocre visibility, especially at low tide. The access into the water is quite comfortable over the sand, but it can be a rather long swim for a scuba diver to get to interesting parts of the bay. Kayak diving is a much better option. You pack your craft on the beach, paddle to the island in a couple of minutes and jump straight into the rocky kelp covered area where the diving is best. When you return from your dive there are public toilets, changing rooms with an outdoor shower and a picnic area at the car park which is a big plus, especially for us city dwellers.