Kaikoura Peninsula has long since faded into the distant haze, and any land seems far away as you head south. With a sound vessel, reliable compass, correct charts and a good depth sounder, Bushett Shoals will not be that hard to find and dive. An early morning start is rewarded by the excellent sunrise, rising sharply straight out of the sea; but it is also necessary to avoid the northwest winds which funnel down the river valleys, making the sea rough and sometimes undivable. In light sea conditions the trip can take over an hour, depending on the speed of your boat. This is open water, and large swells and choppy seas are not uncommon – be prepared if you suffer from seasickness.
Using your own boat does take a bit of planning, and local knowledge also helps, as South Bay can be treacherous as well as rather crowded at times. Charter boats which visit Bushett Shoals operate from South Bay and further south. The southern end of Bushett Shoals is over 35km south of Kaikoura and 8km offshore. The bottom rises from over 400m to a small plateau with an average of 25m depth on the seaward side. Because of this uprising, the sea is rich in food, giving the area such a wide variety of sea life. There are a number of pinnacles that rise to within three metres of the surface at each end of the plateau, and this is where a good sounder is helpful.
The southernmost pinnacles are usually visible due to having a lot of surface surge around them. Another good landmark is the mast on the hills, together with the V-shaped valley and house on the last hill. Depending on the weather and season, cray pot floats make the area easy to find, but do not count on these being there whenever you go. The current can run in either direction at up to seven knots. There doesnât appear to be any tidal pattern, so itâs more luck, with wind and swell possibly having an influence on the speed. I have always had the current heading north towards Kaikoura, a definite advantage if you drift away and the boat canât find you.
With few vessels operating in this area and no safe haven to run to if the weather blows up, extreme care should be taken. A boatman should remain on your vessel at all times, and divers should descend via the anchor rope and each carry a safety sausage. Bushett Shoals is a fantastic area to dive, and a must for underwater photographers. Visibility is seldom below six or seven metres, and at times over 20 metres. Macro subjects are everywhere, with every colour of jewel anemone you can imagine. Sea anemones, gorgonian fans, soft corals and various species of hydroid all add up to an underwater aquarium.
Once in the water, you will soon forget that early morning start as you push your way through large schools of blue cod, butterfly perch, blue moki and many other species. Suddenly the bottom appears and you realise it was the density of fish life that was clouding the visibility. A maze of canyons, deep trenches, large caves and archways lies in front of you. Here bigeye crowd together in the shadows, anemones in a rainbow of colours cover the sides of rocks and the walls of caves, and soft coral and sponges of all shapes, sizes and colours struggle for what room is left.
In the more protected and sheltered places lace corals cling, while feeding in the current on the walls of caves and arches; zoanthid polyps dance gracefully in the surge like a field of golden daffodils swaying in the wind. Crayfish, usually shy and shunning divers, venture out from their holes to see whatâs going on, giving us a chance to grab some for tea. Blue cod duck and dive, and inquisitively bite at camera and dive gear, including any uncovered fingers. They race around you, coming eyeball to faceplate, looking at their reflection in your mask.
Diving the shoals is always full of the unexpected; dogfish cruise in from the depths to take a closer look, usually when your back is turned and you are least expecting it. School grouper, some over a metre long, swim with blue moki of nearly the same length. They are usually seen in April and May as they make their way up the coast. Other divers have seen electric rays, trumpeter, terakihi and large schools of nearly every species that can be found here, including kahawai. These all combine to make Bushett Shoals a diving experience.
Between dives the fishing is good, and at times no bait is required. It should remain this good in the future if you only take enough for yourself. On the trip home, keep an eye out for the many marine mammals and birds that feed in this rich area. Kaikoura is well known for its whales, and although you are not permitted to dive within a reasonable distance of them, you can swim with dolphins and seals without fear. Orca are also frequent visitors to this area and come very close to shore. Many of these exciting things will make your trip to Bushett Shoals the dive of a lifetime.
Tips for getting there
Kaikoura is about two hoursâ drive from Christchurch, and slightly less from Blenheim. The town is well served by shuttle bus services as well as Transrail. There are now a number of charter boats in the local area. Sea Adventures Kaikoura and Kaikoura Dive & Sport Centre will also assist, and have hire gear available. Many dive clubs from Canterbury, Marlborough and Nelson run club trips to this fantastic diving area; information on trips can be obtained from clubs as well as dive shops. Canterbury Underwater Club also has excellent club accommodation available. Try and join one of their club trips. If you have your own boat, there are two launching ramps: the Kaikoura Boating Club is locked, and the public one is under surveillance, so pay the fees. Getting in and out of South Bay can be difficult, as the harbour is very rocky and busy. The new NZ62 and NZ63 marine charts now available donât cover Bushett Shoals as well as Kaikoura, whereas the old ones do.