Paradise has a dark side. A foreboding underbelly in stark contrast to the sunny scenes you expect in the South Pacific. These desolate, hidden corners attract a certain type of person, the sort that’s most at home with scuba gear on their back and a dive torch in hand: Caves and caverns.
Niue has a system of caves and caverns undercutting its limestone landmass ranging in complexity with some are even found in the depths of the forest, requiring little more than a sense of adventure and a mask and snorkel.
At Anapala near the village of Hakupu, signage and a pathway of stairs lead visitors to a secluded water-filled chasm where the occasional aquatic creature is the only witness to a refreshing swim. Other caverns like Vaikona demand a guide, part mountain goat, part fish as they scramble, rope-climb and duck-dive their way on an experience which is oh so worth the blood, sweat and tears, but would have most safety officers quaking in their mud encrusted boots.
Just as mentally challenging, but a lot less physically taxing is the honeycomb of caves accessed from the sea. Accomplished breath-hold divers will have no trouble exploring those with shallow entries and streams of light beckoning them in. This is silhouette city, a favourite for photographers enamoured with sunlight shafts in the ultra-clear water Niue is famous for.
Several chasms and caverns are a short swim from the main wharf in Alofi. At first glimpse these may appear devoid of life, but closer inspection reveals numerous inhabitants.
Niue’s distinctive black and white sea krait, a close relative of the sea snake, loves the relative safety and tranquillity of these semi enclosed spaces. It’s often spied dozily swimming to the surface for a breath of air before slinking back down for another sleep.
Schools of sweepers, convict and surf surgeons are regular visitors, along with painted crayfish and white tip reef sharks. Even the occasional coconut crab has been known to take a dip in the dark.
Going further back
While snorkelling is possible in several of the sea caves, a set of scuba gear allows them to be explored at more depth. At low tide Whale Cave can be accessed from the surface but certified divers can get right to the rear of the ‘whale’s belly’ swimming over the ribs before surfacing in the ‘blow hole.’
Bubble Cave is one best left for the divers. It may be shallow, but with the only light coming from the entrance it’s like swimming into a black hole. An intrepid explorer will head towards the back of this cave to the unexpected bonus of a pressurised chamber. Once on the surface there they discover an unworldly vista of stalactites cloaked in sea mist patrolled by sea kraits which crawl out of the water to lay their eggs here.
Underwater this is torch territory at its finest; so many surprises hiding in amongst the rocks, carefully camouflaged from predators: nudibranchs, crays, lionfish and a nursery of hatchlings sheltering far from the daylight.
Surfacing in chambers underwater
The Dome is also best suited for divers not afraid of the dark. A 30 metre swim under the island leads to its impressive air filled chamber, much larger than Bubble Cave and frequented by coconut crabs. There’s a sense of serenity here with the roof towering above, water gently lapping, and only the slightest hint of the light-filled world that divers abandoned to reach this anomaly. But be warned – this is not a place to discover equalising problems – there is only one way out and that’s by sinking eight metres down to the cave’s base.
Limu Twin caves are a less daunting prospect but just as rewarding. These two large light-filled chambers have entries top and bottom making navigation easy, even without a torch, and a narrow passage connects both sections, a must do for less claustrophobic visitors. Schools of midnight sea perch greet divers at the entrance, ribbon eels guard the base and decent sized puffers can be found on ledges. And the shallow swim throughs up top are almost as much fun as the caves themselves.
The Twin Caves are a good warm up for the Chimney, a more confined system with dual entries and a tight chamber off to the side that’s a favourite hangout for painted crayfish. Good buoyancy is paramount on this one as there’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre on the descent and it’s easy to stir up the cave.
From the outside, Tunnel Vision doesn’t look particularly promising. The seascape around it has a lunar quality, with a couple of massive round boulders punctuating the starkness. Those willing to give it a go, however, will not be disappointed. The arched entrance opens into a curved tunnel leading to a light chamber with a darker one behind.
Surfacing at the back provides a view out to sea through a small window in the rock face. Wait for a swell and the scene disappears behind a curtain of mist. There’s a further surprise: towards the exit a triplex of holes stacked neatly on top of each other bathes divers in fingers of light.
It’s true that at some of Niue’s cave sites, divers have to sacrifice colour for contrast, but that’s not the case at Snake Gully. This iconic dive manages to combine both in narrow gullies etched into the coral reef. It also boasts a trifecta of chasms, cavern and cave all in one place, a spot where it would take many dives to explore every nook and cranny.
And that’s the beauty of Niue; every adventure leads to another. Take a dive on the dark side and discover why there’s nowhere like Niue.