Diving the 36
By Simon E Freeman
Neil (Stirlings Dive) and Jim (Taranui Charters) like to explore off the Coromandel coast on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island where there lies a well kept secret. The fertile waters between Slipper Island and the Aldermen Island group yield many a trophy catch to fishermen who know their business. However, no-one has ever laid eyes on just what’s down there â€“ the deep reefs that hold the giant snapper, the big terakihi, the hapuka. The depth sounder tells one story â€“ a reef that rises from 55-60m to a broad plateau at 36, but this is nothing when compared to the reef’s secrets revealed by your own eyes.
Not a simple dive, â€˜The 36′ was made more complicated by the steady rolling swell that jostled Taranui from the East. At 30m down it could still be felt â€“ the rollers were strong and far apart, powered by the immense fetch that the Pacific Ocean affords to the prevailing easterly. Excited divers were already below, their bubbles cascading rivulets of silver glitter through a vivid blue dye. The denizens of the reef greeted us as we descended the west flank. Glowing white clouds morphed into car-sized black coral trees speckled cookies-and-cream style with Astrobachion snakestars of every conceivable colour and pattern. Shoals of sweep (Scorpis aequipinnis), butterfly perch (Caesioperca lepidoptera) and splendid perch (Callanthias australis) poured through a giant archway at 55m. Big enough to drive a bus through, the archway’s walls were festooned with black coral. Some trees were healthy, others hammered by man’s pursuit of ocean bounties â€“ fishing lines, craypot lines and anchor warp tangled the branches
of some centuries-old colonies, killing swathes onto which sponges and ascidians quickly grew. How many waka had swiftly paddled over this forest? Perhaps these same animals witnessed Captain Cook’s Endeavour sailing over them? Would they live to see a future in which we are more considerate to the oceans treasures? The grey skeletons of bygone trees littered the sand below, an ancient forest sinking slowly into the shifting sands to be preserved forever.
The sheer age of the coral before us made time seem irrelevant and narcosis encouraged us to abandon our ideas of a safe return. Nevertheless, it was imperative we begin our ascent as planned. Staged decompression is often a challenge, and particularly so when the swell bucks our charter boat like a moody stallion at its halter. Maintaining visual contact with the swinging anchor chain, divers floated like spaceships in the almost featureless blue void. Ctenophores and small jellyfish floated past and we marvelled at their rows of iridescent, beating cilia made all the more visible in the ginclear waters of the Coromandel Coast.