Beneath New Zealand Seas

by | Dec 20, 2022 | What's Happening

The artwork pictured above is a wonderful depiction of the Poor Knights Islands marine reserve near Tutukaka, here on the Northland east coast. Several years ago, I took this picture of the original that hangs on the wall of a former business partner of my wife Hayley. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the artist.

As Aidan and I were heading back to NZ from Norway in late August, we couldn’t wait to get back into the water for some diving. So a few days after my previous post we were out on the Tutukaka coast for some free diving for crayfish. Some photos below from inbetween dives. 

When I first came to New Zealand in 1998 the scuba diving opportunities was what excited me the most. Hayley and I had met travelling around South East Asia a year earlier and in addition to travel and literature the diving was our great common interest. Hayley was already a divemaster and I had my advanced ticket. After Hayley left South East Asia and went to work as a divemaster on a P&O cruise ship around the Pacific (New Caledonia & Vanuatu) I went back to Phi Phi island in Thailand. There I worked in the reggae bar on the top of the hill in the evenings, dived in the mornings and worked in the Aquanauts dive shop in the afternoons. A lot of the sales for the dive shop I actually did already in the reggae bar, hanging out with all the visiting tourists who would then come and see me in the dive shop the next day. After that stint I went back to Scandinavia and then moved to England with Hayley. The plan was then to go back to Phi Phi where I had a lot of diving credit owing to me and I was going to do my rescue diver ticket and divemaster ticket to work as a divemaster. Instead, I ended up moving to New Zealand with Hayley. The last pictures I saw of the Aquanauts dive shop was in pictures of the casualties after the Boxing Day tsunami, with bodies under a big heap of rubble. That was hard to see and I sadly received no more contact from John Kane, the manager.

The earliest version of this website, that I set up soon after I arrived in New Zealand, was in fact primarily focused on diving. After having spent my first 6 months in New Plymouth we moved to Whangarei in Northland, mainly because of the diving. Being a bit of a history buff, I had found a particular interest in the many shipwrecks around the New Zealand coast and I described many of them on my website. Some of these have a lot of fascinating history, ranging from the SS Elingamite at the Three Kings Islands (on route from Sydney to Auckland in November 1902) to the SS Wairarapa at Great Barrier Island (also going from Sydney to Auckland in 1894, the third worst marine disaster in New Zealand waters), L’Alcmene off Baylys Beach, Dargaville (a French corvette on voyage from Tasmania to Whangaroa in 1851), Boyd at Whangaroa Harbour (an English ship burnt and sunk by Maori in 1809), Awarua that struck an uncharted rock near Kauri Mountain in February 1907, a spot where I’ve often dived for crayfish, RMS Niagara (that went down past the Hen & Chickens islands in 1940 after striking a German mine), MS Mikhail Lermontov at Cape Jackson, Marlborough Sounds (a Soviet cruise liner sunk in February 1986), Rainbow Warrior at the Cavalli Islands (the Greenpeace ship bombed at Port of Auckland in 1986 and sunk as a dive wreck at the Cavallis in 1987, see a previous post Rainbow Warrior), HMNZS Tui at Tutukaka (originally a US Navy oceanographic ship, later for the Royal New Zealand Navy, scuttled as a dive wreck in 1999. We had the luck of getting to inspect the inside of the ship before she was sunk.), HMNZS Waikato also at Tutukaka (we got to watch this navy frigate being sunk in November 2000, not far from the site of the Tui wreck) and HMNZS Canterbury at Deep Water Cove (another frigate and sister ship of the Waikato, sunk as a dive wreck in the Bay of Islands).     

Two of New Zealand’s early diving pioneers were two guys from Christchurch called Kelly Tarlton (1937 – 1985) and Wade Doak (1940 – 2019), both who later relocated to Northland. Tarlton was actually born and spent his early childhood in Te Kopuru, near Dargaville. Today he is most famous for the Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World aquarium that opened in Auckland in 1985. He had initially wanted to build it in Paihia in the Bay of Islands but was met with so much resistance from local bodies that he went to Auckland instead.  It was the first aquarium with a viewing tunnel that has since been copied all over the world. It remains one of Auckland’s top tourist attractions. Tarlton was a visionary and innovator that never stopped coming up with ideas and solutions. 

Wade Doak became a conservationist and prolific author. He was instrumental in the Poor Knights Islands becoming a fully protected marine reserve in 1998. When Hayley and I moved to Whangarei in 1999 I was already reading his books and some years later Wade and his wife Jan became friends of our family. He became a bit of a mentor for little Aidan who was obsessed with marine life and Melanie supported him in the running of his website Wade’s World. On that website was a fantastic divers forum, frequented not only by diving interested in general but with every top diver and numerous scientists and biologists. One could ask just about anything on the site and get insightful answers to it. The site was fueled by Wade’s constant curiosity and enthusiasm. 

In the early days Tarlton and Doak had located many shipwrecks that had been lost around the New Zealand coast. Some of these, like the Elingamite, were treasure wrecks where they came up with solutions to salvage coins and jewelry from these. In the middle picture above Tarlton is far left while Wade Doak is second from the right with some of the bullion from the Elingamite, late 1960s. In the picture on the right Wade is seen descending onto a wreck site.   

Hayley and I first met travelling around South East Asia in 1997. Incredible that 25 years have passed. Both photos above are from that year. Me pictured on the left with Aquanauts in Phi Phi and Hayley flanked by navy diver Paul and her sister Melanie at Tweed River. Paul had been part of the underwater crew of the movie Flipper (1996). 

My entry into the underwater world was nothing like that of pioneers like Wade Doak & Kelly Tarlton, who inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film “Le monde du silence” made their own breathing apparatus and took off on their adventures. But diving had always been in the cards for me, something I knew from an early age that I would want to pursue. I grew up on a naval base in North Norway where not only the Naval Special Warfare Command (a special unit operating in air, on land and underwater) were based but also the Naval Clearance Diver group (trained to disarm mines and other underwater explosives). Fathers of my friends were commanding officers of these groups. These divers would also assist police and authorities with recoveries of maritime casualties. I remember one occasion in 1980 when I was at my friend Morten’s place and his father, who was in charge of the Naval Clearance Divers, popped his head in and said he was on his way to Bogen where a small airplane had crashed into the ocean. While they went to recover the bodies of the four people that had been onboard, my grandfather Karl who lived in Bogen was being interviewed by police as an eyewitness to the crash. In addition to me growing up in this navy environment, my uncle Jack was a recreational diver active in Harstad Sportsdykkerklubb (founded 31-12-1967). My curiosity on shipwrecks is perhaps obvious due to the many WWII wrecks in the harbour of my birth town Narvik, that had three major battles in April 1940. With as many as 16 wrecks in close proximity, most of them in less than 30 meters of water, Narvik is a favourite destination by many wreck enthusiasts.

In 1991 I spent a weekend with friends onboard the ship Wasa King (travelling from Umeå, Sweden to Vaasa, Finland and back to Umeå). I have some pictures from the crossing of the frozen Gulf of Bothnia. The ship was later renamed Estonia, in traffic between Tallinn, Estonia and Stockholm, Sweden. Sadly, three years after I was onboard it became one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century when it sank in the Baltic Sea and 852 people perished. 

Pictured from left: F-T in between two cray dives November 2000, waiting to watch the sinking of the Waikato frigate. Melanie in 2005 with a two year old Aidan onboard the dive boat we used in Vava’u, Tonga. Aidan as a 14 year old with a typical beginner spearo target, a red moki. And on the right the two buddies Dylan and Aidan with some of their speared butterfish and snapper, one month before Aidan turned 16.

In the early days of the diving Hayley and I had together it was all about scenic diving. We arrived in Whangarei in January 1999 and four months later, during the weekend of my 30th birthday, we had our first trip out to the big drawcard here – the marine reserve of the Poor Knights Islands. While the scenic and wreck diving have had plenty to offer (I also considered taking up underwater photography), the hunting & gathering always felt as the most natural thing. Hayley quickly declared that I’d ruined her scenic diving. She was instead joining me gather scallops and carrying our catch bag with crayfish. When Aidan was old enough things changed further. Spearfishing was added to the repertoire and because it’s illegal on scuba, I was joining him freediving instead. 

There are interesting challenges and rewards as a spearo. Using the different underwater terrain to your advantage, learning techniques to get close enough to your targeted species, all done on a single breath of air. You have the possibility of targeting species that you normally can’t by fishing and you can be selective in your picking. From a diverse diving point of view NZ certainly lived up to my expectations.

Looking towards Kauri Mountain with Awarua Rock (after the wrecked ship) and further towards Tutukaka.
Photo taken at dusk while fishing for kahawai at Ocean Beach rocks, Whangarei Heads.