Kermadec Islands – New Zealand’s Galapagos!
Situated 1000km north-east of the Bay of Plenty In New Zealand, this archipelago of remote sub-tropical islands are the jewel in NZ’s marine crown. Lying on the Kermadec trench, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the islands are just a few of the undersea volcanoes that have reached the surface. The area is highly active and there are reports of water and colour disturbances at the surface along with miles of pumice rock floating in the middle of the ocean (http://www.stuff.co.nz/science/7455060/25-000-sq-km-sea-of-pumice-floats-off-New-Zealand).
Lying at 29° south, Raoul Island which is the most prominent landmass sits between the north island of New Zealand and Tonga. Geographically isolated, the islands have both an important terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem. The islands have had marine reserve status since 1990 which protects the waters up to 12nm from land. However some believe that this is not enough and that the entire island group should have protection due to the unique and relatively un-studied deep water environment. There is commercial interest in deep sea mining which given the under study of the environment, should not be allowed to happen. The islands have also been recently studied for their population of whales and in particular the Humpback Whales which migrate back and forward to the Antarctic. On one day of the study they spotted 119 individuals – unbelievable!
For divers the Kermadec’s are a dream underwater experience however outside of New Zealand the island are unheard of. Their location serves to be both a hindrance and saving grace. Too far to have large scale effects from human impact but makes tourist trips to see the wonders of the reserve very difficult. The other problem is that there are no doctors, dentists or hospitals this far out. There are very few helicopters that can travel this far and if a medivac is required, two twin engined aircraft need to travel in tandem, stopping at fuel dumps on isolated rocks along the way! This is serious expedition territory! Notwithstanding their isolation in an emergency sense, their distance also means that specific vessels capable of carrying enough stores, fuel and water can make the journey. When a chance came up to visit on a 70m icebreaker class vessel I jumped at the chance as this could be a once in a lifetime trip.
Two days after departing Tauranga and good sea conditions,the first of the island group comes into sight, L’Esperance Rock. A jagged dramatic island, a spec in the middle of the ocean sticking up only 70m from sea level. Very few people have dived here due to zero protection and its exposed position to anything but flat calm seas. For those who have, tantalising stories of grey nurse sharks and the island acting as a fish attractant only fuel the frustration of getting so near but so far. Those who manage to explore underwater here should consider themselves extremely lucky. A couple of laps around the island and we were again heading north towards the other islands of Curtis, Cheeseman and Macauley, then onto Raoul Island itself. We occasionally were escorted by the tropical booby flying round the bridge and dolphins riding our bow wave. Steaming overnight we covered the remaining 140 miles past the other islands to wake up at Raoul Island the next morning.
The water colour at Raoul Island is truly exquisite, a deep tropical blue which added to the anticipation of exploring the reefs here. The island is primitive looking, rocky shore and cliffs topped with dense vegetation, almost Jurassic Park like. Only a small Department of Conservation (DOC) outpost stands on the top of the cliffs along with a few buildings, remnants from the occupation of the island by the Bell family which left around 1901. The occupation of the islands by humans had originally been Polynesians, who used the island when transiting between the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. The islands were also used by Whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries before the islands were named by the French explorer D’Entrecasteaux and subsequently annexed by the New Zealand government.
Most of the diving on this trip was around the Meyer Islets off the north-east corner of Raoul which served as a good sheltered location in which to dive from inflatables from the mother-ship. These islands were covered in thousands of birds of which the noise emanating was incredible. The reef structure started off on a reef top plateau with distinct cracks, crevices and caves, the topography being sculpted by the exposed location. The visibility was at least 25m here and the seascapes were breathtaking.
The marine life is highly unusual being that it is a melting pot of both tropical and sub tropical species. For example the 2-spot demoiselle were noted in abundance next to tropical lionfish. Galapagos sharks were also noted to be abundant, being seen on every dive and sometimes up to 10 or 20 in numbers. This was very encouraging and the sign of a healthy ecosystem being able to support a large population of predators. The other unique aspect of the island is they serve as one of the last populations of black spotted grouper in New Zealand. In fact these fish are listed as near threatened on the IUCN list. Thankfully the population here thrives from no-fishing and isolation from man. We found individuals at many locations and one extremely large individual seemed to like hanging about in a particular crevice. With a distinct abrasion to its mouth, it could have been the infamous ‘white-lip’ which is known to divers as being particularly friendly. We spent a while with this individual and it was very relaxed encounter enabling us to get some excellent images. Although at the end, he perhaps made his thoughts known by having a large poo on top of us as we swam away. It’s amazing how much can actually come out on one fish and I did detect a slight satisfaction in his eye!!!!
Another incredible aspect of the marine life here was the presence of large schools of maomao. Near the northern end of the Meyer Islets where there was a little more current masses of fish enveloped the divers creating a magical experience. Unfortunately this site was only found near the end of the trip but it was certainly the most popular out of all the dives managed by the members of the expedition.
It was a privilege to be able to experience these islands and as we left we felt that there was infinite possibilities for exploration here. Unfortunately due to a major injury, a fatality and strong weather our expedition only managed 5 dives, which was hugely disappointing. However their location, abundant marine life and undiscovered wrecks are what draws expedition divers here. If you get the chance take it! As said by National Geographic, the Kermadec Island are one of the last pristine ecosystems on the planet!
The additional interest to divers in the undiscovered WW1 Wairuna wreck site. The steamer was heading from Auckland to San Fransico in June 1917 with a general cargo estimated to be worth over £1.25million when she was sighted and stopped by the German raider SMS Wolf. The Wolf’s seaplane was launched and dropped warning bombs narrowly missing the funnel. With the raider in gun range the captain of the Wairuna decided that escape was futile and avoided loss of life by surrendering his ship. The Germans transferred the Wairuna’s cargo and then sunk the ship using a combination of bombs and gunfire. The wreck drifting significantly in the time it took for her to sink.
Although there would only a hulk left of the 2500t ship, the profuse marine life in the area would mean that the wreck site would be an incredible dive. However with deep water out of diving range nearby and the isolation of Raoul’s location, it would take a lot of money and effort to find this wreck with a high chance that it could not be dived. However when it is ever easy when finding wrecks!! There have been rumours of the wreck being dived in popular diving books but there is no available proof as to the truth!
Underwater and topside images of the expedition to the Kermadec Islands can be found here http://shanewasik.photoshelter.com/gallery/Kermadec-Islands/G0000ORywoNPMMYU/ – contact me for image licensing, articles, prints or information on the islands.