Beams of sunlight pierce through the water’s surface, shining a light on a rocky platform underwater. Two-spot demoiselle fish are dancing around it like a maypole, the rays of light like spotlights on their performance.
The visibility of the water is incredible – about 25 meters – and a gentle rolling swell pushes me side to side, moving in unison with the seaweed.
About an hour’s boat ride offshore from Whitianga lies a collection of volcanic islands, the Aldermen Islands (Ruamaahu), which are home to a vast collection of marine species. Unless you’re a scuba diver, there’s a good chance you might not know about these rocky profiles, let alone what lies beneath. Many divers overlook them in favor of the famed Poor Knights Islands of Northland, and most international dive tourists pre-pandemic tended to head straight for Tūtūkākā, not Whitianga.
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But the Aldermen Islands, which were gifted to the people of Aotearoa by Māori in 1969, are considered Coromandel’s answer to the Poor Knights Islands. Far enough offshore, the waters surrounding these ocean skyscrapers are protected from run-off from the mainland, resulting in excellent clarity, and the area tends to be largely untouched by recreational fishermen, leaving the marine life to flourish.
There are four main islands and their profiles are not dissimilar to their northern counterparts, an impressive terrain with dramatic pinnacles, arches and spires. There are tuatara, geckos, skinks, and dozens of native bird species on the land and all sorts of marine species below the surface. Access to the islands themselves is by permit only, however unlike the Poor Knights, the area is not a marine reserve.
I head out to see these islands myself with Dive Zone Whitianga, which is the largest PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) instructor training facility in New Zealand. They train about 500 Open Water, Advanced and Rescue certifications each year as well as about 50 professional certifications, or 25 dive instructors.
It had been a little while since my last dive – about half a dozen planned trips over the last two years have all been canceled due to Covid and its various lockdowns. It feels surreal heading back underwater after such an unplanned hiatus. The other diverse on the trip feel the same and together we are all excited to finally be back doing the thing we love. We jump aboard The Mystery Machine, a 12-metre aluminum dive vessel that can carry up to 20 divers. Our team of dive instructors Renee, Tom and Sam, along with skipper Craig Rasmussen, help bring the laughs and the energy as we mingle and make new friends.
On the journey out, we stop past the famous Cathedral Cove and Gemstone Bay, where we can see hundreds of snapper swimming around the boat; Craig highlights why it’s so important to have marine reserves like the one that has allowed these fish to multiply and grow so large. Later, we see iridescent blue movements just beneath the surface as schools of blue maomao glide through the water. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and we haven’t even been underwater yet.
Our first dive is at a site called Awesome Bay, and the first thing I notice is how awesome the visibility is underwater, followed by how awesome the fish life is.
At first, it takes a little while to adjust my buoyancy and remember how to equalize my ears on the descent down. I’m a few kilograms heavier than the last time I went diving, which was in Bali in more tropical waters. But soon enough I relax into it and get quickly distracted by the screeds of fish all around me.
There are schools of blue maomao and little mackerel darting up and down and eagle rays gently flapping through the water. Chunky wrasse with their fat pouts move past me slowly while curious demoiselle flit about the rocks and peck at my hands if I get too close. After our surface interval, our second dive is at Nudi Wall, named for the nudibranchs that can be seen clinging onto the walls below.
I follow behind my dive buddy, Sam Jackson, one of the Dive Zone instructors, who points out a few things she sees behind me – a kingi so big she thought it was a shark, and a few crayfish antenna hiding in the crevasses.
Throughout both dives, it’s hard to keep track of what to look at – at every point along the way, there’s some new action to observe and another fish party to distract me. I’m amazed at just how many types of fish there are in one little spot. Most of my diving has been in the tropics, and I’m ashamed that I’ve spent such little time exploring our own waters, desiring the warmer temperatures and tropical fish life over and above the impressive terrain that exists in Aotearoa. A classic pandemic realisation.
Like most diverse, I too had been to the Poor Knights Islands and raved about it to anyone who would listen, but now I realize the Aldermens offer world-class diving too, but remain somewhat more secret. I’d been diving in the Coromandel’s Mercury Islands in the past, and I’d always heard great things about the Aldermen Islands, but you never know how plentiful the waters are until you have seen them yourself.
Dive Zone Whitianga’s Linda Bird says they have been dominated by Kiwi divers, even before Covid.
“I would say that over the summer months our level of international divers would be around ten to 15 per cent. Perhaps this is because our area has not been as well promoted to the international market? Probably 50 per cent of our market comes out of Auckland, 35 per cent out of Waikato and the rest from around the country. It has been great to see diverse coming up from the Wellington region and South Island since Covid.”
By the time we surface after the second dive, we are a mix of exhausted bodies with overwhelmed minds, buzzing with the visions of what we had experienced and seen underwater. We swap stories, brief life histories and phone numbers and share our GoPro footage from our dives.
I love how a group of people can be strangers in the morning, and by the end of day, be organizing a future meet-up. That’s one of the beautiful aspects of organized dive trips – the unique camaraderie formed among scuba divers on a boat. A bunch of people from all different walks of life, all coming together with a shared passion for the underwater world, always fizzing with excitement when we resurface to talk about what we’ve experienced below.
Two-tank dive to Aldermen or Mercury Islands with Dive Zone Whitianga is $300 including hire equipment or $225 with own equipment. New to diving? PADI Open Water Diver course is $600. See: divezonewhitianga.co.nz
Where to stay: Oceanside Motel, Whitianga – beachfront accommodation only a five-minute drive or 15-minute walk to Dive Zone Whitianga.
Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Face coverings are mandatory on all flights and public transport. Proof of vaccination and vaccine exemption may be required in some venues under the traffic light system. Follow the instructions at covid19.govt.nz.
The writer was hosted by PADI and Dive Zone Whitianga.