Ups and downs diving New Zealand

When D asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, the answer was simple – diving! We decided to head north from Wellington, to do a 2 day liveaboard in the Poor Knights Islands, off the North-East Coast of New Zealand.  New Zealand tourist guides are fond of pointing out that the Poor Knights were one of Jacques Cousteau’s favourite sites, so I was pretty excited to dive in its clear waters, and see the abundant marine life.

8am, we went to the harbour to find our boat, the MV Mazurka, a small liveaboard with room for about 8 people. The plan was to go out for two days and do 7 dives around the Poor Knights.

2014-04-05 07.52.05

MV Mazurka, run by Ocean Blue

We were first to arrive at the boat. The sun was shining and it looked like we had a glorious day ahead of us. I was hopping about, babbling about how excited I was. We’d been there for five minutes when a man came down the pier. He introduced himself as Kevin. He looked sheepish. He explained that there was a bit of a problem: two and a half meter swells that would make any extended trip out to the islands a misery, especially an overnight stay that would involve rolling around all night in a small cabin. Given both D and I’s propensity to sea sickness, we decided, reluctantly, to call it off.

Instead, we went out on a day boat. The swells weren’t going to pick up for a few hours so at least we’d be able to get out to see the Poor Knights and do some diving. Kevin brought us to another boat at the marina, this one owned by Yukon Dive. They had room for us and within a few hours we were on our way to the Poor Knights.

The sea was rough. I’d taken extra tablets to prevent the relentless nausea that is sea sickness. There’s nothing worse than being sick on a boat, when you know that getting off the boat is the only cure and there’s no chance of escaping until you reach dry land. So far, I’ve used healthy doses of dramamine to avoid sea sickness. The downside of dramamine is that it gives you cottonmouth and can make you feel stoned. Here’s a picture of D after two dramamine tablets:


D high on dramamine at Nopparat Thara pier, Thailand

I’ve been experimenting with other tablets: I took meclizine on our previous liveaboard, which worked fine. On this trip, however, I should have taken the dramamine.  Huge swells rocked the boat, and every pair of eyes was fixed on the horizon. We couldn’t, however, get to the Poor Knights quick enough – the dark outcropping on the horizon, past the rolling swells, inched closer; every minute of the 45 minute journey crawled by, and I began to be thankful that we weren’t on a liveaboard.

The Poor Knights are beautiful. They’re a group of uninhabited islands 50 miles off the coast of New Zealand. On a normal visit, you’d see arches and caves and striking rock formations. On our visit, the arches were hidden by the waves that crashed through every hole as the ocean beat against the island. All we wanted to do was to dive in and get beneath the swells to the calm blue underneath.

It was my first dive trip to cold water – this meant wriggling my way into a 7mm full length wet suit. This is hard enough, but harder still when the boat is rocking from side to side, and it’s hard to stand up straight. Still, we got in, suited up, and jumped in. It’s a shock to hit the water for the first time, unlike the warm waters in Thailand. But it wasn’t as cold as I expected, and I was surprised at how little the temperature bothered me.

What is affected by water temperature is buoyancy. In Thailand we dove in 5mm short wetsuits, which don’t have much of an impact in buoyancy. In New Zealand the wet suits are 7mm thick. At the surface you’re extra buoyant so you need more weight to get down, but as you descend the water pressure compresses the wet suit and all that extra weight makes you sink like a stone.

As our first dive in cold water, we did a quick buoyancy check to make sure we were weighted correctly. Everything was fine so we descended. Except I couldn’t go down. I was bobbing around at the surface, and I struggled to go anywhere. Our divemaster grabbed my fin and tried to pull me down, but I kept flipping over. It’s  disorientating to try to descend through the water only to find yourself continuously flipping over. It wasn’t helped by the swells that were pulling me up and down, and by now I’d started to feel nauseous. Most of all it was frustrating. I’d left Thailand feeling happy with my buoyancy, able to jump in the sea and keep a good profile. But now I felt like I did on my very first dive – completely unable to control myself.

Eventually, my divemaster put another weight on me and I was able, with difficulty, to descend. We dove along a wall, sheltered from the current, at a dive site called the Canyon. It was dotted with long stalks of seaweed that swayed with the rise and fall with the sea. D and Rachael (our divemaster) spent the dive looking around the wall for its inhabitants, scorpionfish, white eyed moray eels, and nudibranches. I spent the dive trying to keep myself from flipping on to my back. Every time I moved I felt like I was spinning around. I tightened my BCD, and tried to hold myself straight.

By the time we decided to ascend I was exhausted. We did our safety stop at 5 meters, the swell pulling us up and down. Denjoyed it, but I was struggling to keep myself from going upside down. All I wanted to do was surface. But when I did, my body gave in to the swell and I was hit with overwhelming nausea.

I fought my way out of my wet suit and sat on the dive deck feeling sorry for myself and looking miserable. I was convinced that a) I’d forgotten how to dive, and b) I couldn’t cope with the buoyancy changes in cold water. On top of that, the swell had picked up even further and the boat was rolling from side to side. Each roll brought a new wave of nausea and I was sure that soon I’d be hanging over the side of the boat, emptying my breakfast of bacon and eggs into the sea. I dreaded having to wriggle into my cold wetsuit, put on my BCD, and jump in the water to turn summersaults once more.

Instead, I quietly disappeared to the cabin at the back of the boat, put on some warm clothes, curled up, and went to sleep. A mixture of drowsiness from the sea sickness tablets and the rocking of the boat meant that it was one of the best sleeps of my life. I woke up feeling infinitely better, to hear the rest of the divers returning from their dive. D was elated and apologetic. He’d spent the dive hanging out with a giant stingray.

As D packed up his gear, the skipper said he’d removed my weights from my equipment, but that one of my integrated weight pockets was missing. The flipping over, the inability to descend, finally made sense. I must have dropped my weight pocket just after doing the buoyancy test, leaving me 4kg lighter than I needed to be. This had made me too buoyant to descend, and had also been the cause of my flipping over – too much weight on one side. I was sad that I’d not noticed earlier, but relieved that the problem had been one of weighting, not that I’d forgotten how to dive. It had been my first dive with an integrated BCD and I just hadn’t thought to check my weight pockets. Lesson learned.

The trip back was rougher than the way out, waves crashed over the top of the boat, and the angry sea battered us. It was a relief to get back to dry land. Despite feeling relieved, I still felt despondent and wasn’t sure I wanted to dive for a while. Still the next day was my birthday and I had been determined to spend it diving. Some of the other divers on the boat suggested that we go to the Bay of Islands, to a dive outfit there that has its own rig and cheap accommodation. I made D telephone them, because I didn’t even have the energy to talk about diving. I knew, however, that the best way to cure my reluctance to go diving again was to get back in the water.

Around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I’m glad that I did. We had two wonderful dives with Northland Dive. First, we dove the Canterbury Wreck, which beats all of the wrecks I’ve dove before. Sunk seven years ago, by Shane and Julia who run Northland Dive, the 113 meter Frigate is in beautiful condition. At 30 meters, it stands upright, so we were able to dive through the helicopter hanger, along covered walkways, and we could even enter the bridge. The visibility was perfect, and we could use our torches to peer inside portholes and cracks in the ship to see fish packed inside. The second dive was at a 40m long tunnel, Big Eyes Lair. We dropped in the water and swam around through the clear blue to the back entrance of the cave, where we entered one at a time. The cave gradually ascended. Torchlight shone on the walls, lighting up scorpion fish and the big eyes that give the lair their name. Sunlight streamed through the exit, bright blue at the end of the darkness.

I loved both dives, I even loved jumping in to the bracing cold water, but best of all I’d penetrated a wreck, and swam down a tunnel, and my buoyancy had been perfect. If we end up living somewhere were the water’s cold, I shouldn’t have any problems diving it.


Photo credit Northland Dive