|Tips for diving and snorkelling
Congratulations! You are about to embark on one of the nicest pursuits in New Zealand in one of the finest places our country has to offer. The Goat Island Marine Reserve was established in 1977 and since that time the fish have not only become very numerous but also very tame. Immediately off the beach you will encounter schools of blue maomao, normally open-water plankton feeders, vying for breadcrumbs. And not far away are numerous snapper, trevally and the cheeky blue cod. Going further afield, the spotties, parore, kelpfish, marblefish, red moki and crayfish are expecting you. The further you venture from the beach, the cleaner the water becomes and the more naturally the fishes behave. Make it a habit not to feed them outside the beach area. Never break urchins!
If you want to learn more about free-diving, read the section Snorkelling with Floor Anthoni (11 pages).
Please respect the sea and its forces. This beach faces an open ocean,
and can at times become dangerous. The temperature is never comfortable
and safe for swimming without wetsuits, although February is the warmest
month. Winter temperatures are around 15ºC, but may dip to 12ºC.
Summer temperatures rise to 21º, with a shallow warm layer rising
to 23º on warm, quiet days. Divers need wetsuits in all seasons. Swimmers
can get away without, in the months January - March.
The currents are usually minimal, but they are unpredictable. Be aware that a westerly wind sends a westerly current through the channel, which may, at times be uncomfortable for divers. Swell may arrive unpredictably from distant northern sources, but more likely the waves are caused by winds from W to N to E, whereas SW to S to SE winds are best for calm seas.
The currents in the channel are never dangerous but they could be a nuisance during spring tides. Swim close to the rocks or the bottom for minimum currents. If necessary, use your hands to pull yourself along. Remember that you can get out of the water in many places. Goat Island forms a barrier to waves and swell and you can usually swim or dive in its shelter. But avoid the white water areas where the water runs swiftly over submerged rocks. Here you could easily be swept into a most uncomfortable situation. Should you need to get out on a rock, take your time and find the most sheltered and accessible spot. Remember that there's always a better spot to be found. Look where the urchins are and where to put your foot. Take one fin off. Let the waves do the work. Put your foot down firmly and stand upright in one motion. Let the waves wash back past you before clambering up the rock. NEVER crawl out of the water on your knees! The water has too much grip on you this way.
There are no dangerous animals to be afraid of. Sharks have never caused
a problem, and they are much rarer than dolphins. At times there can be
jellyfish in the water. Some sting, some don't. When stung, treat the rash
with vinegar. The rocks can be your biggest enemy, where waves wash over
them. Sharp creatures on these rocks (oysters, barnacles, tube worms) can
rip your suit and skin.
|What to do and what not to do
Here are some DOs and DON'Ts to help you:
|The right weight
Take time to make sure you have the right amount of lead on your weightbelt. Do as follows:
A good snorkeldiver does not fight the water or the waves. He goes down effortlessly and balances himself in the water by blowing excess air out. Here is how you go down with a 'duck-dive':
In order to be able to stay down for a long time:
|Diving from a beach
Divers, please note that beach diving requires some extra skills, and invites for making new mistakes. It is much more challenging than hopping over the side of a boat.
|Maps and placenames
In the course of time, people have given various places their names. Read this section to familiarise yourself with the placenames and what is interesting about them. The detailed maps have been derived from the overview map.
The overview map of the area around Goat Island shows most of the important placenames. Click on the map for a larger version. Visitors arrive from the Goat island Road, at bottom left, park their cars on the top parking which has many levels. They then walk to the beach entrance, where an unloading zone (bottom parking) can be used to unload heavy equipment. The Department of Conservation (DoC) has built primitive long-drop toilets, because of the difficulty of discharging sewage in this area. There is no running fresh water. Take your rubbish away with you, because rubbish bins are inadequate for busy days. Should you need better facilities, do not hesitate to visit Seafriends at the top of the Goat Island Rd.
The Goat Island Road continues across the little stream to the Marine Laboratory of the University of Auckland. A public walking track leads from here over the rugged coast eastward, but does not reach Cape Rodney, nor does it loop around. One has to track it back to its beginning, but it is well worth doing.
Most diving and snorkelling happens in the vicinity of the main beach, as discussed in detail below, but intrepid explorers can go all the way around the island, provided they take sensible precautions, as explained below.
The beach area radiating out from the only access point by the creek, is by far the most visited. People usually enter the water from the beach, going either west, north or east. Make sure to avoid the rocks on both sides of the beach, while entering the water. A good entry point is The Gap, some 50m to the right of the beach. It has a sandy bottom and it becomes deep more quickly than the water in front of the beach. It is prefered by divers, also because it has no boulders to stub one's feet on. A little further still, lies Back Beach, hidden around a corner of the cliff. From here one can swim into Maomao Channel, a narrow gap in the rocky Hormosira Flats platform, where people feed the fishes. Blue Maomao abound here. (Hormosira= necklace weed)
|f007727: rare and large silver drummer have congregated above a sandy patch to get cleaned by a small trevally, just visible facing the highest fish. Notice how the clients change colour for signalling their readiness.||
At its narrowest point, Goat Island Channel is also at its most
shallow, resulting in a noticeable current pushing through this bottleneck.
One can find young blue maomao and sweep facing the current, as they catch
zoo plankton. But the sea bottom is monotonous and sandy. Look for the
odd eagle ray burrowed here. The situation becomes suddenly interesting
around and above Bladderkelp Reef, where grazing fish like parore,
silver drummer and marblefish abound. Behind this reef extends a deep sandy
area, bounded by another interesting snorkel spot near the top right corner
of the map, Shag Roost Bay. It is named after the shags roosting
here in the high-rise pohutukawa trees. Duck behind the shallow rocks at
the point of the unlabelled arrow to find large crayfish in shallow water.
east towards Waterfall Reef
The Marine Laboratory is located at the foot of a ridge. Behind it runs a gully, which is the catchment area for a small stream gushing over the edge of the cliff. It is called Waterfall. Even in mid summer, the waterfall trickles along. Underneath it, the rocks have been cut deep by a steep gully, ending in a deep cave with a shingle bottom above water. This Waterfall Cave can be explored when the water in the gully is calm enough. Climbing up the steep shingle can be tiresome.
Walk over the rock flats to Back Beach, and start your exploration
Waterfall Reef is a large barren area, sloping down gently to
the sand at 15m depth. Here a fringe of stalked kelp can be found, sometimes
buried by the sand. Because of its ease of acces (from Waterfall), this
has always been a favourite study area for students of the Marine Lab.
They distinguish Outer-, Mid- and Inner- Waterfall
Reef. A pinnacle rises to the surface and could be a navigation hazard
at low tide. Between the pinnacle and the shore, the topology is varied
and interesting, with both wild water and shelter, inviting for a surprising
variety of fish. This extends all the way to the end of the map, marked
by Ray Rock after which the seascape changes to 10m deep water with
gravel and sand. Around the corner, marked by pink on the map, is a gravel
beach at the foot of a number of caves where blue penguin can be found
nesting in October-December.
>>At night, every ledge is occupied by a sleeping Parore. They fight over the prime bunks, and return to their own each night. In this photo, a parore returning home (bottom), one inspecting the photographer (top) and at least six visible resting.
Leaving Parore Den on its eastern side, through a narrow gap and around
Surge Rock, gives you a chance to explore a varied rocky bottom to 15m
depth, with varied drop-offs and boulders, housing a sizable quantity of
crayfish in small numbers at a time. In the good times, this round trip
would bring you face to face with over 70 crayfish.
Almost all places shown on this map are exposed to the open ocean. For snorkeldivers venturing to explore the outside, it may mean having to cope with froth-laden surface waters, unpleasant waves, cold and fatigue. From the beach to Pempheris Point (Pempheris adspersa= bigeye), it is but one third the way around the island, a good moment to reflect on the two-thirds still to go. At Tern Point (we call it Half-way Point), you are half-way, the point of no return, and you might as well push on. Tern Point is named after the hundreds of terns (and red-bill gulls and black back gulls) who came to nest here from October to December, in the seventies and eighties. However, they have not come back since the nineties.
The large caves invite for exploration, but don't be disappointed if you don't succeed. You will need very calm water without easterly swell, and you need to bring a powerful torch, for the Tamihana Cave is very deep, with a wet beach at its end and a cocktail shaker in between. Very few have made it there. Tonys Cave (named after Tony Ayling) is much shallower, and the area in front of it, also calmer.
In order to dive in this area, a boat is more than just welcome, because
it takes a good 20 minutes of snorkelling with all your gear on, to reach
Point, where the fun begins. Pempheris Point is interesting
because it marks the boundary between the inside and the outside (the fish
think so too!). Moor your boat on the barren rock flats of Alphabet
Bay, near D-Buoy, and swim towards the point. A large rock leaves
a narrow, seething gap, leading to a semi-sheltered bowl with a steep wall
east. This wall has shelves running along, stocked like a supermarket,
with species of all kind. Bring a torch to see them all. Do a round loop
westward, then back, over the ridge to see many crayfish, butterfish and
more. The sheltered bowl was once the breeding ground of demoiselles, but
they disappeared in the nineties. However, the biggest and shiest snapper
of the reserve are often found here before they dare to move closer to
the beach. Here you also encounter a small moki hole. A sizeable spotted
black grouper also lived here.
f032526: the Tritonia nudibranch (Tritonia incerta) is never far away from the deadmans fingers because it feeds on them.
Rogers Cave is the next dive of interest. Moor the boat on the shallow
flats near the cave. These flats, although barren with here and there a
seaweed, are interesting. You find an unusual number of sand octopus, crayfish
and large seven-armed stars. The cave itself is submerged at high tide
(the best time to visit), but in between, it becomes a kind of blow hole,
compressing the air inside with a loud bang. At the same moment it also
compresses the air in your lungs, which is a remarkable sensation, to say
the least. Go further into the cave, and it becomes quiet. You can breathe
from the air in the air bubbles. In front of the cave, the water moves
to and fro and is home to schools of silver drummer and blue maomao. Interestingly,
a few resident black angelfish (Parma alboscapularis) are also found
here. The shallows east of the cave are interesting and varied, but you'll
need calm water for your exploration.
From Rogers Cave, move west to a nearly surfacing rock, covered in flapjack bladderwrack, home to grazers such as parore, silver drummer and kelpfish. Over the ridge you will enter the sheltered bowl with the supermarket shelves. Going north, extends a gently sloping platform which ends where the ridge of North Reef begins. Heavy swell breaks over this reef, leaving the area between it and Goat Island relatively sheltered. Over North Reef begins the current, which can run quite fast over its ridge. Many fish of various species, particularly snapper, hang out in this area. It is a good spot for a night dive by boat
North Reef to Moki Haven is a fantastic dive. Moor your boat near North Reef on the barren rocks, and descend westward steeply to the sand where an enchanting landscape of sponges is found. On your left the sand-covered sponge gardens, and on your right the steep sided deep reef at the foot of the kelp forest. Follow along the sand, eastward. In a shallow cave with a sandy bottom, you'll encounter one of the densest crayfish cities inside the reserve. Follow along the sand until a ridge in the kelp forest comes down. Follow this ridge up to a depression, and notice the many moki there. Try to find a small cave, and you've found Moki Haven. This cave is at times (always?) filled to the brim with some 70 large and small red moki. You can enter it with a torch, towards the dark rear, obscured by so many fish. Follow the ridge south to SW towards North Reef, your starting point. It is a long, deep dive (20m). Watch out for currents over North Reef, particularly on the outgoing tide.
Another nice dive leads from the wall near Schiels Pool (named after Dave Schiel) north towards the deep reef. Moor the boat on the shallow flats west of the wall and swim along this wall to the deep, perhaps to Porae Reef, then back again.
Diving Tamihana Cave can be disappointing because the canyon
leading into it, is abraded by tonnes of shingle, deposited in front of
it. But you'll see some nice drop-offs with remarkable stands of tall stalked
kelp and large sea urchins. The deep reef becomes poorer due to scouring
and strong wave action at depth, in front of the caves. Crinoid Reef
was named after the featherstars (Crinoids) found here, but they
have gone long since.
Jos Reef was named after the Lab technician
|Diving East Point
You can moor your boat over the 20m deep sand, and immediately descend to the bottom, to follow the bottom fringe of the kelp forest, with its many sponges. Going eastward, the forest margin bends south, where often schools of young snapper are found. Schools of blue maomao, trevally, jack mackerel and kahawai come down from the blue to visit you. Your dive continues along a pebbly bottom clearly showing the digging activity of the giant heart urchin (Brissus gigas). From there southward, the environment becomes monotonous, all the way to the Goat Island Channel. But right around East Point, you will find a few steep-walled canyons, with another crayfish city near the bottom.
An interesting feature of the eastern side of Goat Island is Penguin Cave, a large and deep cave with a dry beach inside. It is named after a few blue penguins (fairy penguins) nesting here from October to December. You'll need a torch to explore this cave, but it is usually safe to enter. In front of the cave exists relative shelter over a sandy patch, enough room to moor a small boat, and you can find young crayfish amongst the boulders.
|Other dive sites
Favourite dive sites are often chosen on the basis of a feature which is easy to find, a hotspot of biodiversity, a convenient place to anchor, shelter and so on. But the entire area of the marine reserve is divable and interesting. In this section we'll describe a few of the places outside the central area.
Tabletop Rock is a large, flat rock with a sloping flat in front and canyons behind it. One can anchor one's boat in front of it on the pebbly bottom. A dive circling around Tabletop Rock, is most interesting for its variety, but you'll need a reasonably calm sea. For ease of navigating, go around it in a clockwise manner, and go slowly because much interesting life is hidden from view. On its east side, there is a shallow, narrow gap to go through. In the canyons to the west, you'll find large crayfish, and many fish sheltering inside deep crevices where Tabletop Rock is split. One or two crayfish cities can be found here too. Visit its shallow sloping flat with bladder kelps, to observe parore, marblefish and silver drummer feeding. From the pebble basin, a valley leads to the deep sand at 18m depth. Study the steep rock walls for their variety in attached life forms.
Smugglers Cove or Motu Ruru Cove can be very wild at times, because waves are compressed within its tapering funnel. It is littered with broken rock, home to a great variety of triplefins.
Rodney Cove is flanked by two rocky outcrops, and is not immediately evident when passing by boat. However, it forms a sizable pool of shelter for many conditions, except for northerly swell. Use this cove to rest from a dive. This pool is also excellent for beginning divers as it slopes gently to 10m depth at its entrance. But for the naturalist, Rodney Cove is a treasure trove of variety, which includes sponges in shallow water. At its entrance, going east, one finds a sentinel rock with a passage. Lots of semi-pelagic fish.
I have taken the liberty of naming Floors Reef after myself, since I also discovered it first. It consists of a low reef and a pinnacle rising to 14m depth from a 24m deep sea bottom, and separated by some 10m of sand with a boulder here and there. Floors Reef lies smack in the middle of a strong current, bending around Cape Rodney. So take all necessary precautions:
Floors Reef is worth the effort because it is perhaps the best dive inside the reserve. When I discovered it in July 1992, before the kelp die-off of 1993/94, it was like Noah's Ark, home to a few of just about every species in this part of the sea. It was a hot spot, because:
On the west side of Goat Island extends an extensive system of interconnecting caves, worthy of exploration by the not so faint-hearted. The combined map and photo on right shows the extent of the cave system, with its names. Click on the image for a larger version. Please note that this map has been drawn from memory and is not precise. One day some dive club may rise to the challenge to map these caverns more expertly. Exploring these caves and their passages is not dangerous, provided that you take the necessary precautions.
|Update April 2014
Sadly, after some storms, vast amounts of pebbles were washed into various caves, thereby obliterating some passages like the rat hole ans snake passage. and almost the Penguin Passage. Because the water level is important, it is suggested to do your exploration during a neap low tide with hardly any swell. Water clarity is not important but helps somewhat.
Begin your journey in Dog-leg Cave, the first cave which has an entrance at water level. By contrast, Shagroost Cave starts well above the high tide and is a dead end. Dog-leg Cave has a squarish, deep entrance, but almost invisibly turns sharply right to a wide but low cavern. During high tide, the ceiling of this cavern is submerged, while waves compress and spout air ominously. Choose your timing at mid tide or slightly later, because this allows you to swim most of the way. At the end of the cavern, light appears and a narrow slit leads you to the Rathole where you can exit. Note that this is difficult or impossible for overweight people.
Dog-leg Cave has a hidden passage back from the Rathole, which widens and then narrows considerably. However, this narrow Snake Passage widens towards its sandy bottom, allowing you to snorkel through at mid tide and crawl (slither) through it at low tide. The Snake Passage widens just before the Window in the Galleries Caves.
The Galleries Caves can be entered from their main entrance. The other entrances have been blocked by boulders, which can be clambered over. Once inside, the Galleries appear much larger than expected, complete with a pebbly beach at their deepest end.You'll find young crayfish and bigeyes in the dark recesses.Also mauve and lemon jewel anemone mats on vertical walls. Agile crabs fleeing in all directions.
To reach Dead-end Cave, you have to clamber over one or two rocks. It is a mysterious, almost straight tunnel, ending in total darkness. At mid to high tide, you can float all the way to the back inside this tunnel. At its entrance, you'll find the largest cats-eye snails in the reserve. Leave them there.
Immediately to the right of this tunnel starts a most interesting connection to the impressive and deep Penguin Cave. Penguin Passage bends around, so that its end cannot be seen from either entrance. Inside the tunnel, which is tall enough to walk through, caverns branch off to the north. Turn left into Penguin Cave and walk up its sandy beach towards the back. Here one can find the nesting places of two pairs of blue penguin or fairy penguin (October to December). Leave them alone, because they are protected. In very good years for this sea bird, three pairs may be found nesting here The smell of ammonia from their droppings gives them away. Find your way out again through the cave's main entrance.
Snorkelling the Goat Island Channel by night is an exciting and rewarding experience. It allows you to observe the 'night shift', and how fish find their sleeping places. You require calm and clear water so that your powerful torch can show you the bottom 2-3m away. Seafriends hires some very bright ones. Experienced freedivers will take the torch under water as they swim over the bottom.
To prepare your night snorkeldive, bring a gas or oil lamp as an orientation point on a prominent rock, where you can also get in and out of the water. Your torch must be waterproof and pressure proof, as used for diving, and it must be bright. The ideal is about 20 Watt (quartz-halogen), but 50 Watt is preferable when you need to share the light between the two of you. Make sure someone knows where you are, or waits for you on the beach. Stay together in the water.
Several places can be dived by night, but you must have a boat with full navigational lights and the knowhow to get back to Leigh Harbour in a mist. The following night dives are recommended: around D-Buoy, around Rogers Cave, in front of Penguin Cave, and around Tabletop Rock.