Neil and the Homicidal Seal

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

OK so last weekend in Northland wasn’t that bad, but after 20 years in Asia, I’m not what you would call acclimatised to a New Zealand winter. So when some bright spark suggested that we go diving this weekend, I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy.  But then I naively allowed myself to get lulled into a false sense of security by the beautiful, clear, blue sky and the glorious sunshine that looked so warm and inviting (from inside the house out of the biting wind). And so on Friday afternoon Rita and I headed up to Whangarei to stay with Andy and Fiona, BSAC NZ‘s National Instructors (We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!).

The plan was to dive on the Saturday with Dive Tutukaka. Mitch and Jacqui had been talking about coming as well, but they suddenly realised that their windows were dirty, and so they had to call in an emergency window cleaner on the Saturday. Their loss was our gain, as we had the run of Boorer Palace. We made pretty good time getting to Whangarei which was helped by skipping dinner. Fortunately Andy and Fiona’s fridge was well stocked and we were able to scrounge an unexpected meal from our hosts.

Dolphin off our bowDive Tutukaka were expecting the weather to deteriorate throughout the day on Saturday, and wanted an early start. So as dawn broke bright and early (well, early), I was dragged from my pit. Kicking and screaming were involved. We arrived at Tutukaka at 8am and it was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky. We were diving from Calypso, which is quite a large boat with a good covered area and there was plenty of room to spread out since there were only 10 divers.  The trip out to the Poor Knights took about an hour and was interrupted by a pod of 6 dolphins, which kept getting in our way, demanding to be photographed.

We anchored near Fruitcake Rock, where we could see a number of fur seals climbing up the cliffs. These are apparently young males, who visit at this time of year and congregate around this small island / lump of rock (delete as applicable). You can tell that they must be young males, because in keeping with young males from all species, they are the only demographic stupid enough to indulge in mock fights on a vertical cliff face.  But they were no use to us up there, so don’t tell the conservationists but I was secretly hoping that one or two of them would fall off and into the water.

Having seen the seals, we all started racing to kit up. Although in my case “racing” is a bit of a exaggeration. The water temperature had convinced me to have another go at using my drysuit. After several attempts I have come to the conclusion that to put on one of these  “self-donning” drysuits you have to be double-jointed and have the help of a team of “dressers”. I had also decided that I would connect up the pee-valve for the first time ever. I have to admit that that was the only part of the suit that I did manage to “self-don”. The last time I’d worn this drysuit, it didn’t quite live up to its name and I got soaked. Mitch thinks this might be because I pulled open the neck seal underwater to stop it throttling me. Well, the neck seal carried on with its attempts to strangle me, which went some way to explaining my bulging eyes, although it did have the benefit of reducing my air consumption.

Nudibranch at the Poor KnightsOnce in the water I did a quick buoyancy check, which confirmed that I was grossly over-weighted, before dropping down under the boat. After about 10 minutes I managed to get enough air into the drysuit to detach  myself from the seabed and we got on with the dive. There was lots of kelp, plenty of good fish life, a couple of nice nudibranchs. After about half an hour Rita turned to me, clapped her hands like a performing seal and looked around shrugging her shoulders. 30 seconds later, the first of 3 seals appeared and swam round us within touching distance. It was really impressive to see how large, powerful and athletic they are – just what I’ve been hoping Liverpool would find in a striker, although we don’t need the striker to be as good at diving as these seals, since we’ve already got Stevie G.

Carpet Shark at the Poor KnightsAfter having a good look at us, the seals finally headed off into the distance, and while they were definitely the highlight of the dive, it wasn’t over yet. Another diver called us over and showed us a carpet shark that was sheltering on the bottom, unfazed about having its picture taken. My first seal and my first carpet shark all on one dive!

Back on the boat, and after a great deal of effort, I managed to escape from the clutches of my neck seal, which was innocently pretending that it had nothing to do with the bruises and welts that made me look like a victim of the Boston Strangler.

We took a quick break for lunch while the crew told us about the history of the Poor Knights and its status as a protected reserve, which helps to explain why the fish life is so prolific and relatively approachable.

For a second dive we moved to Rikoriko cave, the largest sea cave by volume in the world. We anchored just outside while several people forced me back into my drysuit. I’d taken a fair amount of lead off my belt, so my descent was slightly more controlled and elegant than on the first dive. We headed into the cave and swam along the left hand wall. Inside there was no kelp, but there were several large shoals of blue maomao. From the back of the cave we looked back towards the entrance , which was a beautiful view with the light streaming in. The visibility was exceptionally good and the clear blue water was fantastic.

Sperm whale jawboneAt the back right hand side of the cave was a whale jawbone, which was apparently from a sperm whale that died and was washed into the cave. While we were looking at this a boat came into the cave and anchored, and we watched a number of people climbing up onto it. Slightly surprised to see another dive boat we headed back to the entrance before surfacing, only to find that it was our boat. They had moved it to the middle of the cave, and because it’s such a big cave it took us some time to get back.  When the skipper asked why we’d swum right under the boat and surfaced miles away, I had to admit that I hadn’t recognised his bottom.

Getting out of my drysuit was slightly easier than getting in, and I was pleasantly surprised  that my it had lived up to its name and I was actually dry. Apparently not pulling open the neck seal underwater does help, who’d have thought it? As for the most uncomfortable experience of the day? Well that was a toss-up between removing the pee-valve catheter which was well and truly glued to everything, and my homicidal neck seal’s attempts to murder me!

That evening, we went back to Andy and Fiona’s for home-made pizza, which was very good. We raised a small glass to a very successful day’s diving. Then we started drinking!

Seal at the Poor KnightsAnother excellent dive trip with two spectacular dives, and I’m really glad we went. Thanks very much to Andy and Fiona for their hospitality.  As for Mitch and Jacqui – I’m sure your windows look lovely! But my abiding memory of the weekend will be of seals – both neck and fur.


(Photos courtesy of Rita Cheung)




About Neil Hambleton

I am a British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) Advanced Diver and an Open Water Instructor. I have been diving since 1992, after joining South China Diving Club (SCDC), which is a Hong Kong-based branch of the BSAC. Having moved to New Zealand, I am now a member of BSAC New Zealand.
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