Diving at Karikari

Posted by Steve Hathaway on 12th Jul 2019

Diving at Karikari

Karikari Peninsula is a place of stark contrasts. Visiting for the first time, you are immediately faced with desolate, arid-looking countryside that obviously has great extremes in its weather. Bearing the brunt of cyclonic tropical storms and long dry summers, life on land is tough. Yet this harsh landscape offers no hint of the lush contrast that lies in the surrounding turquoise ocean. Matai Bay, at the end of the public road, is without doubt one of my favourite beaches. Not only is it one of the most beautiful looking pieces of coastline you’ll ever find, but it also holds so many memories of past holiday and spearfishing adventures. These include my best placing at the national spearfishing champs, where my partner and I narrowly came first in the teams’ swim-off contest. It’s also where I speared my first snapper, a 4.6kg specimen (10lb) directly off the beach, and then, on my next visit, a 9.1kg monster – my first 20lber.

The location and underwater topography make it a unique place, as you have a peninsula that juts out to sea, with deep water coming close to the coast, along with plentiful shallow bays and islands. Add to this the numerous pinnacles that rise out of the deep and come close to the surface, combined with good currents, and the whole setup screams world-class fishing. It’s one of the few places in New Zealand where, given the right conditions, you could easily catch marlin, snapper, hapuku, kingfish and crays within a few kilometres of each other. The very conditions that make it a Mecca for fishermen also make it incredible for scuba diving. Recently I had a diving weekend there. Although actually a club spear-fishing trip, these days the tanks and camera are never far away due to my underwater filming work, with my aims being to dive some of the deeper pinnacles I’m very familiar with (from spending time spearing them) and to explore those areas below, where the limitations of one breath had restricted me. I had some suspicions about what I would find, but the great thing about diving somewhere new, or looking with a different perspective, is the chance of a surprise waiting to be discovered. This weekend was not going to disappoint on that front!

The first pinnacle I dived is a tiny rock that seemingly erupts from the bottom over 40m below and stops just short of the surface. It has all the elements of an epic spot for fish, but from my experience it runs more cold than hot. However, I had heard rumours that giant boarfish love hanging out here, and that was enough to make me want to have a look. Gliding down the steep sides into the gloomy depths, the kelp gradually began to decline, and there was a ‘changing of the guard’, with finger sponges starting to appear on the vertical walls.

Apparently this pin had been a hot spot for huge crays that the locals would carefully harvest, but I’ve been told that someone from out of town hammered it over a couple of weeks and it’s never been the same since. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I can say that there were no crays at home on this dive! Nearing the base of the rock in 10- 12m visibility, it appeared that there was a serious lack of colour down there. But when I turned on my underwater camera’s bright LED lights, what seemed to be devoid of colour became a dazzling display rivalling the best botanical garden. And next, from out of nowhere glided a cloud of fish, at first a little hard to recognise, but my suspicions were proven correct – a large school of inquisitive golden snapper.


I love these guys: they are such a cool, prehistoric-looking fish. No wonder I’d never seen them here before, as this was well beyond where I’m capable of free-diving. They continued to hang around, seemingly very relaxed, until each time I exhaled, when they would skitter off in unison into the gloom. Unfortunately, with the limited bottom time allowed at this depth, I didn’t find any giant boarfish, but they could wait for another visit.

The next day I dived another pin that comes to within 15m of the surface from 40-plus metres. At times, even in clear water, the rock is impossible to see from the surface, as it can attract huge quantities of different species of fish, including marlin at the right time of the year. On this day the visibility was a hazy 15m, and I could just make out the rock through the ever-present school of pink maomao. Again, the aim was to see what lived down towards the bottom of the rock, so without wasting time I swam through the clouds of pink maomao, descending into the depths. I was certain I would find another school of goldies down there, but the current must have been running the wrong way for them that day, as none were present.

Suddenly, something caught the corner of my eye. It looked like a small tree in the distance. Then, as I swam closer, my suspicions were confirmed – it was a small black coral tree. Wow! I had never seen one outside of Fiordland before (they can be found in very shallow water there, but in Northland they are normally deeper than the 36m this one was in). I was surprised that an anchor hadn’t smashed it off at this popular spot, or someone hadn’t taken it as a souvenir (black coral is protected in NZ).

I spent the last few minutes of my dive filming this amazing find, and was joined by a school of pink maomao before I had to head to the surface. This dive may not have been productive in the way I used to judge my dives – as I hadn’t got a fresh fish meal or two with me at the surface – but what I did take away was some great memories that I’m still enjoying to this day. The beautiful Matai Bay can be accessed by public road, and is a great launching point for any Cape Karikari excursion.

Courtesy of New Zealand Fishing News