Out at the Poor Knights

April 15, 2011 Comments Off on Out at the Poor Knights

I eventually opted for the “Perfect Day” cruise, although I hated the name and I was afraid it was going to be a big group of divers’ spouses and significant others, slightly out of sorts because their partners were going diving without them. And did it mean I was a wuss because I opted for less time out on the water? The good thing was, because my boat left so much later than Simon’s, I had a leisurely morning. I saw him off, packed up and checked out of the hotel, and then I sat in the nearby café and wrote feverishly over mochas until it was time to board. On this trip I went into serious writing withdrawal, and at this point, with only two days left in NZ, I was already getting ready to plunge into a full-fledged writing frenzy when I got back, so this was very important. It was a nice morning. The boat ride out was a lot of fun, slamming into waves and swaying under the bright sun.

There was an utterly comical man on my boat, sitting near me with his wife (or whatever) and their two-year-old daughter. They hailed from San Francisco. He had ridiculous upswept hair, a too-even tan, and a soul patch that emphasized his weak chin. For a long time I thought he wasn’t the kid’s father, because he acted like someone who had never interacted with little kids before. He spoke to her as if she was not only slow in the head but slightly deaf as well, and seemed not to have anything to say to her, because he kept shouting, “Are we on a BOAT, Katie?” And she would say, “Yeah,” and he would say, “That’s RIGHT! We’re on a BOAT! YAY!” I guess he couldn’t think of anything else. And whenever she would act slightly unreasonable (as is a two-year-old’s prerogative), he would get frustrated because “it didn’t make sense.” He would throw up his hands and hand her over to his wife, saying in exasperated tones, “She wanted to hold the banana and I gave it to her, but then she took one bite and handed it back to me! I mean, if she didn’t want it, why did she ask for it?” It was fun to eavesdrop for a while, but then it stopped being funny. Katie was cute, though; she spent the whole ride out singing “Row, row, row your boat” and saying, “I love boats!”

We got out to the islands and anchored near the dive boat. Everyone else headed for lunch first, so I got in the water. Because I don’t do it very often anymore, it always takes me a minute to readjust to snorkeling—it’s kind of uncomfortable, when you’re out of the habit, to trust to being able to breathe with your face in the water. And this water was cold! I was fine without a wetsuit (no one else seemed to be), but it took a lot longer to get used to than the water in Hawaii.

This was the day when I finally admitted to myself that I’m a bit of a color whore when I snorkel. There can be the coolest fish in the world below me, but if they’re grey and silver, I’m not that interested. If there aren’t bright corals, if all there is is drab kelp on dark rocks, I’m a little bored. And this was the case at the Poor Knights. There were big schools of fish and some really big predatory kingfish, but they were all grey and I couldn’t bring myself to be very interested in them. To be fair, though, water depth was also a factor. The things I like to see when I snorkel are the things that are not fish, although colorful fish are fun to watch, especially when they interact with the reef or other fish. I like to see corals and sea cucumbers and octopi and eels; I like to see things that live in the reef and on the seafloor, not above it. That means that my favorite snorkeling is very shallow snorkeling, because only then can you really look for hidden special creatures. This water was 30 or 40 feet deep, and you could kind of make out movement on the bottom, but that was it. I didn’t see anything that wasn’t a fish. And the visibility wasn’t that great, maybe because we were close to waves breaking on the island. Plus when I’m in deep water, I continuously and involuntarily envision great white sharks bursting out of the blue depths in full attack mode. So that was just the icing on the cake. I putzed around for maybe twenty minutes, then called it quits.

I had lunch by myself in the sun, because by then everyone else had got into the water. When I was done, I took out one of the kayaks they had and went around in that, which was a lot better than the snorkeling. I went into a sea cave nearby—I wanted to paddle around to the seaward side and come through it on a wave, but that would have taken me out of sight of the boat, and I’d had too many dire warnings about messing around near waves, so I decided not to and only went in halfway. It was beautiful, though; a hole in the roof let in a beam of sunlight that made the water under me glow brilliant blue, and a shag (cormorant) was eyeballing me suspiciously from the side. It was great. I also went to the dive boat, where the divers were just coming up, and said hi to Simon. When I was done, I returned the kayak, and went back to the upper deck to read in the sun until we left. Little Katie was just recovering from some kind of woe when I got up there—she wanted to go swimming again, but her crying was only beginning to taper off. Her mother picked her up and carried her downstairs, and as she went I could hear Katie singing softly between sobs, “Row, *sniff* row, row *sob* your boat…” She was upset and in pain, but damned if she was going to stop singing for such frivolous reasons. I began to giggle helplessly and had to feign a coughing fit until they got down the stairs.

Before we headed back to land, our skipper took us around the islands, lecturing us about the ecology and history of the islands. Apparently 400-600 Maori once lived out on one of them, which is impressive to me because it was a fifty-minute ride on a modern high-powered boat to get out there. Apparently they had pigs, and a chief from the mainland came all the way out to ask for one, only to be turned away with nothing. Big insult. But you couldn’t attack that island: it was all the way out there, for one, and there were only a couple places  you could land. But many, many years later, a slave escaped from the island, and told the slighted chief that the island Maori were going on a raid at such-and-such a time, so the mainland Maori showed up while the warriors were away and killed everyone. Just your basic betrayal-and-massacre story. The ecology was more interesting. Apparently these islands are (one of?) the only nesting place(s) of the Butler’s shearwater—we actually saw a flock of them, and the skipper said they had probably hatched this year and that was why they were slow getting going; most of them are in the North Pacific by now. But he said it works out to one shearwater per square meter of land, and I think it came to two million in all. And there’s an endemic lily, the Poor Knights lily, which gets washed ashore in clumps and is pretty common on the mainland. And lastly, to top it all off, the boat drove into the biggest sea cave in the world. It was pretty cool, especially when the captain blew the ship’s horn. It was pretty sweet.

The ride back was awesome, with threatening rain the whole way and wild spray. When we docked, I found Simon at the café where I’d been that morning, drinking beer with a couple guys from his boat. It turns out that the diving was much better than the snorkeling. On the first dive, they saw some really big stingrays and came up in a submerged air pocket 8m down, where they could talk and everything. But the second dive was the coolest: the Blue Arch dive, which is Jacques Cousteau’s seventh favorite dive ever. You had to go underneath a boulder wedged in the bottom of the sea cave I’d kayaked into, and, once in, the light streamed into the water, and there were big schools of fish and nudibranchs among the kelp. It sounded amazing.

I got a beer, too, but by the time I got back to the table, both guys had left. One of them, Tim or Tom or something, was a Swedish engineering student who Simon really liked; the other guy was a British guy sailing around the world. Like you do. When we’d finished our drinks, we drove about 30km to Whangarei, which would make a better base for the next day. We stayed in a prison-like hotel (with free laundry!): decent rooms, just sterile endless halls with infrequent and unfriendly fluorescent lights. And that night, I led a quest for pasta, ultimately successful. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t found some. Something very bad. Thank god for pasta.



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