In mid to late February 2021 my dive buddy and I set out for the afternoon to dive around the rock. We had near perfect conditions. I do not mean to boast but I really think I should. We had 5 metres visibility, 17°c water, next to no swell and the sun was out. We were stoked to get out to the rock as we had been talking about diving there since we first came to Kaikoura. Excited and ready to go, we made for the rock.
On our way out, some curious seals swam along with us. Little did we know that this dive was going to be a spectacle. We made our descent on the eastern face. On this side of the rock if you get rather close to the rock around 5 meters in depth you are in seal territory. Lots of fur seals come into the eastern coast to bask and socialise after days/weeks out at sea. Driving up and down the eastern coast, in the Kaikoura district especially, you will notice seals are all over the coastline napping. If you are around the area in the warmer season (November - January) you are in luck of seeing very small pups. We encountered some very playful seals swimming around with each other immediately after our descent. By the minute we would become a part of their play.
What seals tend to do when playing underwater is they lightly bite each other's fins and the longer we were around the more curious about our scuba fins they became. Dashing down quickly from the surface, circling us they’d have a quick try of our fins. After biting our fins it was as if they looked at you and expected you to try and go for their own. They would bite, give you a quick side eye and then dash off into the kelp. They played with us for only 5 minutes before they got bored and swam off to do who knows what.. We waited for a minute with hopes of their return but with limited air we continued our dive towards the northern face.
Coming around the rock to the northern face there are one or two kelp filled channels you can dive through as you navigate your way around rocks. Mid-season the amount of fish is a lot when compared to the more fished areas of Kaikoura. You are surrounded by Moki, Marbles, Butters, Banded Wrasse, Blue Cod, Little Tarakihi, Spotties and that’s just naming the common ones. However, we found hiding on a rock amongst these channels was a decent sized Octopus. They are rather intelligent cephalopods and I would recommend you watch the documentary “My Octopus Teacher”. It explains the beauty of these creatures in an easy to understand manner and has a really amazing story about a man in South Africa.
Anyway, sometimes they are in a curious mood and sometimes they are not. How you can tell is if they are swimming around or away from you they generally want to be left alone. If they plant themselves down on a rock and expand the size of their tentacles they want you to back off. Other times they could just be having a nap. When they are curious they tend not to back away as much and have their tentacles spread around feeling the environment. When they are like this you can remove your dive glove and slowly reach out your hand towards them. If you wait there for a short time they will send a tentacle out to touch you. Then their little sucker grip onto your hand. It feels a lot stronger than you would expect.
On this dive the octopus was extra curious. I think he/she was just happy to have something not try to eat him/her for once. My dive buddy extended her bare hand towards it and it reached out one tentacle in return. Eventually it had multiple tentacles on my dive buddy trying to figure out what kind of creature she must be. In return she leaned in to get a closer look because it is not everyday you get such a close encounter. The Octopus then decided to have a feel of her mask and face. It seemed to like her as we stayed there for maybe 5-10 minutes. I do not think it ever understood what we could have been or made any sense of these weird skinned bubble makers.
We continued our descent towards the western face of the rock and every crack was full of crayfish. They are just everywhere, some huge ones too (huge for Kaikoura shore diving). Crayfish do prefer to bundle up under rocks as a group with the biggest one being the breeder.
We were now at 18 metres on the western face of the rock, and had seals swimming down and checking us out again. This part of the dive is rather barren compared to the shallower parts. Swimming through a decent sized channel between the smaller rock that accompanies the main one we admired the somewhat fluorescent anemones along the face of the rock. It is a beautiful part of the dive making your ascent towards the safety stop seamless. The anemones became less and the kelp took over and back into seal territory we went.
During the safety stop we continued along the shore face of the rock in hopes to find more seals at play. They did not disappoint, swimming around frantically and biting fins. They then swam off into the murk. I checked my air and it was low. I only had about 60 bars left. I signalled to my buddy that we should ascend. She ignored my request and asked for a few more minutes. Since we were only at five metres and my consumption rate was doing better than ever that week, I agreed. And thank Poseidon she did otherwise we would have missed out on the best dive in Kaikoura becoming our best dive ever.
In the search of some playful seals my dive buddy descended over a rock and what happened next blew my mind. A Dusky Dolphin! Out of the mist it swam above her and circled back into the foggy ocean. She did not notice, I called out her name in sheer excitement forgetting that you can’t really hear too well underwater. I could not contain my excitement. I needed to go after it because there could be a pod nearby (pods of duskys can range from 3 to over a 100). I tackled my dive buddy, she looked at me confused, probably assuming I was having an out of air issue. I pointed into the fog where the dolphin came from and I kid you not a pod came out of it.
I counted a total of about seven duskys circling us as we screamed through our regulators. The feeling was unimaginable. If you have not been swimming with duskys before, do it. They are small to medium sized dolphins that range across the southern hemisphere with an estimated population of about 10,000 on the east coast of New Zealand. They are rather social and curious. With the many encounter boats and human activity they are accustomed to humans around Kaikoura. When we encountered them at the end of our dive they were not scared to get within arms reach. I was screaming so much in amazement because this was my second time ever swimming with duskys. I later found out that noise attracts them even more.
We were spinning and screaming for only about 5 minutes with duskys circling us. Their rapid change in direction and speed is unparalleled compared to the seals. They zipped off in unison and disappeared into the mist. We chased after them, of course. We were hooked. However, I could feel my breaths getting lighter and tight. My cylinder was emptying. I was soon going to be unable to breathe. I grabbed onto my buddy's fin and signaled that I was out of air and she gave me her octi to ascend. We surfaced screaming and laughing. We just had our best dive of the season.
I want to clarify that this actually happened. We got to experience all of Kaikoura’s marine life in seventy minutes. All we needed was a whale or two to swim pass. This was a perfect dive and the timing could not have been better. Barney’s rock is a must do dive, it should be one on your bucket list. I have yet to see so much of Kaikoura on one cylinder since. I hope to see you enquiring about it soon. I am always ready to jump in when the conditions line up.
To summarise in the words of my dive buddy “It was good”