Louise Dransfield gets to know the friendly fish off the coast of the North Island
The local residents scatter as I stumble over my flippers into the cool, clear water. As I bob ungainly about on the surface, above the forests of seaweed and bright yellow sponges, it’s not long until the territorial snappers decide to swim up and say hello.
Feeding the fish was prohibited here a few years ago after behavioural changes were observed in the island’s marine life. Yet these Snapper, who I’m told arepartial to frozen peas, have learnt and remembered that people mean food, and have few qualms about getting up close and personal. The red moki, however, are slightly more reticent, while the goatfish, blue maomao and banded wrasse notably keep their distance.
Established in 1975, the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve —otherwise known as Goat Island — was New Zealand’s first, protecting just 1,280 acres of sea and shore, an hour north of Auckland. Strangely, there’s no actual record of there ever being any goats on the island — this, it seems, was just a name 18th century European explorers liked to give any small coastal island without a fresh water supply, as goats would often be left to provide food for shipwreck survivors (they can survive longer than most animals without fresh water).
Pigs, however, were once left on the island. Yet they escaped by swimming back at low tide to the black sands of the mainland, leaving only the resident rats (attempts to remove them have been unsuccessful — they just swim back) and birds such as nesting seagulls, shags and little blue penguins that inhabit one of the island’s caves.
But the real stars of the show are the fish. The channels within the reserve reach a depth of about 40ft, so are ideal for divers and snorkelers, and if you’re very lucky you may catch the occasional visiting dolphin or hammerhead shark. However, I content myself with the abundant spiky, black kina (sea urchins) nestled in the crevices of the underwater rock and, of course, the ever-present snappers, which have been known to reach the ripe old age of 65 in the reserve.
Alex, who works on the reserve’s glass-bottom boat tours, tells me that the snappers are all born female, with half changing into males when they’re about three and a half years old. As yet, no one has discovered why — not even the scientists from the University of Auckland’s marine research facility, which regularly studies the area.
It’s a point best pondered over a beer, I decide, and after a couple of hours of swimming with the fish, we retire to a historic pub in the settler village of Puhoi. Opened in 1879, the Puhoi Pub & Hotel & Stables is full of memorabilia and artifacts, not to mention leather-clad bikers, whose Harley’s line up in the car park next to the hot rods and classic cars. The beer’s pretty good too, and as I sip, I contemplate the island, and its rather forward population of miraculous little fish.