Raukawa Moana, or the Cook Strait, in New Zealand, is a fast-moving channel of cold (average 10 degree C*), sub-Antarctic water that is continuously and powerfully forced through a tight channel between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Raukawa Moana is known as one of the world’s most turbulent and unpredictable bodies of water, existing in a bottleneck for prevailing winds and strong tidal currents. Contributing to this exchange, is the fact that tidal elevations at either end of the strait are almost exactly out of phase, meaning that high water at one side meets low water at the other.
While studying and living in NZ, I spent four years training as a PADI Asia-Pacific Dive Master, and leading educational experiences for youth and adults in the Taputeranga Marine Reserve, chiefly with the Experiencing Marine Reserves Program of the Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust. In the rich kingdom of the Māori sea god, Tangaroa, one can identify over 400 species of algae, and find rookeries of fur seals, orca, great white sharks, little blue penguins, and a great diversity of invertebrates, including my favorite – the mysterious Wheke, or Reef octopus (Pinoctopus cordiformis), which appear blue to purple in color. According to legend, the very first Polynesian seafaring canoe, or Waka, called Matahorua, captained by the Indigenous hero Kupe, was led to this part of the Strait, while on a wild-goose-chase in search of Te Wheke o Muturangi, a malevolent pet octopus belonging to a rival chief of the motherland, Hawaiiki. The area has a rich Indigenous history and lore, hence the Island after which the reserve is named holding the prefix, “Tapu,” which means forbidden and/or sacred in Te Reo Māori.
Up until the 1970’s, locals of this area, including hearty settlers from Europe’s equally rough North Sea, considered the bays to be like a free “supermarket,” offering an abundance of fish, such as blue moki and butterfish, crayfish (lobster), kina (sea urchins), and paua (abalone). But this abundant marine life was so depleted by over harvesting and impacted by water pollution from the growing city’s run-off, that it was decided to attempt a recovery effort. A marine reserve called Taputeranga was thus enacted with the purpose of research and recovery in the late 1990’s. Here, the word “baroque” is perhaps the best adjective to describe the gorgeous, pastel-colored, underwater seascape, with its infinite complexity and surprises.
So, if you find yourself in Wellington, which is New Zealand’s capital city, make sure to check out the Bait House Aquarium in Island Bay (www.octopus.org), and if the weather is fine, go for a snorkel along the Taputeranga Marine Reserve’s snorkel trail. A 7mm wetsuit, with a hood and booties, is recommended, or a dry suit for deeper water diving, and you must catch the Strait after a week or two of calm weather for good visibility. Raukawa Moana’s unpredictability made exploring her waters a true privilege for the initiated only, and I will always hold this place as Taonga, or sacred treasure, in my heart.