Night Diving With Ollie Craig

A spontaneous trip turned into one of Ollie Craig’s most memorable dive experiences.

A plan was hatched. I had been eyeing up a remote piece of coastline for a few years. There is so much coastline to explore and dive around New Zealand that it can be overwhelming at times deciding where to go.

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If I am in desperate need of some fresh fish or feeling lazy, I will usually head to one of my more regular locations, however I like to explore new places. It’s all part of the fun and adventure and the majority of the time it pays off, finding new hidden gems full of sea life and incredible scenery both underwater and above!

I loaded my trusty Ex-Surf Lifesaving IRB up with my spearfishing gear, hitched it onto the Suzuki Jimny and headed off at midday from Auckland. The drive ahead was about three hours, which is usual for me, the best dive spots generally being at least this far away from the Big Smoke.

The forecast was spot on as I arrived at the launch site, with flat, calm seas and no swell.

I hadn’t dived for a few weeks, so I was pumped to get in the water. I made sure to bring my camping setup so I could stay the night and dive the next day as well, to make the most of the good weather window.

Launching off the beach was a breeze with the IRB and I didn’t muck around, heading off up the coast as the light was dying, and kicking myself that I didn’t leave earlier. But as it turned out, this late launch actually paid off.

With this being a new, unexplored coastline for me, I looked for some nice structure above the water which looked like it would continue below the surface. I was looking for a combination of rock falls/boulders which could hold crayfish, and some nice cracks/ledges which could translate to gutters and suitable terrain for some nice snapper to be lurking in.

A beautiful secluded bay.

A beautiful secluded bay.

I only had about one hour of good light left, this being the East Coast in the middle of winter.

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The whole coast looked incredible and suitable, so I just jumped into a spot that looked nice and sheltered near a point, hoping for some current, always a very important ingredient for good spearfishing.

I struggled to find any of my target species around, with this stretch of coast actually quite barren and lifeless. I had brought with me only minimal food, as I was confident of finding some fresh seafood to eat. The sun was going down fast, and light was running out, so I decided to take the next edible fish that presented itself, so I could have some fresh fish for dinner.

I spotted a leatherjacket (sold as creamfish in the markets) cruising on the reef. I took a breath and duck-dived, sinking down to the fish’s level and extending the speargun to take the shot, securing the fish with ease.

Lining up for a shot at a decent snapper.

Lining up for a shot at a decent snapper.

I still had to find somewhere to set up camp, so dispatched the fish hastily and cruised up the coast looking for a nice beach or cove to stay the night on. The whole coast was very rocky, not ideal, but I found a nice sheltered little cove and made my way in.

After setting up camp and getting a fire prepared, I prepped the leather jacket for dinner. I found out why they have that name, soon blunting what had been a very sharp knife. I finally got the fillets off, but later learned that you can easily peel the skin off the flesh like pulling off a sock!

I mixed some mayo to bind the panko crumbs and fried cubes of fish to make some very tasty fish wraps! I can now say that this species, which I had never tried before, is great to eat and I would certainly spear one again!

I leaned back, digesting my delicious meal and watching an incredible sunset reflected in an ocean so calm it looked like a lake. I was still full of energy after my short dive and annoyed that a I didn’t have more time to explore, so decided to try a night dive.

Ollie could not have imagined how the reef came alive at night, with the crayfish being particularly active.

Ollie could not have imagined how the reef came alive at night, with the crayfish being particularly active.

Waiting until about an hour after dark, I nearly bailed at the thought of removing my nice warm clothes in exchange for a cold, wet, wetsuit. But I knew these chances don’t arise often, so manned-up and got my wetsuit back on. I had only night-dived once before, in the Maldives, which was an incredible experience. That, however, was on scuba, not freediving, and I was alone this time. I am not recommending doing this alone to anyone, for obvious safety reasons, but I’m a bit crazy so I went ahead!

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I took a good rechargeable dive torch, my speargun, and a float towing behind with a catch bag. I had heard stories of snapper parked up in the shallows at night, sleeping, and crayfish walking around in the open so I was super-excited about what lay ahead.

I plunged in and started swimming out towards a point. My plan, if my torch stopped working, was to hug the coast and swim back until I found my IRB. There was just enough moonlight to see.

It was only a minute or two before I swam over the top of a snapper. I couldn’t believe it! What is normally a very skittish fish, bolting at the sight or sound of a diver, was placid, asleep in the kelp. I reached out and touched the fish with my hand before it finally swam off. I came upon more and more snapper, all asleep without a care in the world. It was an incredible experience, with the spots and colours of the fish illuminated in spectacular fashion by the light of the torch.

They were all nice-sized snapper, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot one It just didn’t seem fair.

Touching a snapper with my hand!

Touching a snapper with my hand!

I couldn’t help thinking about crayfish, so made my way out to the point which I hoped would have a little more current and had looked like good terrain earlier in the day.

It didn’t take long before I spotted the brightly-coloured legs of a crayfish, then another, and another, and many more. They were everywhere!

I dived down and took one nice crayfish, then moved on to see what else was lurking in the dark winter water.

I sensed something out of the corner of my eye and saw a large stingray cruising behind me. I got a huge fright as I couldn’t help but think of the possibility of encountering a shark. The ray was very placid, however, and moved along on his night cruise, as did I.

A big pufferfish emerged from the kelp, then a big school of baitfish, a scorpionfish and some big moray eels. All the usual species were around and it was a pleasure diving and experiencing this all at night.

I swam further, encountering another barren piece of coast, before I hit the jackpot. Shining my torch into a crack running down between two boulders, the area lit up like a Christmas tree. It was absolutely loaded with crayfish! I shone the torch around the area and it was a sight I will never forget. There must have been hundreds of crayfish, and big ones too! It was overwhelming: some of them were walking about on the seabed below, and every crack and boulder was holding multiple crays.

I got some footage on the GoPro then plucked a few to take back to camp. Breakfast was going to be great!

While swimming back to camp, I got a few more frights from large stingrays and encountered many more crayfish, even finding a nest of packhorse crays! Wetsuit off, I warmed up next to a nice beach fire and was stoked with the result of my night dive. It had not been too scary and was something I hope to do again soon!

Spoils of the trip!

Spoils of the trip!

After a night in the tent, I enjoyed fresh crayfish for breakfast and spend the rest of the next day spearfishing, managing two nice big snapper and my first-ever blue moki. These last aren’t common up near Auckland so was a welcome tasty treat!

I love how spontaneous ideas turn into successful trips and great memories!

If you are interested in seeing some night-dive footage check out my YouTube Channel.

September 2022 - Ollie Craig
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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