Three wāhine on what diving and spearfishing in Aotearoa gives them.
Moments before slipping into the depths of the Pacific, speargun in hand, Renee Taylor will check her breathing. It should be steady and deep, relaxed to slow her heart rate right down. Rhythmic like the sea. The mind needs to quiet itself before she dives below to spear. Below the water’s surface she’ll search for kelp forests and flickers of fish parties.
It’s been just over a year since Renee (31) first dived with a speargun in tow. With a passion for freediving, learning to spearfish was a natural next step. “I started out by going free diving with mates, but it was always the dudes who spearfished. I thought I’d never do it, but I started learning with a friend of mine, who was just the most calm and patient person.”
Renee finds peace in stretching her lungs beneath the sea’s surface. She’s based between Auckland and Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula’s east coast and works as a speech and language therapist in a private practice. Specialising in aged and palliative care, working alongside patients with progressive neurological diseases and cancers, it can be a difficult job mentally. The water has always offered an escape. “Under water is the only place I've ever experienced genuine freedom from the world in my head, and the world above. No other place does that. It’s not just the spearfishing either, it’s the breathing techniques and the mindfulness that comes with it.”
Spearfishing is an elemental and ancient activity, one that requires plenty of patience. Renee’s battle to get her first kingfish is a testament to that. Part of her fin split open pre-dive (repaired with duct tape, naturally), and a snagged and torn wetsuit in the water followed. “The first spot we jumped in and there were sharks everywhere, a little too many, so we moved spots. We dived down again and I managed to break my gun. It was just a shambles, scrambling up and down, but eventually I got the bloody fish.”
And spearing her first snapper was memorable– the pinnacle fish for most NZ spearos. The elusive targets are incredibly difficult to get close to, let alone to land one. After seven hours on the water with a cray and some pāua on board but no luck fish-wise, Renee dove a final time to spot a snapper cruising past. Spearing one involves snooping: silently clinging to rocks, sneaking through kelp and peering over ledges. She managed to shoot the flighty creature, and coming home with a snapper over one shoulder and her gun and wetsuit over the other was a sight to see for her young nephews. “My eldest was like, ‘oh my god did you get that?’ I was like, ‘yeah bro’. He melted my heart, sitting with me while I filleted and prepped the fish and watching so intently. He talked about it for months.”
Nature’s forces push the spearer to make the most of what they’re given. Renee says it’s about appreciating the experience, because more often than not, she’ll end up with nothing but a bit of kelp for dinner. She emphasises taking what we need from the ocean rather than taking for the sake of hunting, then ensuring the whole fish is used. That means skilfully filleting it, using the head for stock or soups and guts for garden fertiliser. Making use of underdog species is also something to consider. “We’re continually targeting snapper when they’re declining so rapidly, but baitfish are great, they’ve actually got less mercury content, and they’re higher in omega and fatty oils.”
Renee runs a platform created for women, Salt Sisters, with fellow water-lover Amber Jones. Salt encourages wāhine to find their own paths to the sea, whatever that experience might be. Recently the pair have been organising trips around Aotearoa centred on women and water. “When I was first getting into spearfishing I saw it was so male-dominated, and that can be terrifying. I wanted to create a safe space for women to connect.”
Before a dive, sometimes Renee will blow into a pūmoana (a musical instrument made from a conch shell). It was found on the ocean floor off Whangarei’s coast at the beginning of her spearfishing journey. “I took it down to my uncle at the marae, and he saw it and said, ‘woah, that’s awesome where did you get that?’ He’s a specialist in traditional Māori instruments, so he turned it into a pūmoana and taught me how to play it.” Sounding a note from the instrument on a bobbing boat before sliding into the water is Renee’s way of giving thanks to the ocean. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel like it shows people what the ocean means to me. It shows all those special connections you can make with the sea.”
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Aotearoa's seascape is particularly rich and complex, with over 15,000 known species, but scientists estimate there may be as many as 65,000 species. Our isolation means that many of these species aren’t found anywhere else in the world, yet only a tiny fraction of our marine environment has any protection. More than 30% of NZ’s land mass is protected in parks and reserves, but our marine reserves cover just 0.48% of our oceans.
Annika Andresen is an environmental educator, who’s encouraging children to protect the ocean and its inhabitants through use of virtual reality (VR) headsets. Annika, 26, has taken thousands of school kids beneath the surface of Aotearoa’s ocean through Blake’s NZ-VR programme.
“You can tell people what it’s like to see underwater, but if you’ve never been underwater it’s hard to paint a picture of it in your mind.” Kids experience the depths of the sea with 360˚ New Zealand Geographic footage of marine environments around the Hauraki Gulf and Northland. “You watch them with their headsets on and you can hear them saying, ‘oh my gosh, the seaweed’s touching me!’” She remembers one student who lay flat on the carpet, arms swinging in the air like he was swimming.
The underwater realm is something of a second home for Annika. Diving is a shared family passion; she grew up sailing around Northland in a yacht built by her father for much of her childhood. She was seven when her dad first plopped her in the water with a little scuba tank at Kawau Island.
Life around the ocean made Annika determined to share water experiences with the people around her. She taught her entire class to snorkel at intermediate school. “This was before health and safety was a thing, so we convinced the teacher to let us run sessions in her pool to teach everyone to snorkel. Me and my dad swum laps with kids in the pool and taught them how to de-fog their mask and duck dive.” For two students who weren’t water fans, her dad made a dinghy with a perspex bottom. “We went out to Goat Island and I managed to get mum to put the dinghy in our van, so she could row these two kids around to see what we could see.”
Annika later guided more than 600 divers working as snorkel and scuba instructor in Tutukaka. She recalls a memorable dive at the Poor Knights Islands’ Northern Arch, 40m deep in crystal conditions watching more than 50 stingrays lay on top of each other ‘pancake-ing’. Another dive out at the Coromandel’s Aldermen Islands a curious blue shark approached Annika and her fellow divers, swimming beside them for a moment before gliding away with a school of fish.
Aotearoa’s underwater world is vast and diverse, and encounters like this are something she’s taking back to classrooms. After students have set their VR goggles aside, they’ll discuss the effects of ocean pollution and overfishing. It’s estimated that around three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or overfished. And globally, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the sea each year. “Part of the programme focuses on taking responsibility and kaitiakitanga (being a guardian for our environment). You can’t take that role if you don’t know what you’re protecting.”
Annika emphasises that to want to protect something, you have to love it first. She knows taking children beneath the sea’s surface can spark this love. Association with the ocean breeds empathy for the environment, she says, and hopefully these young explorers will want to protect it.
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Often people don’t know what’s in their own backyards. It’s true of diving in Aotearoa. Sophie Roselt, a skipper and instructor with Dive! Tutukaka, says plenty of people are surprised by the magnificence of NZ’s diving and the diversity of our underwater wildlife. “Sometimes people just don’t think it’s a great place for wildlife, but we can be exposed to things here some people can only dream of, like orca whales, humpbacks or manta rays.”
Sophie (28) grew up in landlocked Zimbabwe until she was eight, when she moved to Tutukaka, east of Whangarei. The move to Aotearoa opened a doorway to the ocean. She took a dive course in high school and fell for Tutukaka’s vivid blue waters, rugged cliffs and abundant marine life. At 16 she joined the Dive! team.
The Poor Knights marine reserve sits 30km off the Tutukaka Coast and is situated in the direct path of the warm East Auckland Current (EAC). It’s responsible for regular encounters with tropical visitors like manta rays and turtles, who glide amidst the water’s archways and overhangs. “You do get used to seeing snapper and kingfish, so when you see something like a turtle, it’s worth more, because you’re almost not meant to see them in New Zealand.”
On one deep scuba off the Pinnacles site, Sophie and her husband watched dozens of bronze whaler sharks schooling metres from them. Near the iconic Blue MaoMao Arch, where light floods the arch in beams and great schools push at each other on the walls, Sophie recalls watching a giant pod of orca whales swim by. To guide others under the water and see people get excited by what excites her is one of the best aspects of the job, Sophie says.
She set her scuba tank aside and snorkelled while pregnant with her son Reef, which deepened her love for freediving. “Obviously being pregnant you can feel so heavy on land. Being in the ocean, it just takes away that weight and pressure. Sometimes I’d feel him kicking as soon as I got in the water.” One-year-old water baby Reef has already swam with turtles and watched spouting orcas off the dive boat from his mum’s knee.
Sophie echoes Annika’s aforementioned message: to protect something, you have to love it first. “Once you love something, it makes it easier to look after. I want Reef to be passionate to protect our ocean. By making him love the sea and what’s in it, hopefully he’ll want to continue conservation work and being a voice for things that can’t speak.”
Diving has its many realms, be it free divin nooo g, spearfishing or scuba, and Sophie notes there’s a great community of women within it. “It’s definitely getting bigger, and it’s cool that it’s not a male-dominated sport. It’s actually pretty even in dive crews, there’s never a token girl.” The skipper realm, on the other hand, could always do with a few more wāhine behind boat wheels. “It’s sometimes funny seeing reactions when people see you’re the skipper, because I’m pretty small. Other girls come up to me and say how cool it is to see a woman driving the boat for a trip. It’s nice to be that for people. Seeing people like you in roles makes it seem more normal. It makes it more doable for other girls who might want to do it, because then it doesn't seem impossible.”
Find Salt: @salt.nz
Want to keep reading? Find the full story, Everything Under, in Womenclan: Journal One available here.