I am writing this account having arrived in New Zealand for the purpose of visiting family friends in the Mercury Bay region, and also for getting some spearfishing and traveling in during my stay. This is not a California dive report.
Prior to my arrival in the country I had networked with some local divers through an NZ fishing forum. One of the guys I had been put in contact with was a bit busy with work and wasn’t quite free to take the day off spearfishing. Fortunately he was able to offer me the next best thing. He talked to his boss and in exchange for a little bit of unpaid labor I would be permitted to tag along with the crew for a day of work and a bit of fun. Callum the Kiwi as it turned out is a commercial kina diver. Kina is the Maori (indigenous NZ inhabitants of Polynesian decent) word for sea urchin. We would be spending a few good hours harvesting urchin on the backside of an island an hour’s boat ride from the town of Whitianga. Instead of 15 minute coffee breaks, we would take 15 minutes to smash up an urchin and shoot a Snapper or pop a few Paua (NZ abalone). I was more than excited for the opportunity.
At 7:30AM when the small town ferry began service, we met at the pier and rode the ferry the very short distance across the estuary. Shortly after, the owner of the Kina quota, Herb, pulled up and we hopped in the back of his flatbed and drove over the hill to his house where we began getting his aluminum urchin boat ready for a day of work. There were some small hold ups but before long the boat was hitched up to his John Deere tractor and we were on our way to the nearby beach. As it turns out tractors are very popular in NZ for hauling boats because they can handle the weight of the boat and they have excellent traction in the surf of sandy beaches, boat ramps are actually relatively unused.
On this particular day, the surf was small and the ocean was glassy. The driver of the tractor had little trouble backing the boat’s trailer and half the tractor into the surf. In no time at all, 6 urchin divers and 1 Californian tag along were cruising along at full speed past rural coastline that I can only describe as a mix of warm SoCal vegetation, NorCal ruggedness, midwestern farm culture, and barefoot Hawaiian ease. The sun was out and the water was turquoise blue, I was in heaven.
Almost an hour passed and we arrived at the base of a sheer rock wall directly opposite a sandy beach. I did my best, but I was only the second to have my suit on and get in the water. My intention from the beginning had been to pull my weight and do my damndest to keep up with the professionals, it wasn’t even close, these guys crushed me in every way.
I got in, turned on my gopro (disappointment on this matter to be discussed later), and with a “kit” in hand (basically a catch bag with a solid circular ring that doesn’t close) and a tool in the other (an axe handle with two steel rods braced together and bent at a 90° angle), I watched another diver for a few minutes and then dove down and began raking kina into the kit as best I could. We were working an area 10-20′ deep, with surface intervals of 20-30 seconds we would drop down rake 15-30 urchin into a bag, back to the surface, and repeat. Digger Wrasse arrived and their enthusiasm for the urchin we were disturbing was overwhelming, these brightly colored fish the size of Lingcod were everywhere and so brave were they we literally had to bat them out of the way. This went on for about 4 hours or approximately 150 drops.
After sometime the guys noticed some snapper of legal size hiding out in the weed (low growing kelp). Callum told me to go get my gun from the skipper and another diver, Rowen, began throwing broken urchin into the weed to draw them out. I sat on the bottom and using a beautiful Bluetec Raptor (without fail this gun has garnered looks of awe and envy from every Kiwi who has laid eyes on it) I have borrowed from Matt (Thank you buddy!!!), I patiently waited and took aim. When I took my shot I punched the skittish little fish straight through the cheek, the guys laughed at and chided me because apparently the shot I had taken had been from so close the fish had died before I pulled the trigger :-). I threw the snapper in the boat’s scupper, handed the Raptor back to the skipper and got back to work.
Fast paced and intense this type of work is physically demanding to say the least. But for all the hard work, the water was calm, the viz was 40’+, and the fish were plentiful. Every diver on the boat had a smile on his face and I couldn’t think of a more joyful day at work. Time passed, I got a close up look at an octopus that had chosen a rainbow like camouflage, and then I began to find heaps of Paua. Paua are much smaller than abalone, I borrowed a bright orange plastic iron with a built in gauge from the skipper and began looking for legal sized paua. By far most were shorts, most everyone from dive shop workers to forum members had told me that legal sized Paua were very rare on the North Island, none the less I was lucky and able to find 4 of legal size (10 being the limit, and 10cm being the minimum size). Callum informed me that finding 4 legal sized Paua was pretty darn good.
I lost count of how many kit I had filled with urchin and handed off to the skipper but eventually the skipper had filled all the sacks that had been brought and the boat was full. We all hopped back on board, climbed over the 40 or so waist high sacks of urchin to the front of the boat and took a minute for me to try some local kina before moving on. Wow, those things taste like SH*T!!! I say that as someone who actually enjoys the taste of California urchin having eaten it on many many occasions. Upon viewing my reaction Herb confirmed my opinion and explained that himself as well as the majority of Japan and China feel the same way. His urchin are predominantly sold to communities within NZ or exported to Australia. We all had a laugh and then revved the engines and drove a short distance to have a spearfish.
We pulled up to a small lonely rock next to a boiling bait ball. It was right about this time I realized that my gopro had been in camera mode and not actually filming, very disappointing. The mistake was corrected and filming began. Callum, Rowen, and Raymond hopped in, began swimming up current, dropped down and almost instantaneously shot a kingfish (yellowtail) each. I followed, dropped down 50′ or so, saw two at a distance I didn’t quite feel comfortable shooting from, and missed what little opportunity I had. After that we didn’t see anymore Kingies, only large swarming schools of 3′ Kahwai which no-one felt were worth shooting. I was exhausted and my downtimes were showing it, still I kept dropping down and hoping until the last minute when I was called back to the boat so we could all make our way home. I tried not to cry :-).
With nearly 4,000# of urchin on board and 7 crew total the aluminum fishing boat was a bit overloaded. Herb instructed us to put all our weight belts in the hold on the bow of the boat and a few of us climbed up to sit up there as well. In twice the time it took us to arrive we returned. The dance between tractor, trailer, and urchin boat was interesting to say the least, but took surprisingly little time. We went back to Herb’s property, unloaded the 2 ton of urchin onto a trailer, washed down the boat, cleaned the fish, and at about 6:30PM called it a day.
This dive report is my pitiful effort to tell you guys what an awesome and truly grueling amount of work a day in the life of a commercial kina diver is. I walked back to my place dizzy with exhaustion and glowing with the joy of a novel and rewarding experience. It is no surprise to me at all that these guys would be excellent divers after such hard work 3-4 days a week and 6 days a week leading up to Christmas. It was a truly rewarding experience.
P.S. I dove a different area the day prior by myself and had a very interesting experience. Suffice to say, Kiwis don’t dive with belt stringers for a good reason.