Virtual diving

Published 22/07/2020

Explore the ethereal seaweed forests of Wellington’s Taputeranga Marine Reserve at room temperature

Virtual Diving

By Jim McNaughton

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Dr Nicole Miller of Friends of Taputeranga Marine Reserve viewing a 360 dive video.

When Nicole Miller sat down opposite me in a busy café and said that scuba diving in the marine reserve off Island Bay was great, I was sceptical. It sounded like something the chair of the Friends of Taputeranga Marine Reserve and president of Wellington Underwater Club would say. And although I’d been told a while back of a monster cray wandering out of the reserve into the arms of an astonished diver, the tale had come from the diver himself ….

I thought of the south coast’s cold water as I sipped my flat white. I imagined the odd drab fish. “Seaweed?”

How thick, bitter and strong that crowded café coffee was.

“Seaweed,” Nicole said, with a gleam in her eye, “looks really good! It’s so diverse in the reserve. It’s like diving in a rain forest. A rain forest that bubbles when it photosynthesises. And it’s very important for the marine environment. It creates a habitat for small fish and critters and is also a key food source, directly and indirectly—and again when it disintegrates. It also buffers wave action to prevent erosion. And seaweed absorbs carbon too, and produces a lot of oxygen.

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The reserve features a diverse range of seaweed.

“Check it out,” she said, as she handed the VR headset and hand controller over the table. It was cued to a 360 degree diving video in Taputeranga on her website:  “The videos are good on a laptop or even a phone but the headset is more realistic.”

I put the mask on and the café disappeared. I had become an eye rolling freely on the end of a scuba diver’s extended selfie stick. The diver released a climbing cloud of bubbles. Another cloud climbed towards the undulating sunlit surface. Seaweed swayed gloomily below. Suspended, weightless, I drifted through the blue toward a shipwreck festooned with seaweed of green, brown and gold. The eye of me stopped rolling on the end of the selfie stick as I drew nearer to the wreck and focussed on a small dark square in the hull that grew larger and larger.

“Try the next one,” came Nicole’s disembodied voice. “Push the trigger to bring up the menu.”

I was at the foot of a steep seaweed covered cliff. At the top, ropes of bull kelp trailed black against the sun. School of trevally and jack mackerel arrived, close enough to reach out and touch as they nosed through the weed forest with sudden muscular bursts.

I drank some more coffee.

After three videos my appreciation for the marine reserve had changed dramatically. For one thing, I had a different perspective on seaweed, which now seemed an unfortunate name for such a diverse, ecologically important and visually atmospheric plant. The Māori name is rimurimu. Let it be known.

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For such an important and atmospheric plant seaweed is unfortunately named.

I understood why Nicole is working to raise awareness of the reserve, with 360 tours on her website, school visits—when not in lock down—and a collaboration with Mountains to Sea on a rimurimu kaitiaki project:

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The reserve was established in 2008.

Nicole would like people to become divers and snorkelers and, ultimately, conservationists who understand the key importance of rimurimu as a marine resource and the pressure it faces through temperature increase, exotic invasion, sedimentation from run-off and pollution.

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The reserve’s snorkel trail can also be dived.

“Wellington is so lucky to have the reserve on its doorstep in Island Bay,” Nicole said. “It’s a taonga—we just don’t realise it yet. Please check out the site. If you like it, you could go on the snorkel trail, learn how to dive. Or if you’ve learned to dive overseas on holiday, go on a refresher course and try diving locally. You’ll be really surprised at what you see!” 

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Taputeranga Marine Reserve extends from Houghton Bay to Red Rocks.