He Tangata: A chat with owner/operator of Paihia Dive Craig Johnston

By Elisabeth Easther

Each week, Elisabeth Easther gets the story of people in the Kiwi tourism industry. This week, she speaks to the owner/operator of Paihia Dive Craig Johnston.
Paihia Dive's Craig Johnston has spent a lifetime on boats.
Paihia Dive's Craig Johnston has spent a lifetime on boats.

I'm one of six kids, although my older twin brothers left home when I was 7, so then there were just four of us. There are two sets of twins in my family, I'm also a twin. My sister has twins, identical boys, and in my dad's family there are lots of twins too - luckily I don't have any.

My parents were both schoolteachers, they'd been teaching in Fiji in the early 70s, returning to New Zealand in early 73. When I was 10 we spent a month in Fiji, staying with friends of my parents' from when they were teaching. We spent a couple of weeks on a copra plantation at Udu Point at the top of Viti Levu, in a bure on the beach. I remember it so vividly - the plane ride that seemed to a 10-year-old to go on forever, and the heat when we got off the plane. For a week I went to a local school, we were treated as special guests and at the feasts, we were given the fish heads. And we were like, "we have to eat these?" They also served turtle but there's no way, knowing what I know now, that I'd eat it today.

Growing up, we had a 26ft launch made of kauri. It was built in the 1930s and was solid as anything. It cruised along at about 6 knots, slept six at a squeeze and we'd stay out for up to two weeks at a time. It was a great way to grow up, fishing, snorkelling and spear fishing in the Bay of Islands. I probably do what I do today because my parents had a boat. Dad used to let me take it out with no adult supervision when I was 15. Being the youngest of six they gave me more freedom than I'd give my kids.

My first holiday without my parents, I spent two weeks in the South Island with a mate. I was 19 and a dive master, and the shop where I worked would have groups of phys ed students learning to scuba dive so I went down to stay with some of them in a university flat in Dunedin. Then I spent a week in Queenstown where I skied and skied and skied till I couldn't walk any more. For a Northland boy I didn't get those opportunities very often so I made the most of it.

Soon after I headed to Australia and spent about five months teaching diving on the Great Barrier Reef. This opened up marine environments to me and, being from small town New Zealand, it opened my eyes to how big the world was. Spending five months in Cairns, diving five to six days week, I probably did 350-400 dives. It was quite full-on with groups of up to 16 students with one instructor. It was like a supermarket for divers, but you did it because you didn't know any different.

I've also dived in Fiji, Hawaii, Canada. I've swum with humpback whales in Tonga - if you ever get a chance to do that you have to; such a highlight. I've dived in the Red Sea, the Sinai Peninsula, the Straits of Tiran in Egypt, near Sharm el Sheik.

I had a mind-blowing dive in the Poor Knights when a pod of orca came to eat stingrays right in front of us. Technically you're not meant to get in the water with orca but they came to us and just talking about it now, still gives me goose bumps.

Because we're in tourism, our summers are flat out and mainly we run trips to the wrecks. The HMNZS Canterbury was purpose-sunk for scuba diving out at Deep Water Cove. Then there's the Rainbow Warrior up in the Cavalli Islands. You can get your PADI in three days if you do the theory online before you get here. Then it's a day in the pool and two days out diving, usually in the reserve in Deep Water Cove.

Being a rahui area, you see stunning sights. If you tap on the rocks, the little kelp fish, the hiwihiwi, will sit on your hand like puppies. They're really friendly - actually they're really just waiting for food. In most places, fish are scared of divers but in a reserve area like this you can hand-feed big snapper.

Deep Water Cove has been a reserve for six years; the rahui sponsored by local hapu has just rolled over for another two. It'd be great to see it made into a proper marine reserve like Goat Island or the Poor Knights as there are no protected areas in the Bay of Islands.

Because I've been diving all my life, I've seen so many amazing things. Like today, going out and having massive manta ray swimming beneath me, free diving underneath it and having it barrel roll on top of me. Also today while spear fishing, it's my first day off in ages, I saw three or four bronze whalers. The marine life here is amazing and that's what floats my boat.

Further information: see divenz.com

- NZ Herald

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