Elisabeth Easther speaks to the Auckland regional co-ordinator of Experiencing Marine Reserves.
I grew up in Mt Albert, in Auckland but we spent a lot of our holidays on the gulf on Dad's boat or at our bach in Opito Bay. It is a long white sandy beach, the most northeastern point of the Coromandel Peninsula. My dad had a tiny little mask that he put on me, and we'd jump in at a rock pool at the northern end of the beach. It was nice and shallow for learning how to snorkel and spearfish. My dad had strong values about what we should and shouldn't shoot. I only ever spear fish now and am very selective, mainly shooting butterfish for Granny, or trevally and kawahai.
I was about 13, and a female orca and her calf came into the bay, riding waves and picking up stingrays, the mother throwing them up in the air for her calf. My mum had to hold me tightly, to stop me swimming out to them in my pyjamas.
Today I'm the Auckland regional co-ordinator of Experiencing Marine Reserves, teaching kids and communities about the ocean by getting them into it. I love the looks on people's faces when you get them in the water, especially for the first time. That's really rewarding.
Part of the reason I run a Takapuna snorkel day is that no one puts a mask on there, ever. But there are nudibranchs, triple fins, parore and spotties, lots of cool little fish — and most people don't know. The Whangateau estuary is amazing, it's another world, a sandstone reef bordered by mangroves. You'll see big schools, of parore, eagle rays, pipefish and baby snapper.
Recently I went down to Otago for the first time, and I jumped in at the Catlins. It was cold but the bull kelp was amazing. And then, because I could, we went into Lake Wakatipu and it was 8C. In Lake Wakatipu, I saw a golf ball and a shopping trolley, lots of bottles and plastic waste — it's pretty clear people use it as a rubbish dump. My favourite fresh-water snorkel site is Kai Iwi Lakes.
The most scared I've ever been, we were halfway between White Island and Whakatane when we jumped off the boat into a bait ball — because it's fun to swim in bait balls — when this pod of pilot whales come through. They're really big and the water was very cold and we were just in togs, the visibility was very bad and these large whales came out of the gloom at us. I was quite alarmed but they were on a mission.
I judge a place by whether I can get in the water. I went to Niue in April last year on my honeymoon. The best visibility we get in New Zealand waters is about 30m-40m max — in Niue it can get up to 80m because of the limestone rock. The water is so clear it messes with your brain as you don't realise you're underwater. I have these great free-diving fins with a paua pattern and the sea snakes there were obsessed with the colours. Everywhere I swam I'd have five or six snakes following me. The faster I swam the faster they followed me.
Even though I get into water most days for my job, once I'm under water my head goes calm. It's my happy place.
Further information: See emr.org.nz