Underwater Niue

Isn’t it time we had some fun? Time we put down the history books and had a swim?

Okay, it’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m a little bit water phobic. I actually had some snorkelling lessons back in high school but then almost immediately developed a fear of going into the water. There was something somehow at once both claustrophobic and agoraphobic about the whole experience, like being smothered but without the benefit of walls or solid ground or anything else to cling to.

Since then, I’ve been a buzzkill at pool parties. I did plan to push my boundaries while here in Niue, but on arrival found that my underwater camera was out of juice and I’d managed to leave the charging cable at home. It’s a non-standard connection so I figured my chances of finding a replacement on the island were slim. Cue sulking.

However I did stop off at Limu Pools, Niue’s top snorkelling destination, out of curiosity. That’s when I saw this:

Limu Pools, Niue
Maybe I DO need this in my life…

Suddenly sulking didn’t seem so attractive.

So I headed in to Buccaneer Adventures Niue Dive to see about hiring some snorkelling gear. It was $75 for 7 days, which seemed pretty reasonable. I told them the tale of woe regarding my camera and – wonder of wonders – they actually had a match just chilling in their cable drawer! They let me borrow it at no extra cost, which was awfully kind of them.

So if you like any of my underwater pictures, thank Niue Dive.

On the next low tide I was back at Limu Pools, ready to dip my flippers in. On both visits I’d arrived to find about eight other people, which was enough to inspire camaraderie without feeling crowded. I’m actually kind of amazed that such a perfect-looking place manages to exist without being swarmed by tourists.

Stairs down to Limu Pool
Couldn’t make a prettier pool if you tried

I descended the staircase into waist high water, donned my flippers and slipped on the mask. Upon placing the snorkel in my mouth I immediately hyperventilated, assuming I couldn’t breathe, before remembering that breathing was literally the whole point of this get-up.

Okay, interesting start. But now it’s time for the real challenge – actually swimming. For that, I’d not only have to touch the water, I’d have to touch it with my face.

Underwater at Limu Pools
First look at what lies beneath

I pressed on, and immediately I was in a different world. Without rivers or sandy beaches or industry to discharge sediment into the sea, Niue’s waters are astonishingly clear. And right away I was seeing life that only a moment ago had not been visible from above the surface.

These distractions helped me to relax, and I began to explore the underwater world. In a corner I found a whole school of yellow and black striped fish, perhaps convict surgeonfish, which allowed me to get remarkably close.

Convict surgeonfish at Limu Pools
A host of friendly fish

In one corner, I noticed a mystical underwater arch, which – had I been brave enough to dive beneath – might have lead me to even more wonders. Alas, I was not yet brave enough for such an adventure.

Underwater arch at Limu Pools
Mystical Arch

And in another nook, we have what appears to be a guineafow pufferfish! Kind of disappointed I didn’t know at the time so I could see what happens if I tried to poke it. Although that may be just as well, as it’s generally not advised to poke strange wildlife.

Guineafowl pufferfish at Limu Pools
Guineafowl pufferfish

Just as I felt I had seen all there was to see, Limu Pools had another surprise for me. I turned my head to the left to discover what I would call a snake but is more properly called a banded sea krait or katuali…just casually swimming along about a foot from my face.

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Surprise snake. Excuse the bad photo, I may have been slightly alarmed.

These creatures are highly venomous, though not aggressive, even if they are a little over-curious. They are unique to Niue, found nowhere else in the world. This one soon tired of my company and retired to its resting place under a rock.

That, I figured, was my signal to call it a day. I’d been told it should be possible to hit all of Niue’s top snorkelling sites in a single day, but my body was unused to such exercise and my legs felt like jelly after I emerged from the water.

Luckily, tomorrow dawned just as fine, and I hit the road in time for low tide, heading for the extreme north-western village of Hikutavake. First I checked out the sea track, which I was surprised to find the most crowded swimming spot of all. The low waters had exposed the reef here, creating several deep sheltered pools for our pleasure.

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I was a little alarmed however at the proximity of Niue’s rough open ocean as I watched the churning waves break over the reef. Despite the assurances of a fellow fun-seeker that the water in the pools was perfectly safe, I felt there might be currents in the waters that I wasn’t yet prepared to handle.

So I decided to hit another famous snorkel spot, the Matapa Chasm, only 10 minutes away through the rustling rainforest. To get to this narrow sheltered gorge I had to duck under an enormous leaning boulder. This place was once reserved as a bathing spot for Niue’s kings (patuiki). Today it’s open to all.

Matapa Chasm
Matapa Chasm, a swimming spot fit for a King

Though I could still hear the booming breakers this deep pool was shielded from the sea by several large rocks, sporting waters calm enough to soothe even the most anxious of souls.

I donned my gear and slipped into the clear water. The chasm was different, deeper, with flurries of shining silver fish darting between the rays of light that filtered down from above.

Underwater at Matapa Chasm
Underwater at Matapa Chasm

Many of the more interesting fish were down near the bottom, so my view would have been greatly improved had I the courage to dive. But that was still a firm no from me, so I had to make do with the occasional fishy friend who ventured nearer the surface.

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Some kind of butterflyfish?

My third attempt was right next door to home base: Avatele Beach. This was a little more challenging, as I was exposed to the waves coming in over the reef and there was a current pulling towards the channel, possibly the one blasted in the early 1900s by New Zealand Resident Commissioner Christopher Maxwell in order to improve use of the beach as a landing place.

Geez, I just can’t help myself when it comes to the history, can I?

Cautiously, I entered the water. Being comparatively shallow here I found I was finally on eye level with my fishy friends.

Fish at Avatele Beach
Little friends

It was another whole new world, this time made of shallow boulder-strewn fields of living coral.

Coral and boulders at Avatele Beach
Coral fields

I found the best strategy here was to hold on to something solid to prevent myself from being dragged down the beach by the current. This seemed to work well for observing wildlife too, as I guess I was less of a threat when I was stationary.

Underwater at Avatele Beach
We’re gonna make a school!

That is, until I found the weirdest thing and had to chase it halfway along the shore.

A trumpetfish or cornetfish
A trumpetfish or cornetfish

I was distracted again in turn as a long stream of silver fish trailed past me. Never mind that other thing, I’m with these guys now!

School of fish at Avatele Beach
School of fish

Encircled by my fishy buddies, I felt like a mermaid, or maybe a shark. All I needed was a singing crab to make the scene complete.

After that exciting conclusion it was time to crawl my way out of the rough surf and back on to the limestone shore. I was jelly all over but I realised…this could become addictive. It’s a whole new dimension of adventure!

Is touching water a habit I’ll take home from the tropical seas of Niue to the cold southern waters of Otago? Time can only tell.

References:

Convict Surgeonfish, Acanthurus triostegus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Florent’s Guide to the Tropical Reefs

NIUE 1774-1974, 200 years of contact and change by Margaret Pointer

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