Sunday, January 04, 2009

Diving the Poor Knights

Or, nudibranchs and swimthroughs make me very happy even in 18 degree water! :)

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Southern Hemisphere Shindigs

Christmas on Lizard

Was the best ever. My very first hot Western Christmas had me utterly sold on the whole idea of Santa under the antipodean sun. The day started with breakfast on the beach, then Secret Santa presents which showcased exactly how resourceful and ingenious marine field biologists really can be (top artistic marks for a huge driftwood fish sculpture which would probably sell pretty well in an art gallery, and humour marks for a flintstones snorkel set consisting of bamboo snorkel, coconut husk mask, brick weights on a rope weightbelt and plywood fins). After this all 42 people at the station (researchers and some of their families) retired to the houses to cook far too much food, with each research group bringing about enough food for 42 people, which if you do the maths all adds to rather too much food. Nevertheless excess is what Christmas is all about, and we all dug in with gusto at the beach hut. Personal highlights of this feast were a huge 3 kilo ham that someone in our house cooked up, and (our very own) enormous bowls of chocolate mousse. Whilst making this chocolate mousse (20 eggs, about 2.4 litres of cream, 9 bars of dark chocolate, and who knows how much sugar) I was not sure I would ever be able to face chocolate again, but it was so good it was entirely worth it. Post lunch everyone stumbled down to the sea and bobbed about complete with large amounts of alcohol, water guns for the kids, and Santa hats all round (this pleasant activity is very technically known in Lizard Island lingo as 'wallowing'). Wallowing lasted for a very, very long time -- till sunset in fact, which was in true Lizard style absolutely gorgeous. Just one of the best days I've had in a long time.

New Zealand
In general has been ridiculously beautiful. Highlights include:

Marine Mammals at Kaikoura

A little coastal town on the east side of the South Island. It is a novel feeling to be in the sea with views of the gorgeously craggy snow capped South Island mountains. We spent a long day swimming first with New Zealand fur seals, then with dusky dolphins. I had never met either before and they were both absolutely wonderful. You feel ridiculously lucky and excited when you are surrounded by these gorgeous creatures streaking through the water all around you (unlike the manatees, they are both extremely fast and leave you feeling very very ungraceful underwater!). The seals like to really look at you -- eye contact with one of these guys is pretty special. And the dolphins like to swim round and round you in very fast small circles which leaves you breathless trying to keep up with them whilst simultaneously singing songs through your snorkel which is apparently what they like (we were told that we are there to entertain the dolphins rather than the other way round).

Marlborough Wineries

Great wine and food are definitely a defining feature of New Zealand if you can tear your eyes away from the scenery. New Year's Eve dinner at a winery called Herzog was excellent. The food was incredibly tasty and beautifully presented and helped along by paired wines with every course (about six). Full marks especially for a fantastic main of Angus beef. All washed down with some lovely champagne. So after these 5 or 6 glasses of wine, the next day, for some unknown reason, we had booked a full day's winery tour. I must admit I started this a little bit tired(!!). But perked up quite rapidly. Tasted so much Sauvignon Blanc ('Savs'!) it all sort of blurred a bit, although a gin tasting halfway through the day seemed to wake most of us up. Found some favourites -- 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Highfield Estate, where we also had a really excellent lunch with views of the vineyards and the hills in the distance; also Pinot Gris from a fantastic tiny little winery called Bladen where they do the tastings essentially out the back of their house; and general all round excellence from Cloudy Bay. It is really interesting to visit these wineries and really figure out what you like or don't like -- makes the whole experience of a glass of wine with your dinner much more meaningful. It wasn't poncy at all -- just full of casual people really passionate about wine, and you felt that you were free to like or not like whatever you wanted, which is the way it should be with all things really. We also did a cruise and mussel farm tour on the Pelorus Sound -- unfortunately it was rather rainy and grey (we had been very lucky with South Island sunshine otherwise), but it was really interesting to have some mussels freshly opened and served to us raw (fantastic with a few drops of Tabasco). Plus of course washed down with yet another glass of Sav!

Wellington in 4.5 hours

I actually had just over 24 hours in Wellington, but we spent the first half day wandering about on a food tour. It was really interesting, particularly a great tour through the national museum Te Papa with a focus on Maori foods from native NZ plants and fish, and we had some amazing cheese and chocolate tastings. However my favourite thing to do in a new city is to grab a map and walk it all, which I only got round to today when I was left to my own devices as my family have now headed homewards. Thankfully Wellington lends itself very well to this kind of exploration. I started with a wonderful cup of coffee at Floriditas on Cuba St (I have learned to order a 'flat white'), then headed north along the quays, visiting a Leonardo da Vinci machine exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, catching the cable car up to the Botanic Gardens, wandering (very rapidly) through them and back down to Parliament (not quite the same as Westminster), and serendipitously jumping on a bus back down to Te Papa where I did a whirlwind tour of the permanent exhibitions on Pacific and Western immigration to New Zealand and the art gallery. Sadly, I didn't have time to look at the colossal squid (which I am told was not quite colossal, but merely very big, something which is a small consolation). Wellington packs a huge amount of stuff to do into a very small space, which I like very much -- it was a happy 4.5 hours. Good coffee, great museum exhibitions, and a poster for Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant and the Royal New Zealand Ballet -- it is probably somewhere I could live very happily!

Half a day later and I am in a youth hostel in Whangarei having arrived on a little propeller plane which took only 25 minutes to get here from Auckland. Life is suddenly pretty different from the tasting menus and winery tours of Blenheim. Nevertheless, I'm pretty excited about diving the Poor Knights Islands tomorrow -- here's hoping I don't completely freeze and that I see, er, lots of fish...