I’m surprised by how often I hear people say, “I’m putting my gear away for the winter,” writes champion spear-fisher Darren Sheilds.

We have all seen those beautiful cloudless, windless winter days – why not be out diving when they roll around? With the right wetsuit you can say goodbye to cold water streaming down your neck or in through the zips. Once you own a proper wetsuit you will never experience that discomfort again!

I have just spent 14 days in Fiordland with snow on the hills, and being Fiordland, some nasty wind and rain at times. I never got cold. The diving there is some of the best you could ever experience and it’s the middle of winter.

A windproof coat over your wet suit keeps wind chill to a minimum.
A windproof coat over your wet suit keeps wind chill to a minimum.

Great Barrier Island in mid-June was brilliant as always – the wind was strong from the south-east, the sea conditions were ordinary but shelter and good visibility made for fantastic hunting. Most gutters I snuck into had a good-sized snapper sitting in them, almost like they were snuggling up waiting for the warm water to come. They made easy targets and my float boat was soon loaded with my day’s limit, something I rarely achieve in the summer.

While the red cray [spiny rock lobster] population is in massive decline in some areas, we have noticed a swing up in numbers of packhorse crayfish. My staff member and good friend Jeremy Vial recently took a group to the Aldermen Islands to catch a feed.

They all ended up with a number of packhorse and red crayfish, the bigger packies weighing around 3kg each. To top this off, they got several kingfish shot from a school that he guessed held close to 100 fish, and yes, all in the middle of winter!

Do you still want to put your gear away? If not, here are some tips on what you need to do to get the most out of your winter diving.

Throw that old suit away. Yes, throw it away! It’s not worth anything. I bet it can almost stand up on its own it’s so stiff!

Good wet suits mean warm, happy divers
Good wet suits mean warm, happy divers

Buy yourself one of the new, super-soft suits that mould to your every curve – and remember you don’t want zips. Zips let in water and make a suit stiff!

Get yourself a good overcoat to wear over your suit between dives. Wind chill will cool you down no matter how good your wetsuit is, so wind protection is a must. Good booties and gloves will also ensure your extremities are warm.

Keep an eye on the weather a week out from when you intend to go diving. I find Swell Map is reasonably accurate and by using it I can usually make an accurate evaluation of where I should head, based on what area has had the most wind – and very importantly, rain – during the course of the week prior to my intended dive. Rain often means murky freshwater running into the sea from the land. Your diving will be unpleasant if you can’t see anything.

Plan your day efficiently. Days are a lot shorter during the winter. I like to leave a ramp around 7:00am in the winter and return by 4:00pm at the latest; it’s almost dark by 5.30pm and I’m not keen on cleaning fish and sorting out the boat in the dark. During summer we leave a ramp at first light in some cases and don’t return until close to dark, which can be be as late as 9:00pm.

Fat winter kina and heaps of Fiordland crayfish.
Fat winter kina and heaps of Fiordland crayfish.

Safety is an issue you need to take seriously during winter: if something does go wrong, a night in a boat could end in disaster if It’s cold, whereas in the summer, while a breakdown is not ideal, as a diver you should be able to survive the much warmer temperatures.

An area I do well in during the winter months is inside harbours or diving the inner Hauraki Gulf. Again, the still winter days and colder temperatures mean no plankton blooms and less sediment stirred up, which can enhance the water visibility of inshore areas.

One very memorable harbour dive was a 10-minute swim rom one of Auckland’s busiest beaches. I shot enough fish for the table and found several nests of packhorse crayfish. I had a good look and left them alone, but it was a fantastic sight, one which I bet very few would believe unless they saw it for themselves.

 

Jeremy and his crew with a catch of winter packhorse crays and kingfish from Great Barrier Island.
Jeremy and his crew with a catch of winter packhorse crays and kingfish from Great Barrier Island.

The spot, 90 percent of the time, would be too dirty to worry about diving, but a clear winter’s day unveiled
the jewel. It was close enough to land that I could see and hear cars grinding their way to work at 8am on a week day morning.

I swear that seafood taken in harsher conditions tastes better! That warm glow you feel after a job well done is a fine thing preparing fresh caught seafood for others makes it all the more satisfying.

Don’t put off winter diving, embrace it and enjoy the challenge. It might just surprise you.