Goat Island is one of New Zealand's most popular snorkelling spots and now you can get a similar magical view while sitting down.
"Look, there's Monkey Face," says Brook, pointing at a large snapper nibbling at the rope trailing behind his paddleboard.
The 60-year-old aquatic veteran earned the unflattering nickname because of several unsightly bumps on his face. As he swims beneath our kayak I can clearly see his distinctive profile and the bright blue spots on his body. How come?, you might ask. Because the kayak is entirely transparent – made of the same clear polycarbonate used in bulletproof glass.
Two more snapper join him and I imagine the three of them having a similar exchange beneath the surface. After all, they can also see us and are currently being subjected to the unappealing view of my Speedos-clad backside. I won't speculate on the nicknames they've come up with.
If you'd kayaked around this area 50 years ago, chances are you wouldn't have seen any snapper. Intensive fishing meant the coastline near Goat Island, a small rocky outcrop on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, 83 kilometres north of Auckland, was almost devoid of life. With no predators around, sea urchins quickly took over, devouring the kelp forests and turning the sea bed into a barren wasteland.
In 1975, the government made a five-square-kilometre area around the island New Zealand's first marine reserve. Fishing was banned and within 10 years the number of snapper, lobster and many other species had soared.
Thanks to this foresight, the reserve – which is officially called the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve but is more commonly known as Goat Island – has become one of the country's most popular snorkelling spots, attracting more than 200,000 people every year.
Of course, not everyone is comfortable or physically able to go snorkelling. But they might like to go kayaking – especially if it offered a similar view. Spotting an opportunity, local couple Brook and Sarah McRae launched Clearyak last year. It took four months to get all the relevant permissions but on January 1, 2017, they became the country's first commercial operator to rent clear kayaks.
After a comprehensive safety briefing, we launch from the grey sand beach opposite the island. One of the biggest challenges is preventing the undersides of the kayaks from getting scratched so a staff member helps us clamber in from the shallows.
At first, I find the experience a little disconcerting. The transparency makes the kayak feel almost ethereal – as if it's the product of some Harry Potter-esque wizardry and will vanish when the spell breaks. But I soon get used to it and concentrate on the serious business of spotting fish.
Snapper are the most abundant varietal but the area is also frequented by red moki, blue maomao, eagle rays and stingrays.
According to Brook, the easiest way to find a ray is to follow a "snorkel shriek" – the muffled cry made by a snorkeller when one swims beneath them. Unfortunately we've chosen one of the busiest times of the year to visit (the week after Christmas) so the channel between the beach and the island is teeming with snorkellers.
Not only does this make navigation tricky (particularly when you're perpetually peering between your legs) but it's also scared away some of the fish. We see a lot of snapper and what I think is a leatherjacket but not much else. On quieter days Brook says guests often spot large schools of rays and occasionally seals and dolphins. For anyone nervous about snorkelling, the kayaks are a compelling alternative. The view isn't quite as good but it's still a far more immersive experience than being in a boat.
It's also a safe option for young children and people with disabilities. The couple's next project is to offer night kayaking using boats fitted with powerful squid lights.
"We've been trialling it in a bay nearby," enthuses Brook, "and it's very, very cool."
Clearyak, Goat Island Rd, Leigh. Kayak hire starts at $NZ60 for 30 minutes (for a double kayak). See clearyak.co.nz
To learn more about the reserve's marine life, visit the excellent Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre on the hill above the beach. Adults $NZ9, children $NZ5. See goatislandmarine.co.nz
Rob McFarland was a guest of Clearyak.