Opinion: The heart of Hahei

Rhys Cochrane (supplied)
Rhys Cochrane (supplied)

I'd agreed to a night dive off the coast of Hahei, and I was quite scared.

But that's the thing about getting on a boat with one of the Cochranes - they've got a way of making any fear melt away.

The water off the little Coromandel coastal town is their backyard, their playground, where they make their livelihood by showing scuba divers the beauty that lives under the surface.

Rhys was driving the boat, leaning into the failing light to identify the spot where we were headed, a nondescript rock poking out of the water to me, a familiar landmark to him.

Phosphorescence skimmed across the surface when I trailed a hand in the water.

Opinion: The heart of Hahei

As I sunk into the inky darkness clutching only a torch, the blondie with the big grin next to me, I realised with surprise that I wasn't scared at all.

It's his natural habitat. I might as well have had a dolphin as a companion.

He rescued an orca once. Just swam right up to it and cut it free from the crayfish pot ropes that had tangled around its body, cutting its skin as it tried to struggle loose.

The creature was totally calm while he freed it. It recognised Rhys as one of its own.

"If there was one place that would take him, it would be the ocean," says Sean Butler, one of his best mates.

Rhys was swimming next to the yacht he worked on off Cannes, France, four days ago, when he dived down and didn't resurface.

When the news spread that he was missing, a Givealittle page was set up.

Testament to how widely loved Rhys and his family are, the dollars stacked up fast.

It hit $30,000 in less than 24 hours.

His body was found at 45m below the yacht.

The money raised will help bring him home and cover the funeral costs.

He had a knack of putting people at ease, always ready with a big hug or cheeky quip that I never had a witty retort to. But he always got away with it because of that grin.

"It's the people around him and the place around him that made him what he is," Sean says.

"He was a canvas and it was the scenery, the lifestyle that molded him. That's why so many people all around the world love him."

It's true - visitors from all corners of the planet met and fell in love with Rhys. As a dive instructor he revelled in introducing others to his underwater world.

Spearfisher Julian Hansford, also from the Coromandel area, dropped his training for the world champs in Greece when he heard Rhys was missing, and got on a plane for France.

"He's everyone's best mate, he's the heart of the community," Julian says.

"There's a whole lot of young surfers and divers in the area and we all gather around Josh and Rhys, they're the heart of the boys," he says.

Rhys will always be a part of Hahei's heart, and anyone's heart who's been on the receiving end of that grin.

Opinion: The heart of Hahei