Sophie Roselt from Plongée! Tutukaka snorkeling in Northland. Photo / Supplied
From the warm waters of the Bay of Islands to the frozen black depths of Fiordland, New Zealand’s underwater world is as varied as it is spectacular. Year round you have the chance to swim alongside dusky dolphins, sperm whales, fur seals, sharks, jacks, marlin and schools of subtropical fish. And with both beginner-friendly snorkelling spots and more technical dives on offer – including wrecks that PADI calls “four of the world’s best” – there’s something for everyone.
Here are the best places around Aotearoa to go to greater depths and the tour operators that will ensure you have a safe and memorable underwater experience.
Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve
Arguably New Zealand’s most famous dive site, Northland’s Poor Knights Islands have been ranked by French explorer Jacques Cousteau as one of the best subtropical dive sites in the world. It does not matter whether it is in a temperate zone; he was probably confused by the subtropical fish that can be found here.
Generally accessible from Tutukaka, the warm, clear waters of Poor Knights are home to over 100 species of marine life, including colorful nudibranchs, moray eels and hammerhead sharks. As if that weren’t enough, they are also located along the Cetacean Route, a migratory route for orcas, humpback whales and blue whales.
Dive! Tutukaka and Yukon Dive both offer tours, but if you’re not keen on donning a wetsuit, it’s equally suitable for snorkeling, with Perfect Day offering a package.
Goat Island Marine Reserve
Another family day out among scuba diving enthusiasts, Goat Island / Te Hāwere-a-Maki wins out both for its proximity to Auckland (only an hour’s drive from the city), its accessibility (only 100 meters from the beach) and abundance of marine life. The country’s first marine reserve, it was established in 1975 to protect its inhabitants, including gorgonian fans, lace corals and sponges, some of which are estimated to be hundreds of years old, as well as snappers and stingrays. .
Goat Island Dive and Snorkel offers snorkeling and diving experiences, but if you want to stay dry, hire a Clearyak (a glass-bottom kayak) to explore underwater cliffs, canyons, and mudflats.
Piopiotahi Marine Reserve (Milford Sound)
Visitors to Milford Sound are often so mesmerized by the breathtaking waterfalls and peaks that they forget that there are breathtaking scenery underwater too. In fact, Milford Sound / Piopiotahi is also a marine reserve, where sheer cliff faces create a unique ecosystem for emerging deep-water black corals to thrive.
Normally found only in deep-water trenches, these corals are one of the oldest known marine organisms, notable for their irregular branching and pristine white appearance on a jet-black skeleton. Take your eyes off them and you might spot sharks, eels, or an octopus.
The local operator Descend Dive offers scuba diving tours for beginners and experienced divers, lasting one to two days.
Wrecks in the bay of the island
The Bay of Islands is one of the most popular snorkeling spots in the country, with swimmers regularly donning their fins and masks. But there’s a hidden treasure or two here for skilled divers, including the wreck of the HMNZS Canterbury. After being cleaned up, she was scuttled in 2007 at Deep Water Cove (near Cape Brett) to provide a diving training site. Recreational divers can explore the upper levels of the vessel, while the lower decks are open to technically qualified divers.
If a scuttled ship doesn’t quite offer the intrigue you’re looking for, nearby is the Rainbow Warrior, a real wreck. Once the Greenpeace ship was underway to protest France’s nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll when it was sunk by saboteurs in 1985. Northland Dive dives regularly on the two wrecks, with packages to from $ 159.
Coromandel Te Whanganui-o-Hei Marine Reserve and Mercury Bay
Off Cathedral Cove lie the protected waters of the Te Whanganui-o-Hei Marine Reserve. Within the 9 km² reserve is Gemstone Bay, a great place for beginners to snorkel. Not only is the water clear, but there are maneuvered buoys for resting, each with information panels showing the species inhabiting each area. You can expect to see beards, snappers, and red moki, as well as sponges which can usually only be seen in deeper water.
For those looking to fully immerse themselves, there are also dive sites within a small radius of Hahei, including South Sunk Rock (which features a 20-meter drop off and deep crevices where sponges and nudibranchs can be found) and the Long Drop (look for walls of jewel anemones and pelagic fish here). You can access both with Cathedral Cove Dive and Snorkel.
Snorkeling at Rakiura / Stewart Island & Shark Diving at Bluff
The crystal-clear, cold waters surrounding Rakiura / Stewart Island have long attracted snorkelers looking for pāua and kina. However, the kelp forests and their surroundings are also home to sea lions, lion’s mane jellyfish, and sea sponges. Stewart Island Adventures offers snorkeling and snorkeling adventures, where you have the chance to spot them.
Want to raise the bar? Since you’re already in the neighborhood, there’s no reason not to sign up for a death-defying encounter with Bluff’s Shark Experience. You don’t need any diving experience to get into the cage, you just need a strong bladder and the confidence to come face to face with a great white shark.
Moutohorā / Whale Island Reef from Bay of Plenty
The waters of the Bay of Plenty offer some of the best diving in the country, thanks to its volcanic islands offshore including Moutohorā / Whale Island. Located just 9 km from Whakatāne, the 143 hectare residual volcano is protected by the DoC with very restricted access, meaning that its marine life is also largely preserved.
On a trip to the island with Dive Whakatāne, you can expect to see schools of blue maomao, damselflies, trevally, triplefins, and roughies, alongside colorful sponges.
Wellington Taputeranga Marine Reserve
Over 180 species of fish have been recorded on the south coast of the North Island – and many of these can be seen in Wellington’s Taputeranga Marine Reserve, where the newest snorkeling trail is also located in Wellington. country. Departing from Princess Bay and heading towards Red Rocks, you will have the chance to spot crayfish, kina, starfish, lobster, anemones, sea sponges and even octopods.
The scuttled wreck of the F69 frigate is also in the marine reserve. The Artificial Reef is a world-class dive site located in 21m of water, just 500m offshore from Island Bay. Dive Wellington will provide you with everything you need to get into the water, including boat trips to the marine reserve and scuba diving lessons for all skill levels.
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