New Zealand is a bucket list destination for many. Stunning scenery and beautiful nature make it a dream destination for any outdoor enthusiast.
Not to mention that it was the filming destination for the Lord of the Rings series and the Hobbit, which only added to this country’s popularity. Whether you plan on chasing mountains or movie scenes, New Zealand is definitely worth a visit.
But, while the mountains, hills, and hobbit houses are definitely worth checking out, it’s also worth knowing that scuba diving New Zealand helps make it an even better destination as well.
With thirty six marine reserves around the islands and in the fjords, a number of wrecks, great visibility, and plenty of marine life, it’s a must dive destination.
So, for those interested in scuba diving New Zealand, here are the best dive sites across the country.
Guide to Scuba Diving New Zealand
1. The North Island
New Zealand’s North Island has a bit of everything; rugged landscapes, vibrant cities, and relaxing beaches. It’s ideal for discovering the Maori culture and enjoying the island’s hot springs. Of course it’s also home to dozens of fantastic dive sites.
The North Island is home to many sub-tropical reefs, home to colourful fish and warmer waters than divers will find in the south. Here are the best scuba diving sites around New Zealand’s North Island.
Best Dive Sites in the North Island
The Rainbow Warrior: A Greenpeace ship that was sunk by French Foreign Intelligence in 1985 in front of Auckland. It was since been relocated to Matauri Bay where it has become an artificial reef and one of the best dive sites in New Zealand’s North Island. The wreck is 40m long, 27m at the deepest point, and is home to john dory, kingfish, moray eels, and colourful anemones.
Goat Island: Easily accessible from Auckland, Goat Island was New Zealand’s first marine reserve. There are several dive sites here with a range of depths, though divers need to be aware of the currents which may make some sites inaccessible at certain times. Expect to see octopus, eagle rays, sting rays, snappers, and plenty of schooling fish.
The Poor Knights Islands: Possibly the best known dive area in New Zealand, the Poor Knights Islands were once named as one of the top 5 dive sites in the world by Jaques Cousteau. The islands lie 14 miles off the Tutukaka Coast making it an easy day trip. Nudibranchs, pelagics, stingrays, and sharks can be found here. The topography here is also interesting with arches, caves, and kelp forests. One of the best times to come is late summer when the sting rays gather for mating season.
Wellington Area: New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, is surrounded by beautiful coastlines that offer some pretty great dive sites. There’s an array of dive sites with different depths and levels of difficulty making it a great area for divers of all levels. Some of the most popular dive sites in this area include Taputeranga Marine Reserve and Wellington Harbour which makes a great night dive. There are also several wrecks in the vicinity as well.
Coromandel Peninsula: The Mercury and Alderman Islands off the Coromandel Peninsula are musts for those interested in scuba diving New Zealand. The Alderman Islands offer interesting topography with rocky shelves, tunnels, and pinnacles while the Mercury islands are home to moray eels, plenty of nudibranchs, and crayfish.
White Island: White Island is home to New Zealand’s most active volcano, and the waters surrounding it offer incredibly diving. There are three sites here that attract plenty of tropical fish. Be sure to check out the underwater vents here as well.
Getting to the North Island
The North Island has a couple major interntional airports, though chances are if you are coming from abroad you will be landing in Auckland Airport, which is the largest and busiest airport in New Zealand. Another big international airport on the North Island is Wellington, which is especially popular if you are coming from Australia.
Once you have landed, it’s easy to get around the island with several options. One of the most popular options is to rent a car or a camper van and travel around yourself. If you would prefer not to drive, the North Island has a great public transportation network of busses and trains, though busses are cheaper and easier to get around with; especially when going to smaller destinations.
Some bus companies offer ‘backpacker pass’ options that act like a hop on hop off ticket, allowing the traveller to make the most out of their journey. If you are short on time, you can also fly domestically to several big cities.
2. The South Island
New Zealand’s South Island may be best known for Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit filming locations, but the diving here is pretty spectacular as well.
The waters here are colder, often requiring a dry suit, but the visibility is spectacular and the dive sites offer some unique experiences that will entice any avid diver to explore the underwater world of New Zealand’s South Island.
From fjords to caves and more, here are the best dive sites in New Zealand’s South Island.
Best Dive Sites in South Island
Kaikoura: Sperm whales, dusky dolphins, and fur seals are the big draw for divers around the town of Kaikoura. While the marine life is definitely the highlight, the kelp forests and and limestone reefs in the area are quite interesting a well.
Riwaka Caves: A freshwater cave dive with plenty of stalagmites and stalactites. This is a cold water dive, so a dry suit is a must.
Milford Sound: Black coral trees, nudibranchs, and crayfish are abundant in this marine reserve. If you are lucky, you may also see dolphins, seals, or even great white sharks while exploring the waters of Milford Sound. Due to colder water temperatures, even in the summer, a dry suit is recommended.
Aramoana Mole: The Mole is a man-made rock wall created to help protect the pier. Over the years a few boats have been scuttled here to add more to the dive site. Along with the wrecks, kelp forests and friendly seals make the Aramoana Mole a must-dive site when in New Zealand’s South Island.
The Mikhail Lermontov Wreck: If you enjoy wreck dives than the Mikhail Lermontov is a must. The largest wreck in Australasia, the ship sank in 1986 and is one of the most easily accessible wreck dives in the world. The wreck is located in the Marlborough Sound.
Long Island: So named by Captain Cook, Long Island (also in Marlborough Sound) is a marine reserve home to plenty of interesting species including blue cod, giant crayfish, and triplefins.
Pupu Springs: The largest freshwater springs in the country, Pupu Springs (officially called Waikoropupu Springs) is one of the most unique dive spots in New Zealand. Plenty of marine flora and crystal clear visibility make it a beautiful dive destination. You do need special permission to dive here, so check ahead of time with Blenheim Dive Centre to make sure it’s allowed. Conservation is of utmost importance here, so make sure to follow the rules.
Getting to the South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is significantly less populated than the North Island, but it’s still relatively easy to get around. The major airports in the South Island are located in Christchurch, Dunedin, and Queenstown, though Christchurch is definitely the biggest and used for most international flights.
As with on the North Island, renting a vehicle or taking the bus are the preferred ways to get around the South Island. If you plan on traveling across both islands, you can rent a vehicle for the entire trip and take a ferry between the islands. For divers planning on visiting a lot of dive sites across the country, renting a vehicle is probably the easiest way to get to all the dive areas. However, if you don’t wish to drive, reach out to a local dive tour operator for information on the best ways to get to each area by public transit.
Best Time of Year to Scuba Dive in New Zealand
Many of New Zealand’s dive sites can be accessed year round, but for the best conditions and warmer waters its best to come during the months of January and June. Water temperatures reach about 21 degrees celsius in the North Island and around 18 degrees celsius in the South Island.
The colder temperatures in the south may deter some warm water divers, however visibility in these sites can exceed 40m.
If you are hoping to scuba dive New Zealand to see specific marine life, that will also influence the time of year that you visit. Sharks are best seen from December to May and your best bets for manta rays are December to February. Whales, on the other hand, can be seen year round.
Like with other dive locations around the world, weather conditions play a big role in the safety and accessibility of dive site throughout the year, so it’s best check with local dive operatives ahead of time for any tips or advice.