New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

From the Bay of Islands’ warm water to the Fiordland’s icy black depths, 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, kingfish, marlin and schools of subtropical fish. And with both beginner-friendly snorkelling sites and more technical dives on offer — including to shipwrecks that PADI calls “four of the world’s best”— there’s something for everyone.

Here are the top locations around Aotearoa to go to greater depths—and the tour operators who will ensure you have a safe and memorable underwater experience.

New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

Poor Knights marine reserve is home to over 100 species of sea life. Photo / Getty Images

The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve

Arguably the most famous of New Zealand’s dive locations, Northland’s Poor Knights Islands were rated by French explorer Jacques Cousteau as one of the best subtropical dive locations in the world. Never mind that it’s in a temperate zone; he was likely confused by the subtropical fish that can be found here.

Typically accessed from Tutukaka, the Poor Knights’ warm, clear waters are home to more than 100 species of sea life, including colourful nudibranchs, moray eels and hammerhead sharks. As if that isn’t enough, they’re also located along the Cetacean Highway, a migratory pathway for orca, humpback and blue whales.

Dive! Tutukaka and Yukon Dive both offer excursions, but if you’re not eager to don a scuba suit, it’s just as suitable for snorkelling, with Perfect Day offering a package.

New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

Goat Island is a favourite subaquatic escape for Aucklanders. Photo / Eugene Polkan, Supplied for Travel

Goat Island Marine Reserve

Another household day among underwater enthusiasts, Goat Island/Te Hāwere-a-Maki wins out for both its proximity to Auckland (it’s just an hour’s drive from the city), accessibility (it’s only 100 metres from the beach) and abundance of sea life. The country’s first marine reserve, it was established in 1975 to protect its inhabitants, including gorgonian fans, lace corals and sponges—some estimated to be hundreds of years old—along with snapper and stingrays.

Goat Island Dive and Snorkel offers snorkelling and diving experiences, but if you want to stay dry, hire a Clearyak (a glass-bottomed kayak) to explore the underwater cliffs, canyons and sandflats.

Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) Marine Reserve

Visitors to Milford Sound are often so transfixed on the waterfalls and jaw-dropping peaks they forget there’s stunning scenery below the water, too. In fact, Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is also a marine reserve, where the sheer cliff faces create a unique ecosystem allowing deep-water emergent black coral trees to thrive.

Normally only found in deep-water trenches, these corals are one of the oldest known marine organisms, notable for their irregular branching and stark white appearance over a jet-black skeleton. Take your eyes off them and you might spot sharks, eels or an octopus.

Local operator Descend Dive offers scuba diving tours for beginners and experienced divers alike, ranging in length from one to two days.

New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

The Bay of Island claims four of the world's best shipwrecks for diving. Photo / Getty Images

Bay of Island's Shipwrecks

The Bay of Islands is one of the country’s most popular snorkelling sites, with swimmers donning their flippers and masks with regularity. But there’s a hidden treasure or two here for trained divers, including the shipwreck of the HMNZS Canterbury. After being cleaned up, it was scuttled in 2007 in Deep Water Cove (near Cape Brett) to provide a diving training site. Recreational divers can explore the ship’s upper levels, while the lower decks are open to technically trained divers.

If a scuttled ship doesn’t quite offer the intrigue you’re looking for, nearby is the Rainbow Warrior, a genuine shipwreck. Once Greenpeace’s ship, was on its way to protest France’s nuclear testing on the Mururoa Atoll when it was sunk by saboteurs in 1985. Northland Dive regularly dives both shipwrecks, with packages starting from $159.

New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

Dolphins and other marine animals await New Zealand divers. Photo / Supplied, Abel Tasman

Coromandel's Te Whanganui-o-Hei Marine Reserve & Mercury Bay

Off the coast of Cathedral Cove are the protected waters of Te Whanganui-o-Hei Marine Reserve. Within the 9sq km reserve is Gemstone Bay, an ideal snorkelling spot for first timers. Not only is the water clear, but there are handled buoys to rest along, each with information panels showing the species inhabiting each area. You can expect to see goatfish, snapper and red moki, along with sponges that can typically only be seen in deeper water.

For those looking to fully submerge, there are also a dive of dive sites within a small radius of Hahei, including South Sunk Rock (which includes a 20-metre drop-off and deep crevices where fan sponges and nudibranchs can be found) and the Long Drop (look for walls of jewel anemones and pelagic fish here). You can get to both with Cathedral Cove Dive and Snorkel.

Free Diving at Rakiura/Stewart Island & Shark Diving in Bluff

The pristine and cold waters surrounding Rakiura/Stewart Island have long attracted free divers searching 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 snorkelling and freediving adventures, where you have a chance to spot them.

Want to up the ante? Since you’re already in the neighbourhood, 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 in the cage, you just need to have a strong bladder and the confidence to come face-to-face with a Great White Shark.

New Zealand's best dive and snorkelling sites for underwater exploration

Dip your toes at a marine reserve. Photo / Supplied, Hawkes Bay

Bay of Plenty's Moutohorā/Whale Island Reef

The waters of the Bay of Plenty offer some of the country’s finest diving, thanks to its offshore volcanic islands, including Moutohorā/Whale Island. Located just 9km from Whakatāne, the 143-hectare remnant volcano is protected by DoC with highly restricted access, meaning that its marine life is also largely undisturbed.

On a trip to the island with Dive Whakatāne, you can expect to see schools of blue maomao, demoiselles, kingfish, triplefins and roughies, alongside colourful sponges.

Wellington's Taputeranga Marine Reserve

Over 180 fish species have been recorded on the North Island’s South Coast — and many of them can be seen within Wellington’s Taputeranga Marine Reserve, which is also where you’ll find the country’s newest snorkelling trail. Starting from Princess Bay and heading towards Red Rocks, you have a chance to spot crayfish, kina, starfish, rock lobsters, anemones, sea sponges and even octopodes.

Also within the Marine Reserve is the scuttled wreck of the F69 Frigate. The artificial reef is a world-class dive spot lying in 21m of water, just 500 metres off Island Bay. Dive Wellington will set you up with everything you need to get in the water, including boat trips to the marine reserve and dive courses for all skill levels.

Check alert level restrictions, vaccination requirements and Ministry of Health advice before travel.

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