Diving New Zealand – The Best Scuba Spots in Aotearoa

Though not as tropical as many other countries, Aotearoa is anything but short on fantastic scuba diving locations. This article will introduce you to the best diving New Zealand has on offer.

New Zealand is one of the most popular tourist destinations thanks to its grand landscape, snowy mountains, and lively cities. But not many people are aware of how beautiful its underwater world is too!

In fact, Aotearoa is home to many world-class dive and snorkel sites.

What to Expect When Diving in NZ

With a variety of water temperatures, enthusiasts can scuba dive in New Zealand all year round.

From June to November, the water temperatures are generally around 15-21°C. The water then gets warmer from December to May, where it’s around 19-25°C.  As a general rule, the further south you travel, the cooler the ocean will be.

Pro tip: If you like to travel with your own gear, we recommend a 7mm wetsuit for most dives. If you prefer to travel light, wetsuits, BCDs, oxygen tanks and all required equipment is readily available for hire from all dive shops in New Zealand.

The North island has subtropical water and attracts tropical and large fish all year-round. Diving North Island is best from January to June as a general rule.

The South Island has cooler temperatures, but also offers dramatic diving. Diving South Island is best between November and April.

It is, however, possible to have amazing dives right across the country at any time of year.

Most of the best dive spots in New Zealand are shipwrecks, though you will also find countless reef dives across the country.

Whilst diving in New Zealand you can expect to spend time around amazing marine life, whilst also encountering unique marine animals such as sharks, dolphins and seals. 

Photo by Enrico Strocchi

The Best Places to Go Scuba Diving in New Zealand

Below are some of the best dives sites New Zealand’s has on offer. They’re listed from North to South to help make finding them easier.

North Island Diving

Bay of Islands

Classified as home to the most diverse dive sites in New Zealand, the Bay of Islands is home to 144 islands, making it an explorer’s paradise. Pick your favourite dive – whether it be reef diving, shipwreck diving or offshore island diving – or even go snorkelling.

You’ll be welcomed by the vibrant variety of marine life anywhere you go.

Book: Bay of Islands snorkelling trip.

1. The Rainbow Warrior – The Most Famous Wreck Diving New Zealand Has!

The Rainbow Warrior was a ship owned by Greenpeace that was sunk during a protest in 1985. She now lies in the Cavalli Islands at a maximum depth of 26m. The Rainbow Warrior is 40m long, and can be easily navigated around whilst diving.

The wildlife around the wreck is abundant, making it a fantastic dive site. Divers will enjoy being surrounded by many macro-critters and schools of fish living in the shipwreck. 

Visibility is around 15 to 20 meters, and temperature ranges from 16 degrees celsius in late winter to 22 degrees celsius during spring. 

This historic dive site is a must-do in New Zealand.

Book: Rainbow Warrior Wreck and reef dive.

Book: Your Rainbow Warrior dive.

2. HMNZS Canterbury Wreck

Alternatively, the HMNZS Canterbury Navy Frigate is another notable piece of underwater history that was laid to rest in 2007.

It’s now home to an abundance of marine animals and marine life such as soft corals and kelp.

The shipwreck is visible from 20m deep which makes it suitable for recreational divers to explore (from above).

We recommend you take the option to dive deeper to 36m though. Advanced diver training is available for this so you can upskill on the spot.

Book: Canterbury Wreck and reef dive.

Book: Your HMNZS Canterbury Shipwreck dive.

Tutukaka

3. The Tui

The Tui dive site is another beautiful shipwreck. The HMNZS Tui is now resting at a 32m depth of water off Tututaka; it’s been there since 1999.

During her working life, the US Navy used her in deploying naval hydrographic work.

Now, divers can enjoy being surrounded by large schools of golden snapper, and much more marine life.

As she lays in deeper water, most operators require an Advanced Open Water certification to dive on this site.

Book: The Tui & Waikato Shipwreck dives.

4. Poor Knights

Located off the northeast coast of New Zealand, there is a group of islands called The Poor Knights. Dive boats usually get here from Tutukaka Harbour.

This is one of the oldest marine reserves in New Zealand and is widely recognised as the best place to dive in the country. It is home to all kinds of beautiful marine animals such as dolphins, orcas and rays. Occasionally, you’ll also see schools of bull rays and stingrays swimming and feeding in the area.

The dive site is known for its tunnels, archways, grottoes and spaces that you can explore.

The Poor Knight’s dive site can be enjoyed all year round, but do note that there is no place to stay on the island.

Book: Poor Knights diving.

Photo credit Yukon

5. Goat Island, Warkworth

Goat Island (Te Hāwere-a-Maki in te reo Māori) is a small island north of Auckland. It is the oldest marine reserve in New Zealand.

The topography there varies from deep reefs to rocky shores. With its canyons, massive boulders, underwater cliffs, and sandy bottoms, you’ll never be bored.

The marine life at Goat Island is also as diverse as the topographies! There you’ll find snappers, shellfish, seaweed forests, and crayfish.

Goat Island is also one of the most popular places in Aotearoa to snorkel, so it’s a great option if you’re keen to explore the ocean without the added cost of diving.

Book: A Goat Island dive charter.

6. The Coromandel Peninsula

Crowned one of New Zealand’s favourite marine playgrounds, the Coromandel Peninsula has a coastline filled with many vibrant dive sites. The water towards the east coast is ideal for diving due to its crystal-clear water visibility.

Locations such as the Mercury and Alderman Islands are some of the best places to get some underwater photography done – the marine life diversity there will excite even the most seasoned divers.

The Whanganui o Hei Marine Reserve (which is found on the mainland near Cathedral Cove) is also an excellent choice for snorkellers. There is even a snorkel trail with buoys that illustrate the marine habitats underneath in Gemstone Bay (Waimata).

When you’re finished, pull out your towel and dry off on the sand – the Coromandel has countless amazing beaches!

7. White Island, Bay of Plenty

White Island is currently the only active volcano in New Zealand – it provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive on an active volcano.

The water around the island is colourful and is home to a large variety of tropical marine life and larger fish.  With 20m visibility, you’ll get the chance to see fish such as kingfish, golden snapper, moray eels and even horse crayfish (when in season).

Divers can go through Whakatane, a small town on the harbourfront, before diving into this site.  To get to Whakatane, divers can fly to Auckland Airport or enjoy a road trip from Tauranga

Pro tip: Individual bookings are not currently taken for this dive trip. To scuba dive White Island, you’ll need to get a group together, allowing you to charter a trip. By all accounts, it’s well worth it though.

Photo by Steve Shattuck

8. Taputeranga, Wellington

Close to Wellington’s city centre, you’ll find Taputeranga Marine Reserve. The water is a mix between warm and cold and is abundant with subantarctic fauna and flora.

Within such a small area, it has a wide variety of habitats. In fact, scientists have recorded about 400 species of seaweed within the reserve!

There is also a wreck near the Taputeranga island that divers can detour to. 

Taputeranga is accessible for snorkellers too and has become a famous destination and a scientific site as well.

Be aware, the weather and currents are unpredictable there as the water travels through Cook Strait, which can create unusual conditions. Always check before you dive.

Photo by Joanna Penn

South Island Diving

9. The Mikhail Lermontov Wreck, Marlborough Sounds

The Mikhail Lermontov is a Russian cruise ship that sank after hitting rocks in 1986 near Cape Jackson. The wreck is 176m long and lies on her starboard between depths of 15 to 30 metres. The dive itself drops down to 37m so is considered a deep dive.

She is considered the biggest shipwreck dive in Australasia, providing access into the internal rooms onboard. Dive into the ballroom and the The Nevsky Bar, all whilst diving around the furniture that was onboard when she sunk.

To dive this site, divers can go to Port Gore, at Marlborough Sounds.

10. Kaikoura

Famous for its crayfish and incredible marine life, Kaikoura is a scenic town located in the South Island. It is home to a variety of dive sites, accessible for both divers and snorkellers.

With a rich variety of underwater marine life, you can expect to encounter anything from small critters to sperm whales and dolphins. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter seals and get to experience their antics underwater!

The depth ranges from 5m up to more than 30m, so pick whatever you’re comfortable with. 

11. Milford Sound, Fiordland

Known as New Zealand’s ‘coral capital’, Milford Sound is a marine reserve (which was established in 1993) that is famous for its spectacular scenery – both above water and underwater.

This dive site is unique as it has a layer of freshwater that sits on top of the cold saltwater. This creates a dark layer on top of the water, allowing divers to see deep-sea animals in shallower water.

You’ll be amazed at the variety of marine life living here and can expect to find anything from shark, eels and dolphins, to over 150 different fish species!

Sure, the water will be chilly but it’s worth it to dive in this part of the world.

12. Aramoana Mole, Aramoana

Aramoana is situated 22 kilometres from Dunedin. There, you will find five different wrecks that lay between 5 and 20 metres deep.

These wrecks are home to all kinds of unique marine animals, such as seahorses and nudibranchs. They also offer encounters with eels, crayfish, and big fish, such as seven-gill sharks, carpet sharks, wrasse and sea lions.

The southern South Island waters are chilly though, so make sure you bring a suitable wetsuit or drysuit – or hire one if you prefer.

13. Stewart Island

Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third-largest island and is where the Rakiura National Park is located.

Macro photographers love this place for its kelp forests and critters, but Steward Island also offers encounters with seals and sea lions!

There is a great diversity of marine creatures here due to the warm current from the Australian Great Barrier Reef which flows around the island. 

All up, there are approximately 170 species of seaweed and over 50 species of fish in the area!

Photo by Taquiman

By Andy Xu

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