NEW ZEALAND - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Wade Doak

DIVING IS ONE OF NEW ZEALAND’S MANY adrenaline-charged outdoor activities. The country’s intricate coastline is almost as long as that of the continental United States of America, but the total population is only four million. Diving experiences range from the Poor Knights Islands in the north to the spectacular fiords of the southwest region. There are even good diving locations within an hour’s drive of the main city, Auckland. Water temperatures range from thin sheet ice in the southern fiords in winter to 24°C (75°F) in the northern bays in peak summer. Make no mistake, however, protective suits are needed.

Most visitors would prefer the warm period despite the possibility of cyclones, but winter offers the opportunity of a side trip to worldclass ski fields.

A process is under way to protect ten per cent of coastal waters with total no-take marine reserves. Severe penalties are in place for violating such areas with huge fines even for feeding the fish.



Situated just 23km (14 miles) off the North Island, the uninhabited Poor Knights offer world-class diving in a marine reserve. The main island group is some 5km (3 miles) long and 800m (a half mile) wide. It consists of flat-topped, high-cliffed and densely forested volcanic rocks, and is home to a prolific number of birds. Landing is forbidden except with prior permission. The islands offer sanctuary to some fascinating creatures, including the Tuatara - a lizard-like living fossil that occurs only on New Zealand’s offshore islands - and some giant insects. The islands are the only nesting grounds on earth for a species of petrel that feeds in the arctic. Between descents, resting divers can delight in the songs of forest birds, while being on the alert for occasional free-falling giant wetas (huge, ugly grasshoppers).

The Poor Knights Islands were created 10 million years ago when a volcano off North Island’s east coast burst through the earth’s crust in a display of boiling molten rock. As the lava cooled, gas pockets, hot water and high-pressure steam sculpted the landscape into a maze of corridors, grottoes and curved domes. Over time, with rising sea levels, the ocean eroded and carved the volcanic rock into a vast labyrinth. Diving here is like flying through the galleries of a giant’s castle. Strange experiences might include an encounter with a giant salp, a transparent, open-ended floating barrel big enough for a diver to enter and swim around inside.

The waters of the Poor Knights boast a wider range of fish species than the rest of New Zealand, and their size and approachability are a delight. It is a fusion of subtropical and temperate species, which includes coral fish, kelpfish (Chironemus marmoratus), demoiselles, wrasse, scorpionfish, and five species of moray.

Divers usually commute daily from Tutukaka, although it is possible to arrange overnight trips for parties of eight. A 30-minute drive from the city of Whangarei, Tutukaka is also the gateway to a popular surfing spot, an array of tiny sheltered coves and isolated beaches, mangroves, and the idyllic Matapouri Bay.


At the Pinnacles is a submerged throughway which can be entered at twin gothic archways. The ocean courses steadily through a submerged hallway that is the equivalent of six storeys high, to give the diver the surrealistic feel of swimming through Westminster Abbey. Spread over every inch of the vaulted ceilings, broad walls and the massive boulders on the floor is a crazy quilt of tiny mouths - a celebration of ocean life at its best. Fish often cram the hallway wall to wall and in summer squadrons of stingrays cruise the portals.


In deeper water there are sponges and night-stalking Mosaic Morays find daytime refuge in cracks surrounded by feather stars, mossy bryozoans and coralline structures.


In clear water and good light penetration kelp flourishes among Erect Sponges, and other filter feeders.


One of the largest sea caves in the world, Rikoriko Cave, which is a 60m (200ft) sphere half filled with ocean. A surface cul de sac, its tubular entrance is large enough to admit yachts. As you swim towards the back of the cave, choosing a depth of only 10m (33ft), the light level drops dramatically until it is equivalent to the light at an ocean depth of 100m (330ft). As your eyes adjust to the twilight, you will see conditions similar to that on the continental shelf: reef fish galore, walls of gorgonias, yellow sea daisies (zoanthids), cleaner shrimps. In the furthest recesses lives a tiny, salad green solitary polyp. Previous records of its habitat were from sunless regions 2000m (6562ft) down.

The Poor Knights have much to offer in addition to its wealth of sea caves and steep walls. Between the islands, sand-floored avenues and steep pinnacles provide optimal conditions for reef fish: constant, gentle currents from the tropics, shelter from wave violence, and sunlit seaweed jungles. Many divers prefer seaweed forests to coral reefs because, without the fluctuant grace and colour of seaweed and other sea plants, the reef can become a ‘treeless’ monotony.


A descent in Fiordland is among the weirdest of dives. A world of drowned U-shaped valleys; 200 kilometres of the most deeply indented coastline on earth and one of the world’s wettest places, with up to 9m (30ft) of annual rainfall. Along each fiord a river of fresh water up to 10m (33ft) deep flows. A tanin-stained, chill surface layer conceals a warm, crystal clear, twilit world where black corals grow along a contour from 10m (33ft) to around 50m (165ft). You leap from the charterboat into stinging cold beer - there’s a shimmering, oily effect where fresh water meets salt. You blink - visibility opens up to 30m (100ft) and a warm flow wafts in from the sea. It’s a world tipped on edge, seething with fish and so bizarre it could be a reef on some alien planet.

Red corals, sea pens and black coral galore like huge white apple trees, thick trunks, multibranched, with boldly patterned snake stars entwined on every stem. Penguins, seals, curious Bottlenose Dolphins - in Fiordland you dive one of Earth’s last pristine places, its life patterns scarcely changed since the last ice age ten thousand years ago.

Marine life is extremely diverse, with many invertebrates, especially black coral trees. Calm conditions on the vertical walls make encrusting life very accessible. There are Bottlenose Dolphins all year, mainly in Doubtful and Dusky Sounds, sometimes Milford.

Of the penguins, Little Blues can be seen all year and the Fiordland Crested from July to December. There are seals in most fiords, but it is not advisable to dive with seals from December to January.

Sea pens and deep water species can be seen at divable depths.


Fifty miles north of the Poor Knights, in a sheltered cove at the Cavalli Islands, the famous Rainbow Warrior lies in her grave, a shrine for visiting divers and a Taj Mahal of jewel anemones.


Since becoming New Zealand’s first marine reserve in 1977 Goat Island just keeps on getting better. Ninety minutes’ drive north of Auckland city, it compresses the best of NZ inshore diving into one area - a gateway to the ocean seething with marine life, with unbelievably friendly fish, huge rock lobsters (called crayfish in New Zealand) and waving kelp forests.


Jewel Anemones (Corynactis haddoni) form colonies of same-hue individuals because they reproduce asexually by budding (as well as sexually). The subtle arrays of colours and diadem patterns are photogenic.


Tiny triplefins of many species abound at all New Zealand dive sites and delight photographers with their vivid patterns, inquisitive attitude and feisty mien. Nest-guarding males will even drive off divers.

Big snappers are the dominators, at the top of the local food chain, sweeping to and fro with curious eyes, powerful jaws, argent gill plates and spikey dorsal fins that rise like hackles during skirmishes. Just as shot silk catches the light, their iridescent freckles glow or fade to copper with each turn. Amid them weave Pin Striped Parore (Girella tricuspidata) known elsewhere as Luderick or Blackfish, silvery slim Kahawai (Arripus trutta) or Australian Salmon, triggerfish, Blue Maomao (Scorpis violaceus) and wrasses with rat-like teeth. A kelpfish clings to the rock with its hand-like pectorals. A big Blue Cod (Parapercis colias), frowning mouth agape, arches its back ready to strike.

You can dive on the deeper water Sponge Garden 4, explore seaweed jungles near the Waterfall 5 or the caves 6 at the north tip of Goat Island where transient dolphins ambush prey, but wherever you descend here, fish surround you like a pop star. For the fish watcher Goat Island is a one-stop shop.

Marine life is diverse with a variety of invertebrates. Reef fish are abundant, large and tame. Dolphins and orca are transients.




Avalon Bay on Catalina Island is dominated by the old casino at the northern end of the bay. Quiet during the winter months, the bay is filled with pleasure craft in summer. The Casino Point Marine Park is one of the high-yield photographic sites, giving maximum footage for minimum effort.