New Zealand is not a destination we hear a great deal about when talking about scuba diving. We may know of it breathtaking beauty on land from television shows such as “Xena, Warrior Princess” and “The Adventures of Hercules” or blockbuster movies like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy. For those not in the know, you may be surprised to learn the scope and grandeur that is diving in New Zealand.

Location

People often seem to group Australia and New Zealand together. Both are member states of the Commonwealth of Nations and Australia is New Zealand’s largest neighbor. New Zealand is roughly 1,000 kilometers (600 mi) south of the Pacific island areas of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga. It is also about 1,500 kilometers (900 mi) east of Australia. New Zealand has two main islands—the North Island, and the South Island. Six hundred smaller islands mostly uninhabited form the rest of the country. If you exclude the small islands, the distance from the northernmost point of North Island to the southernmost tip of South Island is around 1,910 kilometers (1,186 miles)

Auckland Waterfront photograph by Bernard Spragg. public domain
Auckland Waterfront photograph by Bernard Spragg.

Being in the South Pacific you might be expecting palm trees and white sand beaches. Yes, New Zealand does have those but not everywhere. The North Island and those smaller islands near it are in a subtropical region. It is also helped by a warm surface current that travels from the warm Coral Sea to the area.

The southern portion of the South Island is closer to the Antarctic Circle then it is to the Tropic of Capricorn. While outside of it, the south is also influenced by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) also known as the West Wind Drift. This is the worlds largest current and it moves the most water. All of it cold and nutrient rich. These conditions combine to make the south more temperate in nature.

What this means to a diver is that the north gives you subtropical scuba diving conditions with tropical marine life present. The south gives you temperate diving conditions with seals, whales, and other temperate marine life.

Some of the Best Dive Destinations within New Zealand

The options for diving and the number of different dive destinations makes it difficult to select which are the best. These destinations are highly regarded.

  • Poor Knights Islands: Poor Knights Islands is found on many worlds best list. Located off New Zealand’s Tutukaka Coast, Poor Knights Islands is New Zealand’s second oldest marine reserve. Created by volcanic action and carved by nature there are many caves and passages. Stunning wall dives and shallow coral gardens provide diving for all skill levels. The south-flowing current from the tropical Coral Sea brings a variety of tropical marine life and a stable water temperature.
  • The Bay of Islands: The Bay of Islands is located on the east coast of North Island. The area is subtropical and like the Poor Knights Islands is influenced by the current from the Coral Sea. The bay has about 150 small islands with little or no currents. The primary attraction is scuba diving, water sports, and the beaches. The Bay of Islands is one of the most popular summer tourist destinations in New Zealand.
  • Kaikoura, South Island: Kaikoura, South Island has a coastline that is rocky and the water is shallow. Perfect conditions for the New Zealand fur seals. The small dusky dolphin also resides here in large numbers. Diving is mostly in kelp forest similar to the California coast. A strong earthquake in November 2016 cause damage to the area. Some dive sites have been dramatically changed. Dive sites before that date should be verified. Visibility is often low, however, it does not hinder great marine interaction with the seals and dolphins. Crayfish dives are frequent, the diver’s catch is taken back to the dive center to be prepared for dinner. Kaikoura is on the northeast coast of South Island and is easy to reach. It is a reasonable driving distance from Picton and Christchurch. Picton is a short ferry service to Wellington on the North Island.
  • Milford Sound: Milford Sound is a leading destination for outdoor lovers. Milford Sound is a fjord know for majestic mountains, stunning waterfalls, and abundant wildlife. The fjord is on the southwestern side of South Island. Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) Marine Reserve is just as stunning. The fjord has a layer of fresh water over the top of the cold saltwater from the ocean. This layer is dark and absorbs a most of the light. At a depth of only 30 meters, you have lost the equivalent amount of light as a dive to 100 meters. The marine life has adapted to this situation and you will find marine life at 30 meters that normally are not found shallower than 100 meters. Six-meter high black coral trees can be found at 30 meters in many places in the fjord, these are only found beyond 100 meters anywhere else. The marine reserve has a dramatic seascape with sheer walls and underwater mountain tops to explore.

When to Dive?

Diving is available year-round in New Zealand, however, the peak diving season differs between North Island and South Island dive sites. Diving in the South Island, especially those sites at the southern tip of the island, have a peak season from November to April. The diving in the South Island is colder: 8 ºC in winter up to 18 ºC in summer. Dry suits are needed most of the year.

January to June is considered the best time to dive the northern dive sites of North Island. Sites such as the Bay of Islands and Poor Knights Islands fall in this group. Water around the upper North Island averages 15 ºC in winter and 21 ºC in summer.

Diving in the southern portion of North Island and the northern portion of South Island are generally closer to the northern conditions, however, the water is cooler

Best Time to Visit

New Zealand is a four-season destination, and being in the Southern Hemisphere is the reverse of Europe and North America.

  • Summer: December – February
  • Autumn: March – May
  • Winter: June – August
  • Spring: September – November

The location is also a factor. The far north is subtropical often with warm and humid conditions. The far south has no landmasses between it and the Antarctic Circle. Prevailing winds from the south and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current tempers the weather. Altitude most also be considered, some of the higher mountain can be snow capped even in the summer.

Diving in new Zealand gives you a world of choices, tropical in nature and temperate as well.

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