The Alderman Islands are considered the Coromandel’s answer to the famous Northland dive site Poor Knights Islands. Photo / The Coromandel, Supplied When I first learnt to dive, I was astounded at New Zealand’s underwater world. I’d been snorkelling overseas in tropical areas, but I had no idea what was beneath the surface in our
The Alderman Islands are considered the Coromandel’s answer to the famous Northland dive site Poor Knights Islands. Photo / The Coromandel, Supplied
When I first learnt to dive, I was astounded at New Zealand’s underwater world. I’d been snorkelling overseas in tropical areas, but I had no idea what was beneath the surface in our own oceans. Each part of the country has a unique marine ecosystem with more snorkel and dive spots than most of us land-dwellers realise.
We’re also incredibly fortunate in New Zealand to have so many marine reserves, where fish, aquatic plants and animals are protected from fishing and are able to be restored to their natural balance. Snorkelling or scuba diving in a marine reserve is a remarkable and inspiring experience that should be on the top of everyone’s lifetime to-do list.
This summer, here’s where to get underwater and check out the country’s amazing marine life.
The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve is an internationally renowned dive site, rated as one of the world’s top 10 by the father of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau. It’s also an incredible snorkelling site for those who prefer to float on top of the surface.
The Whangārei Marine Reserve is also an ideal spot for a snorkel; you can head out from the shore at Reotahi. The reserve is a unique example of a community-driven conservation project, as it involved students from the nearby Kamo High School using their own research and funds to set it up – a process that took 16 years.
Another Northland favourite dive site up north is Deep Water Cove in the Bay of Islands. This is the final resting place for the former Navy Frigate HMNZS Canterbury, an impressive wreck dive with resident schools of fish in certain parts of the vessel.
Goat Island Marine Reserve is an Auckland success story. Once upon a time, the area was barren because of overfishing, but since a marine reserve was established in 1975, the area is now teeming with fish and sea life.
You can snorkel off the beach and see fish swimming around quite close to the shore, while scuba divers can venture further out. Expect to also see gorgonian fans, corals and sponges as well as large snapper and other fish that have been left alone to grow and age.
At low tide, you can explore different rock-pool creatures. There are also two coastal walkways leading from Goat Island Bay through coastal forest, which offer spectacular views and quiet picnic spots to refresh after a snorkel or dive.
Te Whanganui O Hei marine reserve is a pristine nine square kilometres off the coast of Cathedral Cove, with impressive volcanic rocks and formations. What’s really neat is the Gemstone Bay Snorkel Trail, which is suitable for all ages and abilities. The trail has buoys with handles on them, which are not only ideal for youngsters or those with less experience in the water, but they also have information panels to help snorkellers identify what they’re seeing.
But the gems in the Coromandel’s marine crown are the Aldermen Islands; a divers’ dream located 20 kilometres off the coast of Pāuanui. Made up of five islands, it’s considered the “Poor Knights Islands” of the Coromandel, with stunning volcanic formations, pinnacles, underwater caverns and caves, as well as the incredible fish life.
Te Angiangi Marine Reserve is a unique stretch of protected ocean for snorkelling and diving in Hawke’s Bay. At low tide, the retreating waters expose a rock platform where snorkelers can explore different rock pool plants and life such as golden limpets, Neptune’s necklace, pink coralline seaweed, small fish, crabs and juvenile pāua and kina. Stingray Bay and Shelly Bay are also well suited to snorkelling.
Scuba divers can head off the edge of the rock platform, with the best scenery about 9-15 metres deep south of Aramoana, where dense ecklonia kelp covers most of the reef. Divers will see pāua, opal shells, blue and red moki, butterfish, marblefish and plenty of crayfish. Go a bit deeper and find colourful nudibranchs, lots of tarakihi and schools of butterfly perch.
The Taputeranga Marine Reserve is home to more than 180 fish species, as well as the scuttled RNZN F69 Wellington frigate. Common species seen in the reserve include octopus, rock lobster, crabs and starfish, as well as large kelp forests. The Island Bay Snorkel Trail is a great way to explore the area and learn about the marine life in the reserve.
There’s also another option for those who want to learn without having to get into the water themselves – the Island Marine Discovery Centre, which holds the largest collection of marine life in New Zealand.
The Marlborough Sounds is made up of the Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus, and Mahau Sounds. The Long Island Kokomohua Marine Reserve is at the entrance to the Queen Charlotte Sound, protecting not only fish and shellfish but also seals, penguins and seabirds that feed in the sea.
The rocky reefs make for great diving – the best is around 15 metres – with lots of crayfish in crevices, schools of fish such as perch and tarakihi, as well as blue cod, seaweeds, shellfish, sponges, not to mention the dolphins and seals.
Nelson / Tasman
The Horoirangi Marine Reserve northeast of Nelson is a dramatic underwater scene due to the rugged boulder reefs. It’s suitable for both snorkelling and diving, especially around Mcakay Bluff and Ataata Point, and gentle snorkelling for youngsters near the beach at Cable Bay. Look out for anemones and sponges clinging to the rocks, crustaceans scuttling between boulders, seaweed and fish, as well as ambush starfish, which are endemic to New Zealand.
The other terrific snorkel spot in the region is the Tonga Island Marine Reserve in the Abel Tasman National Park, which has stunningly clear waters. Seals can be seen bathing on the rocks around the island, while underwater there are thriving populations of red rock crabs, crayfish, snapper, hermits and kina. You might even spot little blue penguins, shags, gannets and dolphins in the area too.
Fiordland is home to one of New Zealand’s most unique dive regions. The Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) marine reserve was established in 1993 and was the first in the region to be established. It’s considered to have the highest concentration of black coral trees in the world.
Divers don’t usually get a chance to see black coral as it typically grows at depths of at least 100 metres. However, because of waters in the Milford Sound being so dark because of the high mountains blocking the light and the amount of rainfall that drains into the fiords, the corals grow at much shallower depths.
The waters around Southland are well known for being a great habitat for great white sharks, but don’t let that put you off from snorkelling and freediving around Rakiura. Stewart Island’s remote coastlines mean dive and snorkel sites are pristine and undisturbed and are home to an incredibly diverse marine ecosystem. You can snorkel over a kelp forest with more than 260 native seaweed species, and see giant paua, large tame blue cod, blue moki, wrasse and greenbone, as well as octopus, seahorses and giant lion’s mane jellyfish.
Of course, if you’re still fascinated by great white sharks, you can dive with them in Foveaux Strait – but from the safety of a cage. You’ll learn all about these apex predators on board the boat to your dive site while understanding what an important role they have in the ocean. It might sound terrifying, but you’ll finish with greater respect, and almost affection, for these toothy giants.
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