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Scuba Diving in New Zealand

Water temperature:

16°C (60°F) in November, 22°C (72°F) in February/March


7mm wetsuit or drysuit


10 – 20 metres (30 – 65 feet)

Type of diving:

Archways, tunnels and walls

Marine life:

Stingrays, moray eels, boarfish, stargazers, triggerfish, scorpionfish, wrasse, nudibranchs

When to go:

The summer will have the warmest sea temperatures, so might be your time of choice to dive. Stingrays are also found at the Poor Knights in larger congregations from December to March

How to get there:

Fly to Auckland or Christchurch via Los Angeles, Singapore or similar. From here we recommend you hire a car to reach wherever you are diving as it will give you most freedom.

Click to enlarge:


Milford Sound, New Zealand

New Zealand is about as far away from the UK that you can get in terms of distance, but in terms of the country itself it feels very close to home. The climate is not too different (just a bit warmer), the language is the same, they drive on the same side of the road and thanks to the Victorians bringing so many British species with them, the wildlife now has many overlaps with sparrows, ducks, blackbirds and hedgehogs all being common sights. It is like seeing the UK on steroids, minus the people and I suppose this is why it appeals to so many Brits. Where New Zealand does differ to the UK however is in its geology. Large swathes of the country are volcanic which creates some fantastic scenery, hot springs, boiling mud pools and dubious sulphurous whiffs! The landscape as a whole is noticeably younger with sharp mountain peaks that have not had the chance to weather down into rounded hills. It also has a sense of scale that is often lacking from British vistas.

Before I visited New Zealand I had an image of virgin forest, flightless birds set against snow tipped mountains with the odd volcano thrown in for good measure. While this is true in part there is also extensive farmland and pine forest with very little in between and sometimes you have to drive a long way to get from one tourist destination to the next to see the views you were hoping for. I certainly would not want to visit New Zealand without at least three weeks to spare and without preparing myself for a lot of driving. We toured around both islands in a campervan, which was a cheap and cheerful way to travel and you didn't have to worry too much about where you were going to spend the night. However if you enjoy driving, we would recommend hiring something that does more than a top speed of 78mph on the flat, with the wind behind it and no traffic to slow you down. Our camper was good fun, but the roads were so devoid of traffic and nearly always in an excellent state of repair that we found ourselves longing for something sportier. One or two of the roads are probably up there with some of the best driving roads in the world and a camper just didn't do it justice! Also, there are plenty of B&Bs throughout New Zealand so it is unlikely you will ever find yourself without somewhere to stay, even if you don’t book anything beforehand.

If you are planning a trip to New Zealand you might find it best to fly into Auckland on the North Island and out of Christchurch on the South Island so that you can cut down on some mileage. Alternatively you could take an internal flight from Christchurch back to Auckland and get a return international flight to Auckland, as this might work out cheaper. Most people will tell you that the South Island is the better of the two, and while we are inclined to agree we would thoroughly recommend spending some time on the North Island as it is home to some equally spectacular sights and you really wouldn't want to travel halfway round the world only not to see them. The rest of this article will give you what dive site directory considers to be the highlights for both islands, heading from the far north to the far south.

The Moeraki Boulders, New Zealand

North Island

Diving the Poor Knights and Exploring the Tutukaka Coastline

North of Auckland, heading past Whangarei you will reach a turn off for Tutukaka on the coast, which is the base for diving the Poor Knight Islands. Aside from the diving, this is a particularly scenic bit of coastline with secluded beaches such as the one at Matapouri that are well worth spending some time exploring. We preferred this area to the more popular Bay of Islands to the north.

Rotorua and Around

Rotorua is the volcanic centre for the North Island. Rotorua itself may make a good base while you explore the area, but the town isn't anything special. There's a pleasant hour or so walk at Okere Falls that is a nice diversion from all the volcanics to the northeast of Rotorua. A must see is Waimangu Volcanic Valley, south of Rotorua. This is a valley that takes a few hours to walk down and then there is a bus that shuttles you back to the start of the walk. The valley is full of steaming lakes of various colours and is absolutely stunning and is the result of recent volcanic activity. The boiling mud pool at Wai-O-Tapu is also a must and is certainly good for comical effect. On your way past also stop at Huka Falls which pass rapidly through a narrow channel. The speed and volume of water passing through the gap is very impressive.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Waitomo glow worm caves simply can't be missed. We didn't visit any other glow worm caves when we were in New Zealand as these blew us away so much that we didn't feel we had to. To reach Waitomo head south from Auckland, past Hamilton onto Hwy 3 and eventually onto Hwy 37. There are a number of caves here, all with glow worms in them and you have various options as to how to see them. You can don a wetsuit and hurtle through at breakneck speed on an inflatable rubber ring or you can take a more civilised tour on foot, ending up in a short boat trip. If you want to do the adrenalin option it might be worth spending a second day here so that you can see the caves at a slower pace as well. The stalactites and stalagmites are very impressive and the boat trip in the pitch black allows you to see the caves entirely illuminated by glow worms so that you can see all of the contours of the caves, despite the lack of light. It leaves your jaw dropping.

Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellington

Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the outskirts of Wellington and is a good opportunity to see some of the native birds and lizards, as well as the native insect the weta. There are hours worth of walking to be done along paths and trails around the sanctuary and it is within walking distance of the city centre.

Getting between the Islands

There are two ferry operators that travel between Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. The Bluebridge Ferry takes a bit longer than the Interislander, but it is also a bit cheaper.

Beach at Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

South Island

Marlborough Sounds

As you come off the ferry into Picton, our advice is turn immediately right rather than following most of the rest of the traffic that heads south. This will take you up to some stunning bays and inlets around the Marlborough Sounds. You can also dive here and there is a marine reserve at Long Island. We didn't dive it on our visit as we ran out of time, but it certainly looked like a great setting for some diving with some wonderful scenery as a backdrop.

Abel Tasman National Park

Beyond Nelson on the Hwy 60 on the northern edge of the South Island is the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park. You could spend days here hiking along the trails, lounging on sandy beaches and kayaking or taking boat rides along the coast.

Oparara Limestone Arch

Oparara Limestone Arch is missed out by most tourists visiting New Zealand because it is quite a long way off the main tourist route and if you want to drive St Arthur's Pass you will find you have to double back on yourself a lot, adding even more mileage to what is likely to already be a high mileage holiday. To get to Oparara, head to Westport on Hwy 6 then turn right onto Hwy 67. Follow this road through Karamea until you reach McCallums Mill Road, a gravel road that winds up through the hills for 14km. There is a sign at the start of the road warning that it is not suitable for campervans. If you are in a small camper you will probably be ok, but anything more than a 2 berth is unsuitable for getting across a small wooden bridge fairly near the start of the track.

Once you have reached the end of the road there is a large parking area and two short walks. We strongly recommend after driving all this way that you do both! One takes you to the arch itself, a dramatic 200 metre high by 45 metre wide archway that simply takes your breath away. It is almost unbelievable that something so large could exist without some sort of support. The second walk takes you to Moria Gate Arch, a tunnel that has been carved through the rock by a small river and while not as stunning as the archway, it is still worth a look. The forest in the area is also very picturesque.

Franz Josef Glacier

Heading south on Hwy 6 you will drive through the small town of Franz Josef which is home to a selection of restaurants and places to stay. Passing through the town you cross a bridge over wide river. Turn left immediately after down a road that lead to a carpark from where you can walk to the foot of Franz Josef Glacier (about 40 minutes return). This gives you an excellent view of the glacier but if you really want to experience the glacier, our advice is to splash out on a heli-hike. They are not cheap and are probably beyond a backpacker's budget, but they really are worth every penny. You will get a helicopter flight to about halfway up the glacier. The helicopter than lands on the glacier itself and leaves you in the hands of a guide who will take you for a tour of the ice tunnels and sculptures that can be found on that particular day. The view from the helicopter gives you a great overview and is exciting in itself!

Otago Peninsula

To get the Otago Peninsula head for Dunedin on the east coast just off Hwy 1. It is a great place to spot seals, penguins and albatross. The penguins and seals are there all year, but you will have to be here from January to August to see albatross. The Penguin Place allows you to see nesting yellow-eyed penguins from a series of hides and sunken walkways. If you are around at dusk you can also see little blue penguins coming ashore to feed their chicks waiting in burrows for the adult birds at Pilots Beach. We can recommend the 1908 café for some excellent food.


The beach at Moeraki to the north of Palmerston on Hwy 1 is strewn with large, round boulders. The boulders are hard limestone concretions that form around a central nucleus. One boulder was allegedly broken open to reveal an intact fossilised turtle. The boulders are particularly special because of the way they are discarded on the sand after the cliffs are eroded backwards. It may mot sound like much but they are well worth a visit! While you are here make sure you also take time out to eat at Fleur's Place. We happened to stumble across this restaurant without realising what it was and we were blown away by the food. It was only after we had eaten that we found out that it is one of chef Rick Stein's favourite restaurants in the world! The menu is predominantly fish, but if you don't eat fish be sure to have a desert, they are the best we have ever tasted!

Milford Sound

Perhaps the most famous landmark in New Zealand, Milford Sound simply has to be on your hit list. It is located in the far south of the South Island and is reached by driving to Te Anau on SH94, then turning right. The drive down to Milford Sound is impressive in itself and be sure to stop on the way to look at the kea (alpine parrots) at Homer Tunnel and shortly after the Chasm, a 15 minute walk to an impressive torrent of water that has carved its way through the rock. At Milford Sound itself take a boat trip to see seals, penguins and generally get a better feel for the scenery. We recommend some of the smaller boats that are available for a more personal experience. While we were on our boat trip we got to see an avalanche drop over a 700m cliff. We doubt this is something many people will get to see but keep your eyes on the snowline just in case! It is also possible to dive at Milford Sound.

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