By Neil Bennett

There are not many countries in the world that are blessed with the diverse range of marine eco-systems in such close proximity as New Zealand. The amazing thing is you don’t have to travel far to experience it either. Just a 45 minute drive North of Auckland will take you into the heart of some of the best action.

The Poor Knights are already well-documented and world-renowned for the quality of diving that is on show there, but there are a large number of equally good destinations around New Zealand that have just as much to offer, especially in the Hauraki Gulf.

The Hauraki Gulf covers 1.2 million hectares

Situated on the East coast of the country, between Coromandel and the Bay of Islands, the Hauraki Gulf covers 1.2 million hectares that includes four marine reserves; Goat Island and Tawharanui are the most well-known of these. In addition, there are over 50 islands including Great Barrier, Little Barrier, Kawau and the Hen & Chick Islands. Just outside the Gulf, you also have the stunning Mokohinau’s islands.

The small towns of Warkworth and Matakana service the gateway to this playground who both provide a range of quality restaurants and accommodation to suit all budget levels, not forgetting a popular country market; all this and over 13 choices of vineyards too.

All of these destinations offer vastly different experiences, each having their own unique topography that sets itself aside from the neighboring island.

The further you move away from the main land, the more remote and untouched the diving becomes.

The rocky reefs around Little Barrier have abundant fish and invertebrate life among the kelp forests. Holes and cracks house many crayfish, perhaps the overflow from Tawharanui Marine Park and Goat Island Marine Reserve on the adjacent coast. Many large Red Moki often share their holes or swim through the weed above them. Their rarer cousins, the Painted Moki, are also found there. Add the swarms of Demoiselle and Blue Maomao schools over the sponge gardens and Little Barrier offers some of the best diving close to Auckland.

In contrast, the Hen & Chick islands are a small cluster of islands that offer remoteness and tranquillity. The terrain changes between each island and likewise so does the diving. It’s a great place for exploring; if you like swimming through arches and cracks, then you’ll love it here. It’s a destination that comes up with everything and is often overlooked as they are a little harder to reach. It’s one of the few places where I have actually encountered turtles out here in New Zealand.

Great Barrier Island has it all. 

It boasts a rich eco-system fed by the East Auckland current that travels through the famous Poor Knights and Mokohinau Islands. The climate is sub-tropical, providing temperate waters and, with its colourful volcanic history, there is plenty to explore underwater. The Great Barrier (chain of islands) is 40km long by 15km wide and provides a vast array of locations to dive, suited to any level of diver. From our home base, it takes an estimated 1.5 hours to get there and the diving is seldom disappointing.

If you don’t want to take the journey to the islands, then the inshore marine reserves may be for you. Goat Island is New Zealand’s oldest reserve and is known for the Giant Snapper that follow you around like puppy dogs on your dive. Easily accessible by shore, the reserve is vast and supported by a visitor’s marine research centre. Just a short distance away is one of the country’s newest reserves, Tawharanui, which is only accessible by boat. Here, you will find excellent examples of Cray nests and easy diving for the novice diver.

The Hauraki Gulf is blessed with diverse and exciting marine life that reads like a who’s who in the marine biology world.

Dolphin encounters are becoming incredibly frequent, up close and personal.

Our website documents, on video, a recent dive where beginners spent almost an hour playing with a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. These guys would not leave us alone and insisted on joining in the course, rolling around and allowing the divers to interact with them. An experience they will never forget, especially on your first ever dive!

Diving is an all year round affair here but is considered to start on September 1st with the opening of the scallop season; from this point onwards, charters start getting busy and the calendar fills up. Crayfish are in abundance all year around and the fish start returning from deeper water. Water temperature in the winter drops to a low point of just 12 degrees and at the height of the season, climbs to an almost bath temperature of 23/24 degrees.

Even in the winter months the visibility can reach up to 30m in beautiful, crystal clear water.

Throughout the year, the calendar details an amazing array of marine life. Dec/Jan see the arrival of the breeding season for stingrays. These swim into shallow bays to mate, making it impossible to take a dive without seeing plenty of them from small to giants. In the outer islands, February will bring in the migrating Hammerhead Sharks. Schooling in small numbers, these juveniles stay together for safety and are only between 1.5-2m in size, with the occasional 3m passing by. Whilst easy to spot on the surface as they sun themselves, they present a challenge to try and dive with underwater as they become nervous of anything big. Within six weeks they are gone for the season.

Warm summer currents keep the reefs alive with schools of fish such as Blue Maomao, Kingfish and many more. March marks the start of the whale sightings as they also migrate through. New Zealand is lucky to host almost half of the world’s species of marine mammals. Humpback, Southern Right and Bryde whales can all be found in our waters. You don’t have to venture far to find them either, only 30 minutes out of the marina we came across a group of whales herding fish into a ball before engulfing them. Dolphins were joining the chase along with hundreds of Gannets dropping from the sky. The scene resembled a wildlife documentary and we were there in the middle. Needless to say our return to harbor was delayed for several hours!

In the winter months, the seals take over; if you’re lucky you get to play with one in the water, otherwise they are easy to spot as they bob up and down as they check you out. We even have our own penguins too. The New Zealand Blue Penguin is a common sight and is always around, both in the water and around the rocks.

The cycle never ends; there is always something else taking over when the last species has finished.

If you are a photographer, then you will not be disappointed. The macro life is vast, with several stunning varieties of Nudibranch displaying beautiful colours in all shapes and sizes. The topography is equally inviting, providing you a number of challenging panoramic opportunities.

Maybe marine life is not your thing; perhaps you’re a wreck ferret or a tech junkie looking for a bigger thrill! We have this too! Great Barrier hosts the site for New Zealand’s biggest maritime disaster, where the SS Wairarapa lays to rest. It came to tragic fame when it hit a reef at the northern edge of Great Barrier Island, about 100 km out from Auckland, and sank. The death toll of around 140 people remains one of the largest such losses in the country’s history. She now rests in only 15m of water in a shallow bay. Broken up, she now provides a unique insight into history of maritime New Zealand.

There are a number of other exciting wrecks to dive, some residing at deeper depths.

If you want to dive to deeper depths and learn technical diving on mixed gases, then this is all available too, although booking trips requires a little more advanced notice in your planning.

In reality, I could go on describing these vastly different locations but the truth is you need to come and explore them. It’s safe to say there really isn’t much we can’t offer you here in the Hauraki Gulf.

If you would like to find out more about diving here or in New Zealand generally, please contact us.

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