New Zealand’s serpentine coastline is almost as long as that of the continental United States offering superb diving and snorkelling locations. Due to the foresight of conservationists, 44 marine reserves have been created for everyone to enjoy.
They range from the just announced Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, which plans to safeguard an area of 620,000 sq km in the Pacific, to coastal gems on three main islands and the Subantarctic Islands in the southern ocean.
Visitors are free to enter these unspoiled reserves and marvel at the prolific sea life that is totally protected from exploitation by fishing and gathering. The fish populations can be 40 times higher than areas outside the reserves.
New Zealand's most loved marine reserves are very accessible to visitors. Nothing can be taken from the reserves except photos and life-long memories.
Cape Rodney – Okakaru Point
A tiny speck of land called Goat Island revered by divers became the focus of an intense study by conservationists in 1975, which led to New Zealand’s first marine reserve.
Coming face-to-face with fearless granddaddy snapper, gnarly red lobsters, cheeky blue maomao and sunbathing stingrays at Goat Island has fuelled a lifelong passion for diving for many Kiwis.
Marine scientists say lobsters double their numbers every two years here and snapper are 30 times more plentiful. Other reef species like anemones, sponges, gorgonian fans, lace corals and sea urchins thrive here too.
To enjoy this experience all you need is a mask, snorkel and flippers. The best sea conditions are when offshore winds prevail and swells are below one metre.
Goat Island is 90 minutes drive from Auckland on the east coast, 4km northeast of Leigh. Snorkelling gear can be hired at ‘Newseafriends’ on Goat Island Road. The Glass Bottom Boat Company runs tours from the beach.
Poor Knights Islands - Northland
New Zealand’s second marine reserve encompasses a rugged group of drowned volcanic lava domes with a remarkably varied ecosystem.
The islands have won accolades for their splendid undersea caverns, arches, tunnels and sheer cliffs. Diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau once described them as the best dive spot in subtropical temperate waters.
Squadrons of graceful stingrays wing their way through archways past huge schools of trevally. Swarms of brilliant blue maomao and demoiselles engulf divers then veer away with curiously synchronised movements.
You will see subtropical species like spotted black grouper, mosaic moray and coral fish. Solitary scorpion fish and tiny blue dot triplefins hover over exquisitely coloured nudibranchs and sponges.
Tutukaka, the service port for the Poor Knights, is 30km northeast of Whangarei. New Zealand’s largest fleet of dive charter boats operate out of Tutukaka to the 50 dive sites around the islands.
Mimiwhangata Coastal Park - Northland
A national marine treasure can be found in an out-of-the way place on Northland’s east coast that offers a wonderful variety of sea life.
Mimiwhangata Coastal Park extends 1000 metres offshore. Commercial fishing is banned but recreational fishing for some species has been permitted over the years, which scientists are monitoring.
The park has complex reefs among the numerous rocky islets and kelp forests. Look out for subtropical fish such as spotted black grouper, fox fish, surgeon fish and comb fish.
Northland’s subtropical climate, superb coastal scenery, sheltered bays, golden sands and a rock-strewn aquatic playground make this park rewarding for any visitor.
Mimiwhangata Coastal Park lies 50km north of Whangarei on the east coast. A metalled road gives access to Okupe Beach via Oakura and Helena Bay. Pacific Coast Kayaks operate multi-day trips around the coastline.
Whanganui a Hei (Hahei) – The Coromandel
Affectionately known as Cathedral Cove Reserve, this protected area with its many islands and amazing diversity is a slice of the Coromandel Peninsula as it would have been 1000 years ago.
You’ll see eerie kelp forests sway to-and-fro and lobsters scuttle about under shadowy ledges. Blue cod, butterfish, red moki and very contented snapper mooch about calmly amongst the colourful plant communities.
It’s a joy to pack a lunch, mask, snorkel and flippers and hike the Cathedral Cove track. At the Gemstone Bay Snorkelling Trail panels explain which species inhabit the area. Stingray Bay offers superb snorkelling for beginners and Cathedral Cove is a truly magic place.
Off Mahurangi and Motueka islands black angel fish and lobsters hide in the crevices and schools of sweep often follow divers around. Delicate corals live close to the surface in Poikeke Cave.
Cathedral Cove is clearly signposted as you enter Hahei, which is 20 minutes drive south of Whitianga. You can take a scenic boat trip, go sea kayaking or view the seabed from a glass-bottomed boat.
Tawharanui Marine Reserve - Auckland
Beneath the wonderful landscapes and eco trails of the Tawharanui Peninsula native flora and fauna sanctuary is an undersea world that has been protected for 30 years – and it shows.
The reserve is accessed from a stunningly beautiful beach and several rocky coves - Kiwi beaches and coastal waters at their very best. Tawharanui reserve extends 3km along the coast and has fascinating sub-tidal habitats, including overhanging reefs, long tunnels and deep caves.
Look out for large schools of red moki, blue maomao and red mullet along with snapper, John Dory, banded wrasse and goat fish.
Tawharanui is 1.5 hour’s drive north of Auckland following SH1 to Warkworth and turning right onto Matakana Road. The area offers an enormous variety of activities such as snorkelling, diving, kayaking, sail boarding, exploring caves, hiking and bird watching. The area is unspoiled with no obtrusive commercial activity.
Tonga Island – Abel Tasman National Park
Tonga Island is extremely popular with hikers on the Abel Tasman Track and kayakers paddling from Marahau to Totaranui. Snorkelers and scuba divers can easily access the island in water taxis or private boats.
Abel Tasman is our busiest national park and the thriving tourist industry makes it easy to get transport to Tonga Island, which is offshore from Onetahuti Beach.
You’ll find this lovely part of the world great for spotting cute little penguins and cavorting with dolphins. Baby seals just love to roll over and play, mimicking your underwater antics with an impressive agility and grace.
The best snorkelling in the reserve is around the smooth granite rocks between Tonga Quarry and Foul Point. Scuba divers enjoy the reef systems in the north of the reserve. Look for species such as triplefins, wrasse, blue cod, snapper, tarakihi and moki.
Abel Tasman National Park is one hour’s drive from Nelson. Charter boat and water-taxi services are available from Kaiteriteri, Marahau and Totaranui. Timetable information can be obtained from visitor centres at Nelson, Motueka and Takaka.
Hikurangi - Kaikoura Canyon
There are few places on earth that possess the magic of Kaikoura, the marine mammal capital of New Zealand.
The nutriment-filled Kaikoura Canyon provides rich pickings of deepwater grouper and squid for giant sperm whales and the equally voracious southern right, blue, humpback and killer whales.
Watch out for acrobatic dusky dolphins, common and bottlenose dolphins. The rare Hector’s dolphin and fur seals also inhabit the coastal waters, interacting with humans and showing off their athletic skills.
Kaikoura Township is a leading tourist destination where fresh seafood is always on the menu, especially lobster (crayfish). It’s a diver’s paradise amongst the luxuriant stands of bull kelp and seaweed on the coastal reef systems.
Kaikoura is on the South Island’s east coast, two hours’ drive south of Picton and 2.5 hours north of Christchurch. Marine operators have year-round whale watching by boat and plane, swimming with dolphins and seals, seabird watching, kayaking and diving.
Punakaiki (Dolomite Point) – West Coast
Punakaiki, halfway between Greymouth and Westport, is the gateway to the dramatic limestone country of Paparoa National Park.
Dolomite Point’s famous Pancake Rocks were formed 30 million years ago when lime-rich shells on the seabed were overlaid by soft mud, raised by earthquakes and etched out by the sea forming rock stacks and blowholes.
You will find a wonderful slice of West Coast life here with wild rocky shores leading down to rolling, windswept seas. Diving is very dependent on weather and sea conditions, so local advice is needed.
Blue penguins and Hector’s dolphins are common and albatrosses, petrels, terns and gannets are often seen soaring on the winds and thermals.
Punakaiki is 58km south of Westport. Tourism activities here are legion, including surfing, canoeing, adventure caving, glow-worm cave tours, rafting, hiking, horse trekking, arts and crafts.
Akaroa (Akaroa Harbour) – Banks Peninsula
This quiet corner of Akaroa Harbour under Gateway Point is a new marine reserve with a spectacular coastline of volcanic cliffs, wild sea caves and unusual rock stacks.
The sea floor is between 18 - 30 metres deep with good populations of blue cod, butterfish, moki, leatherjackets and white pointer sharks. Seals haul out along the rocks edging the reserve.
Akaroa Marine Reserve is home to the world’s smallest dolphin, the 1.4metre long Hector’s dolphin. Many whale species visit the area, including humpback, southern right and blue whales, and also common and dusky dolphins.
Be aware that Hector’s dolphins are very playful and happy to approach you. There are 7000 animals on the east coast but a subspecies, Maui’s dolphin is almost extinct.
The picturesque French-styled town of Akaroa is 85km from Christchurch. Water-based activities include kayak hire, diving and snorkelling trips and regular boat tours offering marine mammal and bird watching plus swimming with dolphins.
Ulva Island – Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island
Scenic Paterson Inlet is an ancient drowned river valley tucked in behind Oban in Half Moon Bay. At the entrance is Ulva Island / Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve, established in 2004.
The mixing of warm subtropical and cold sub-Antarctic waters around Stewart Island produce a great diversity of marine life in the idyllic, secluded inlet.
Seek out the rare ancient filter feeding shellfish. Brachiopods are here that were abundant 300 million years ago. They live happily here among 260 varieties of seaweed.
The vast seaweed meadows provide food and protection for the multitude: rock oysters, abalone, scallops, sea urchins, lobsters, octopus, carpet sharks, triplefin, wrasse, blue moki and southern pigfish.
Ulva Island is one of New Zealand’s best open wildlife sanctuaries. Divers need to be aware of tidal currents and cold water here (between 8-12 degrees Celsius). Kayaking is excellent among fur seals, sea lions and yellow eyed penguins.