Story: Diving and snorkelling

Page 1. The development of diving

All images & media in this story

Types of diving

Diving, whether for sport, seafood gathering, underwater construction or scientific investigation, has a long history in New Zealand.

For centuries, Māori have practised free diving (diving without breathing aids) to collect kai moana (seafood). The European practice of using a snorkel and facemask was later used for the same purpose. Today many New Zealanders snorkel to collect pāua, which cannot, by law, be taken using scuba gear.

Diving with oxygen began in the 1800s. In New Zealand, divers were employed in early harbour works, and when the Otago Harbour ferry Pride of the Yarra sank in 1863, a diver was used to investigate the wreck. Divers attempted to salvage valuable cargoes from the ship Elingamite, which foundered near the Three Kings Islands in 1902, and the Niagara, which sank after hitting a German mine near the Hen and Chickens Islands in 1940.

Scuba diving

The invention of the aqualung in 1942–43 by Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau and Émile Gagnan revolutionised diving. Previously, air had been supplied from the surface through a hose to an enclosed helmet, restricting the diver’s ability to move about. Now, divers were able to freely explore the underwater world, using tanks worn on the back, connected to a regulator controlling the flow of air. A wetsuit provided protection against the cold water. The name of this equipment – self-contained underwater breathing apparatus – gave rise to the acronym ‘scuba’.

DIY diving

When they began diving in 1953, Keith Gordon and his mates couldn’t afford imported diving gear, so they made their own. He recalls: ‘We made “dry” suits from sheet rubber … Dressed in these suits we would resemble the creature from the black lagoon as our pattern cutting ability left much to be desired … however the suits did offer cold water protection, enabling our dive time to be extended.’ 1

A national association

The New Zealand Underwater Spearfishing Association (later the New Zealand Underwater Association) was established in 1953, evidence of a new enthusiasm for snorkelling and scuba diving locally. In 1980 it initiated a snorkel programme for children, called Mini Dippers, as a way of recruiting new divers. The association (renamed New Zealand Underwater in 1991) had 34 affiliated clubs in 2003.

In the early 2000s it was claimed that New Zealand had more divers per capita than any other country.

  1. Keith Gordon, ‘Frog ladies and hubble bubbles’. In 50 years of New Zealand underwater, compiled by Sue Thompson. Auckland: New Zealand Underwater Association, 2003, pp. 26–27. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Diving and snorkelling - The development of diving', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006