Story: Diving and snorkelling

Page 3. Underwater beauty

All images & media in this story


The richness of New Zealand’s underwater environment became apparent in the 1950s, as divers discovered locations such as the Poor Knights Islands and Hen and Chickens Islands, whose waters were teeming with rare and beautiful species. The Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel Peninsula, White Island, the Marlborough Sounds, Fiordland and Stewart Island were also popular.

Divers explored inland waters too: the first dive under ice was in 1958 at Lake Ida, Canterbury, and the first cave diver found a new glow-worm cave at Te Kūiti in 1960. Now cave divers explore freshwater cave systems such as the Riwaka Resurgence near Motueka.

Artificial reefs

Since the 1960s artificial diving reefs have been created using scuppered vessels. The most famous is the Rainbow warrior at Matauri Bay in Northland, but the decommissioned navy vessels Tui and Waikato, sunk off the Tutukākā coast in 1999 and 2000, are also well known. In November 2005 the former navy frigate Wellington was sunk off the south coast of the North Island. In time these wrecks become encrusted with seaweed and shells, providing a home for marine life as well as an attraction for divers.

A warrior returns

In 1985, French secret service agents, using scuba equipment, attached bombs to the hull of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow warrior and sank it in Auckland Harbour, intending to prevent a protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Police divers inspected and photographed the damage to the sunken ship, and navy divers helped with the salvage. And in 1987, the hulk was towed to Northland and sunk in Matauri Bay as an artificial reef for the enjoyment of divers.


Some New Zealand divers photograph marine settings and creatures. By the 1960s superb images of New Zealand’s underwater life, taken by photographers like Kelly Tarlton, were appearing in magazines and winning accolades. The Oceanz International Photographic Competition, begun in 1976, provides a prize for the best New Zealand image. New Zealand photographers such as Darryl Torckler and Kim Westerskov have also won overseas competitions.


Even more than photographs, films have popularised diving. For many divers, involvement in the sport was inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s film The silent world (1956), based on one of his books. In the 1970s a television series featuring Cousteau screened in New Zealand, attracting an appreciative general audience.

In 1978 a Dunedin film company, Natural History New Zealand, began producing the series Wild south, which revealed some of the first televised images of New Zealand’s marine life. Later series included Deep blue, The crystal ocean and X force – the science of diving.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Diving and snorkelling - Underwater beauty', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006