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Diving and snorkelling

by  Nancy Swarbrick

Diving opens up new worlds of work and play. Divers plunge underwater to build bridges, conserve marine life and solve crimes. Some make movies and hunt treasure, and many dive to gather seafood.

The development of diving

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

Safety and training

Scuba diving can be hazardous because of the pressure exerted on the body by the water, which becomes greater as you dive deeper. To balance this, air breathed from a scuba tank is at equivalent pressure.

Decompresson sickness

If divers are careless, they can experience potentially fatal problems such as decompression sickness (‘the bends’). This can occur if a diver surfaces too quickly. If affected, the diver must be rushed to a recompression chamber for treatment. There are two such facilities in New Zealand: one at Auckland’s Devonport naval base and the other at Christchurch Hospital.

The bends

The nitrogen in the air supplied from a scuba tank dissolves in the diver’s tissues under pressure, just as high-pressure carbon dioxide gas dissolves in liquid to make fizzy drinks. When a diver comes to the surface too quickly, the effect is a bit like taking the cap off a bottle of lemonade – the gas is released, causing bubbles to rise. The nitrogen bubbles can block tiny blood vessels, sometimes with fatal results. To avoid this condition, called ‘the bends’, divers need to ascend slowly, gradually relieving pressure and allowing the excess nitrogen in the body to disperse.

Other hazards

Other problems caused by breathing the mix of high-pressure oxygen and nitrogen from a scuba tank include oxygen toxicity, which can trigger convulsions, and nitrogen narcosis, which impairs judgement.

Divers can drown if they are caught in currents and become trapped underwater.


Clubs have offered scuba training since the 1950s. The New Zealand Underwater Association (NZUA) introduced diver certification and standards for scuba equipment in 1963 and a licensed instructors system in 1964, the same year it joined the World Underwater Federation (also known as CMAS or Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques).

Precautions became standard: planning dives, diving with a buddy, and using safety equipment such as depth gauges or dive computers, safety floats and signalling devices.

By 1984 a competing international system of certification endorsed by the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) was being offered through dive shops, and the NZUA adopted it in 1985. New Zealand Qualifications Authority-approved tertiary diving courses are now offered by private training institutions. They are based on a range of international scuba education systems, but global guidelines for diver instruction are set by the Recreational Scuba Training Council.

Underwater beauty


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.

Diving for a purpose


Many divers enjoy diving for seafood, such as crayfish, and underwater spearfishing. From 1956 ‘spearos’ vied annually for the Mudgway Trophy in club competitions to catch the heaviest individual fish and greatest quantity of fish. In 1962 national championships began, and by the mid-1960s New Zealand teams were entering international competitions.

Other events, including fin swimming (surface and underwater swimming using a monofin and snorkel), distance races, and diving for treasure, gained fans. Depth freediving (diving to great depths without breathing equipment) has also had some Kiwi exponents. In December 2010 New Zealander William Trubridge becane the first freediver to reach a depth of 100 metres unassisted. But the most popular alternative sport was underwater hockey, introduced in 1974. New Zealand teams have been successful internationally, the women’s team winning gold at the World Championship in the Netherlands in 1988 and the men winning gold twice, in 2004 at Christchurch and in 2006 at Sheffield, England.

Commercial diving

From the 1950s onwards, commercial divers have been employed building large structures like the Auckland Harbour Bridge, installing harbour equipment and underwater cables, and maintaining dams.

Divers also work in the growing aquaculture industry and in New Zealand Customs Service operations.

Commercial divers have helped salvage sunken craft, for instance the inter-island ferry Wahine which sank in Wellington Harbour on 10 April 1968, and an Australian F-111 fighter-bomber which crashed into the Hauraki Gulf in 1979. Another delicate operation was damage assessment and pollution control after the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986.

Police and military diving

During the Wahine disaster, divers of the Wellington club rescued more than 30 passengers. This achievement, and a later effort by police divers to recover a radio log from the bridge of the submerged vessel, led to the formal recognition of the police diving squad. The squad now carries out forensic searches and body recovery. There is also a Royal New Zealand Navy Operational Diving Team, which has its own support ship, HMNZS Manawanui.

Diving into the past

In 1969 Wade Doak and Kelly Tarlton opened a museum at Whangaroa to display the relics found on the Boyd, and in 1970, Tarlton’s Museum of Shipwrecks at Waitangi was established. Preservation rather than salvage is now emphasised, and historic wrecks are protected by law. In 1983 a marine salvor was convicted under the Historic Places Act for modifying a wreck which, because it was over 100 years old, was deemed an archaeological site.

Sunken treasure

In the 1950s divers began finding wrecks around New Zealand’s coast. In 1967 the wreck of the Elingamite, which had sunk off the Three Kings Islands in 1902, was rediscovered. The efforts of Kelly Tarlton and Wade Doak to recover its cargo of bullion sparked national interest. They later recovered artefacts from the Boyd, sunk at Whangaroa Harbour in 1809. Tarlton, who gained a world reputation as a marine archaeologist, also salvaged the Rothschild jewels from the Tasmania near Māhia Peninsula in 1975.

The marine environment

Marine science

Since the 1950s recreational divers have assisted scientists by gathering specimens. Scientists, notably from Auckland University, also began to use scuba diving to do research in the 1960s. Divers and scientists collaborated in some important discoveries: for instance, when divers discovered unusual corals and brachiopods on the walls of fiords in the South Island in 1979, marine scientists initiated a study.

In-depth discovery

In 1985 diver Kelly Tarlton established Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World in Auckland. Visitors walk through a perspex tunnel in a giant aquarium, enjoying a diver’s eye view of sharks, stingrays and other underwater creatures. There are also scientific interpretations of the marine life in a ‘discovery room’ at the complex.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research is one organisation that uses scuba diving for projects such as counting species of fish, mapping and monitoring weeds and plants in lakes, and investigating Antarctic aquatic life.


The needless killing of fish in spearfishing contests, and the depletion of fish in popular dive spots began to worry some divers in the 1970s. Clubs began fining members who took undersize pāua, and in 1982 the New Zealand Underwater Association banned taking crayfish with hooks and wands. Increased appreciation of New Zealand’s underwater environment turned many divers into ardent conservationists. They organised a series of conferences between 1976 and 1990, to discuss issues affecting the world’s oceans.

The ocean’s wealth

Wade Doak is a diver-conservationist who has published numerous books. His interest shifted from salvage of historic wrecks to exploration of the oceans, particularly the undersea cliffs, caves and reefs of the Poor Knights Islands. He became fascinated by the behaviour of dolphins and established the international Project Interlock to research dolphins in their natural element.

Marine reserves

In 1989 the New Zealand Underwater Association formed the Aqua Trust. One of its objectives was to promote establishment of marine reserves. After intensive lobbying, a number have been established, mainly in the 1990s and 2000s.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Diving and snorkelling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006