New Zealand - New Zealand and Rarotonga Update 2005 by Richard Scarsbrook
Jen and I spent a week in Rarotonga and seven weeks in New Zealand in February and March 2005. My reports on similar trips in 2002 and 2003, can be found elsewhere on the BSAC Travel Club website, and should be read in conjunction with this article. This time we went out of our way to try the diving at places we hadn't been to before. The purpose of this report is to add our impressions of these new places, update information about a couple of spots we re-visited, and add a few general points omitted from, or revised since, our previous trip reports.
This report includes accounts of diving around the Otago Peninsula, Invercargill, Marlborough Sounds, the Cook Strait, Napier, Tauranga, and Lake Taupo, with updates on the Alderman Islands and Rarotonga. There are detailed descriptions of about 20 dive sites.
As before we flew with Air New Zealand. The interiors of their 747s are getting a bit tired, but otherwise the flights were fine. The fleet is due for an upgrade this year, and we've booked with ANZ again for 2006.
Airline security is as tedious as ever, though the staff at LAX were more pleasant this time. We took our pony cylinders in checked baggage, with the valves removed and just a plastic bag over the hole to stop dirt getting in. They were happy with that at LAX, but at Auckland on the way home the check-in clerk said that since they were open, the cylinders had to have been "professionally cleaned". Fortunately her supervisor accepted our assurances that they had been. Just before we left the UK I read that some airlines had made divers carry torches in cabin baggage because torches might cause a fire if they got switched on during transit in the hold. However at LAX they weren't worried about fires, but they thought that the 1kg Beaver Platinum torch in my cabin baggage might be used as a weapon. I was allowed through when the fourth security person to join the deliberations identified it as "a really cool scuba lamp". Nobody batted an eyelid at the litre of whisky in a glass bottle that Jen was carrying. Ah the joys of travel.
We used the BBH network of backpacker hostels again. We stayed in 10 different hostels, each one excellent. We booked about a week ahead, and had no trouble finding accommodation.
We rented a Nissan Pulsar from Auckland Premium Car Rentals Auckland Premium Car Rentals again. It was NZ$42 a day, trouble-free - and younger than the car I drive at home! One security point - we got a car with a boot for added security, but it had a remote boot release so unfortunately when thieves smashed a window (see Titahi Bay below) they were able to open the boot. The car handbook was entirely in Japanese, which we don't speak or read, and it was only afterwards that I worked out that you could disable the boot release by operating a less-than-obvious catch on the boot lock.
A quirk of driving in NZ I forgot to mention in my last report is that vehicles turning right have priority over vehicles turning left into the same road. This can lead to embarrassing stand-offs when you don't realise that another car is waiting for you to turn right; and to close shaves when you forget to give way to someone who expects to turn right in front of you.
The weather this time was perhaps not as good as on previous trips, but to put it in context, it was still warm enough to wear shorts and T-shirt every day.
Once again we dived with The Dive Centre Rarotonga , and will do so again on our next trip. They have now have a conventional RIB in addition to their two Mac boats, and have moved to new premises about 200m up the road. At last we got to dive one of the wrecks, the Maritime Reefer, a fishing vessel smashed up in 25m outside the reef off the Edgewater Resort. The 30m+ visibility means that the whole wreck can be seen together with lots of reef in the background - in its tangled state I thought it was a dramatic picture of the power of the sea. We dived a few scenic sites as well. As before, the dive sites are much of a muchness, but pleasant enough, and an agreeable and inexpensive way to while away a few days. While we were there Huw and Sheryl, the owners, had a baby son Morgan. Sheryl was working right up to the day before she had the baby, and the organisation of the dive centre was only slightly disrupted the following day. Impressive! Rarotonga remains an idyllic place to get over your jet lag on route to NZ, in my opinion.
I heard that the research ship Bounty Bay which recently started taking divers on liveaboard trips has had mixed success. There is some excellent diving to be had around some of the outer islands, but also some very disappointing diving. Most of the outer islands have no proper harbour and in bad weather (big swell) groups have had to be ferried ashore by a hairy trip in the tender and flown back to Rarotonga. Looking at their website it's clear that this outfit does some really adventurous expeditions which could be very attractive if you have the time, flexibility, and inclination. Unfortunately our trips are always in January/February/March, which is cyclone season, so it's unlikely we'll get to sample one of their dive trips.
A few weeks after we left Rarotonga at the end of January the Cook Islands were struck by three separate tropical storms in two weeks. There has been some damage, but as far as I know all the dive operations are running again now, and the reef damage is minor.
NZ Diving Scene
On this trip we missed out the internationally famous dive sites and concentrated on areas that are less well known. A few things became clear when we tried to book dives. First, much of the diving in NZ is done from privately owned boats, and is therefore inaccessible to visitors like ourselves who are only staying a few days in each place (perhaps if you were staying in one place for longer you could get some diving through a local club). Second, the local dive stores (LDS) are primarily geared towards beginner training - they do run trips, but not necessarily very often, and the locations may be geared towards the needs of the trainees. Nevertheless, we did find that the LDS would do their best to fit you in. Many of the LDS are franchises of the Dive HQ operation.
Otago - lies at the SE of South Island. Otago Harbour is an inlet with the city of Dunedin at its head and a narrow entrance to the ocean about 12 miles to the NE. Apart from the shipping channel, which is about 25m at its deepest point, the water is rather shallow. The tide runs strongly through the channel. Slack water in the outer part of Otago Harbour coincides roughly with HW and LW. The land to the east is the Otago Peninsula. The diving in the ocean surrounding the peninsula looks promising, but you would need a boat and good weather.
The LDS is Dive Otago. They occasionally run boat trips at weekends, but had nothing that fitted our schedule, so we rented tanks for shore diving. They offered that we could join in on a dive with some of their students, but we preferred to do our own thing. It cost about ?35 to hire weights and 4 tanks for a flexible period of a few days.
* Weller's Rock - About halfway between Portobello and the Taiaroa Head the road runs right next to the sea. About 100m before the jetty from which wildlife cruises depart, there is a small promontory with space for parking two or three cars, and a plaque commemorating the arrival of Weller, an early settler. The dive goes out towards the buoy marking the shipping channel. Dive at slack water. There is a small cliff on the NE side. We saw shoals of small fish, nudibranches, and sea tulips (look like Triffids). The sea bed was sand and silt, and there were stands of extremely tough multi-stranded kelp that Jen got caught in. Not terribly exciting. It was on this dive that my Uwatec computer stopped working.
* Aramoana Mole - At the north side of the entrance to Otago Harbour there is a kilometre-long man-made wall, wide enough to drive along and turn round (were it not for the locked gate at the landward end). It was originally used as a wharf for loading and unloading ships. A number of old hulks were sunk alongside it many years ago, in an effort to prevent erosion. One, the Mokoia is easy to locate and dive because her stern post shows at all states of the tide. The mole and its wrecks are said to make a good dive, by day or night. There are eddies on both the ebb and the flood. The entry and exit involves scrambling over large blocks (like a bigger, more broken, version of the Churchill Barriers at Scapa Flow). Unfortunately both times we went there was too much swell to be confident of a safe exit, so we didn't dive.
Otago is an attractive place, with low green hills and steep cliffs. Two types of penguins nest here, and can be seen in the water during the day, and coming ashore at dusk. There is also an albatross colony at Taiaroa Head. Close offshore is the sub-tropical convergence, where the warm Tasman Current meets sub-antarctic water. The sea temperature around here is about the lowest in NZ. During our stay the winds were from the NE causing banks of advection fog which at times could be seen as a line parallel to the shore out at sea, and at other times covered the whole of Otago Harbour and Peninsula. There is an excellent Marine Studies Centre at Portobello. It's open to the public; has knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff; and good exhibits including aquarium, oceanographic displays, and underwater video. Verdict - Otago has some nice wildlife and easy walks, but the area isn't worth visiting for the readily-available diving.
Invercargill - is right at the bottom of South Island. The open sea is about 10 miles away at Bluff, a small village about the size of Seahouses (launching point for the Farne Islands in NE England). Stewart Island, a pristine wilderness, lies at 47?S a few miles away across the Foveau Strait. This is often a wild piece of water, but when we dived there it was like a millpond.
The LDS is Dive HQ Invercargill . The manager, Cam, was very helpful and arranged a day trip for us out of Bluff. Cam also made enquiries about getting my dive computer fixed. It turns out that you send them to Auckland, who then send it to Australia. The whole process takes 3 or 4 weeks and is not cheap (in NZ, dive computers are about double UK prices). I made do with a depth gauge and staying close to Jen until we got to Marlborough Sounds (see below) and rented/borrowed from thereon. Lessons learned - get a computer with a user replaceable battery; don't believe the Uwatec technicians who tell you the batteries work right down to 0% (mine said 47% left just before it stopped working, but a new one fixed it); and get the battery replaced before a long trip.
The boat was a trailer-launched aluminium craft with plenty of cabin space. We met up at Invercargill and were driven to Bluff in a minibus with the other divers, Richard, President of Southland SAC, Paul, and Cam who was skippering the boat. Launching and recovery was impressive, the boat being driven directly off and on the trailer. On the boat trip we saw a large school of dolphins. Most Kiwi divers are underwater hunters, and our companions were no exception. They failed to catch any crayfish, but one brought up a bag full of sea urchins to be eaten raw. It was an enjoyable day out in good company at a bargain price of about ?27 each including tanks and weights.
* SW Bluff Island - 17m, a rarely dived-spot apparently, due to the weather. The terrain was large kelpy boulders. There was plenty of colourful encrusting life, and a lot of fish. The dive was a very gentle drift.
* NW Hazellberg Rocks - 16m, another exploratory site. Similar terrain and life to the previous dive, but maybe more and bigger fish. The NZ divers were disappointed to find no crayfish. We dived at slack water.
Bluff has a slightly Hebridean feel to it. The hill after which it's named has some nice walks with great views. Verdict - an interesting place to have visited and dived because of its position at the very south of NZ, but 3 days was enough for us.
West Coast of South Island - Over the course of three visits to NZ, we've now driven the whole of the road up the west coast, and researched the diving possibilities. In a nutshell, there aren't any, north of Fiordland. The seabed shelves very gently away from the coast almost everywhere; any rocky headlands stand in shallow water; and virtually the entire coastline is exposed to the Tasman Sea. Entry to the water is very dependent on the weather, as is the visibility. Not surprisingly, there are no dive operators.
There are very few harbours on this coast, and those that exist often have very difficult entrances. On this trip we stayed overnight in Greymouth and went to look at the harbour entrance. It was an awesome and sobering sight. The entry goes over a shallow bar into a river, then up the river for half a mile to the harbour. The river was swollen with flood water, and was about 100m wide. Many whole tree trunks were floating past at over 8 knots (I measured it by running alongside the river on the walkway - many British liveaboards would be unable to make headway against a current of this speed). Where the river met the sea there was a horrific patch of steep confused waves two or more metres high. On the breakwater stands a monument to over 20 sailors who have drowned at this point over the last 20 years.
Marlborough Sounds and Cook Strait (S) - The Cook Strait separates North and South Islands. At its narrowest point, it's about 12 miles wide and is bounded by the Marlborough Sounds on its NW side. The Sounds were formed when the sea flooded a series of deep valleys after the last ice age. They contain many attractive bays, islands and waterways. There are strong tidal streams in the Cook Strait, and in some parts of the Marlborough Sounds. The Cook Strait is also notoriously windy, and can experience large swells. The Sounds are sheltered, but they are divided by land into three parts, Queen Charlotte Sound, Pelorus Sound, and French Pass. Travelling from one part to another by boat (the main means of transport hereabouts) is only possible by going out into the Cook Strait. Since the better dive sites are in the outer parts of the Sounds or the Cook Strait, the diving is both more distant and more vulnerable to the weather than one might expect. Most boats depart from Picton at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound. Boats for Pelorus Sound go from Havelock, and occasionally trailer-launched boats are towed to the outer reaches of the Sounds on dirt roads. In my opinion the best way to dive the area is from a liveaboard.
We had a three-day trip on Frank Carre's Sandpiper, which is based in Picton. We had had a brilliant week on her in 2003 in Fiordland, with our friend Chris from Wellington, and two other former members of TSAC. This time Chris, Jen and I had the boat to ourselves. As before, Frank proved to have excellent local knowledge; the weather was good; the food was good and included plenty of freshly caught fish (of which I remember terakihi and blue cod as being particularly tasty); and most importantly the craic and the diving were good. We paid about ?75 per day each, all inclusive.
* Splash Rock - 24m, a small rock which shows at LW, in the Cook Strait just N of the entrance to Tory Channel. The rock drops to a broad flat plateau at about 20m running W to a pinnacle at about 9m. The plateau slopes away to deep water at an angle of about 20? on either side. This was a very nice dive, with many fish, octopus, luridly coloured jewel anemones, and sponges. We dived a bit before slack water with about a knot of tide, which made staying around the same area and keeping together in a three a little tricky in 10m vis. On the plus side it ensured that all the marine life was out and feeding.
* The Brothers - 15m, a pair of rocks in the Cook Strait. We dived the E side of the S rock. The terrain consisted of lots of gullies running between submerged rocks and boulders, reminiscent of some of the diving at Eyemouth. It was another very nice dive, with 10m vis. There were many fish, several crayfish, and we had a seal encounter. There was no current.
* Mikhail Lermontov - 25m, is a completely intact 22000 registered ton Russian cruise ship which sank in 1987. She lies in Port Gore, a sheltered bay, on her starboard side in about 35m with her bows to the E. We spent the night at anchor nearby. Many people rave about this wreck, but to be honest in the 2-3m visibility we had one wreck is pretty much like another. Frank says that the best time to dive her is September and October, when the visibility is much better. There are two other wrecks Lastingham and Rangitoto on Cape Jackson at the E entrance to Port Gore, both well smashed, and exposed to wind and swell.
* Titi Island - 25m, is a small island a few miles NW of Port Gore. We dived the S side in a gentle current. There was a sandy slope running out onto small flat boulders. There were many fish including carpet sharks and a rather unpleasant-looking hagfish, and a nice stand of kelp.
* Sentinel Rock - 16m, stands well out in the Cook Strait exposed to the full force of the tide. We dived in the shelter of the NE side, where there were seals, gullies, a small cave, and a moderate amount of fish and encrusting life.
* Cooper's Point, Queen Charlotte Sound - 22m, "very Scottish" says my dive log. We dropped in well offshore and swam over a silty/sandy bottom to a reef with sparse encrusting life, nudibranchs, ghostly shoals of fish, kelp, and 5m vis. We spent the night at anchor in a bay just to the S, and were blessed with a beautiful golden sunset.
* Long Island - 11m, has been made a marine reserve below water, and a scenic reserve above. Essentially this means no fishing, hunting, camping, fires, or domestic animals. There were notably large numbers of juvenile crayfish, blue cod, and paua - all popular hunting/fishing targets - which suggests that the reserve is achieving its objectives. We dived the NW side of the island. The terrain is weed-covered boulders running out onto sand.
Marlborough Sounds is an extremely pretty area. Resolution Bay, Ship Cove, and Motuara Island are worth a visit both for nature walks, and to see interesting exhibits about and relics of the early settlers, including Captain Cook's voyages. There are plenty of non-diving things to do here including kayaking, tramping (Queen Charlotte Track - can also be cycled), and visiting the wineries in nearby Blenheim. Verdict - there is some very nice diving in the Cook Strait, but the best is quite tidal and unsuitable for the inexperienced. The diving within the Sounds was unexciting. It's a long run out to the best places, and a liveaboard provides the best chance of diving them. We'd use Sandpiper again, but I don't think we'll bother with the local dayboats' standard trips.
Cook Strait (N) - Chris, Jen and I did a day trip from Wellington on a Splash Gordon charter. The boat was a typical NZ aluminium trailer-launched craft with small cuddy, similar (perhaps identical) to the one we went on with them in 2003. They run charters most weekends. The skipper was a typically friendly, flexible, competent sort. We launched near their shop on the coast road to the W of the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The other divers were a mix of beginners and slightly experienced, but the skipper did a good job of accommodating everyone. However we got the distinct impression, from a number of sources, that the local charters rarely if ever visit the really good sites like Fisherman's Rock and Hunter Bank, which are felt to be too demanding for the usual clientele. We paid about ?30 each including hire of tanks and weights.
* Arabella Rock - 18m, is a submerged reef on the E side of the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The reef is fairly flat and runs N-S. There was about 0.5 knots of tide, and some swell which could be felt throughout the dive. The other divers were dropped closer into the shore, where the conditions were easier. There was plenty of colourful encrusting life, only a few fish, and 6-7m vis.
* Shark's Tooth, Lyall Bay - 18m, is a rock which shows on the W side of the entrance just under the approach path to Wellington airport. It was more sheltered than the morning dive, and had better life including colourful jewel anemones, and many blue cod. It was here that I learned that although I could get the fish to come very close by feeding them sea urchins, my reactions are not quick enough to catch one on my knife. I subsequently learned that wounds received in the process from sea urchins remain painful for weeks afterwards.
There is plenty of shore diving to be had around Wellington, easily accessed from the roadside. The road where Splash Gordon is situated has several sites, including some small wrecks. There's guide to Wellington shore dives linked from their website. We did one shore dive just N of Poirua, near Titahi Bay.
* Rocky Bay - 9m, was a pleasant enough shore dive around rocks and large boulders shelving out onto sand, with a fair amount of life. Rather St Abbs-ish. The event was marred by the fact that our car was broken into whilst we were diving, and some items, fortunately insured, were stolen. It had looked safe where we parked, a pleasant residential area overlooking the sea, with people tending their gardens and walking their dogs. For the rest of the holiday we were rather nervous about leaving our car anywhere, particularly when travelling between locations with all our belongings inside.
As the capital city of NZ, Wellington and its surrounding area offer a huge range of things to see and do. Verdict - if you're in the area anyway, there is plenty of accessible diving, but I wouldn't recommend a special trip just to dive here unless I'd pre-arranged a visit to the choicest sites.
Napier - lies on the SE coast of North Island at the south end of the 40-mile wide Hawke Bay. After it was flattened by an earthquake in 1931, much of the rebuilding was in Art Deco style, giving the city an unusual feel, a curious blend of fading English seaside architecture and Kiwi lifestyle. It somehow felt appropriate that Michael Barrymore was appearing in pantomime here. Napier lies at the heart of the Hawke's Bay wine-producing region, famous for its delicious chardonnay. For a hundred miles or so south and north, the seabed slopes gently away from the coast, such that it is generally several miles offshore before the depth exceeds 30m. There are few off-lying reefs, and the entire coast is exposed to the weather. Marine reserves have been established at Te Angiangi 40 miles to the south, and Te Tapuwae o Rongokako 80 miles to the north, beyond Gisborne. It is possible to shore dive at both of these places.
We arranged an evening dive with the Dive HQ Napier , who were friendly and helpful. We paid about ?15 each including tank and weights. Their boat was the standard aluminium craft, berthed just opposite the dive shop. They dive Pania Reef, just out from the harbour, several times a week. They told us that occasionally they visit Black Reef 15 miles to the south, but other than that their trips tend to be elswhere in NZ - Poor Knights etc. This confirmed what a group of divers from Napier had told us when we met them on a boat at Poor Knights: the local diving is geared towards catching crayfish, and training.
* Pania Reef - 11m. A 1.5 mile long series of rocky outcrops, marked by a cardinal buoy at each end, runs NE starting a mile out of Napier yacht harbour. The reef rises about 10m from the surrounding seabed at 15m, and is split by sandy gullies. The vis was about 10m, and there was plenty of life - mussels (no-take on scuba in NZ), anemones, and fish including blue cod, red moki, and conger. There was a slight swell, but no current (at HW -0200). Our expectations of Napier diving had been low, but this was a surprisingly pleasant dive.
The others on the boat did a second dive at another spot on the reef (we declined). One diver surfaced with a dozen crayfish (he returned the smallest ones, but kept the catch limit of 6 per person per day. The Kiwi divers are adamant that this rate of catching is sustainable, but I remember over 20 years ago when you used to see lots in the UK. Now a crayfish is a rare sight indeed.) The other divers on the boat were a mix of experience, and some appeared to be guided. We were rather surprised at one pair, a beginner and his dive leader, neither of whom had a torch even though it was almost dark before they surfaced. Verdict - if the weather is OK there are one or two easy, pleasant dives here, but for the casual visitor at least, that's as far as it goes.
Western Bay of Plenty - The Bay of Plenty lies about halfway up the east side of North Island, between the Coromandel Peninsula and East Cape. Tauranga and Whakatane are the main towns on its western side and eastern sides respectively. The diving is concentrated around a handful of offshore islands and reefs. There are overfalls at the entrance to Tauranga/Mt Manganui, and significant tidal streams out in the bay.
On this trip we did two day's diving withDive HQ Tauranga , yet another helpful and friendly bunch. The boat was Crackerjack, a relatively spacious 8m aluminium craft that berths in nearby Mt Manganui. On the first day we went out with a group of beginners and their instructors to Karewa Island, a wildlife sanctuary about 7 miles from harbour and 3 miles offshore. On the second day there were just five of us, Jen and me, a guy from Auckland and his instructor from Dive HQ, and Russell the owner/skipper of Crackerjack. We travelled a few miles further, to Astrolabe and Okepara Reefs, which are 10 and 7 miles offshore respectively. We paid about ?30 per day each, including tanks and weights.
* Karewa Island NW - 24m. A better-than-expected dive amongst very large boulders descending onto sand. There were many sponges, mainly grey, rays, kingfish (big), and a large shoal of what looked like (but almost certainly weren't) mackerel. Visibility was 8-10m, and there was no current.
* Karewa Island SE - 24m. After only an hour surface interval we dived the opposite side of this small (about 200m across) island. The terrain and life were very similar to the previous dive, perhaps more of a slope and fewer rocky bits.
* Astrolabe Reef - This reef rises from 60m almost to the surface, and had been recommended by several different sources. As we anchored, the larger swells were breaking on the reef, the sun was shining, and everything looked promising. The other diver was to do a training exercise which required returning underwater to the boat at the end of his dive and breathing from a cylinder suspended at 6m. When the cylinder was duly lowered from the stern it streamed out at 45 degrees to the vertical. It was obvious that there was a strong tide running. The divemaster then proposed attaching the cylinder to the anchor chain. Jen and I pointed out that this could easily lead to all four divers being swept away by the current whilst the boat was immobilised with a large piece of diving equipment fastened to its anchor line. The skipper agreed and this idea was dropped. Our suggestions of a line from the stern to the anchor line so that we could pull ourselves along in the current, or alternatively to dive the site as a drift from a mobile boat, fell on deaf ears. Eventually we attempted a dive anyway, but the current was too strong - I was unable to make any headway even at sustained maximum effort. I managed to get back to the ladder, but Jen drifted away and had to be picked up. Neither of us was in any danger, but it was an incompetent piece of dive marshalling. After this the site was abandoned in favour of Okapara Reef, closer in and less subject to tide.
* Okapara Reef W end - 28m. The reef covers an area about half a mile across, and rises to about 6m below the surface. There is a vertical drop-off from 10-25m with deep cracks full of crayfish. There were plenty of sponges and solitary fish, but we didn't see any shoals. There was no current. Pleasant.
* Okapara Reef E end - 31m. The second dive began on a boulder slope from 20m to the depths, but we soon came onto similar terrain to the previous dive, with many colourful sponges and a rock cod in a cave. Pleasant, again.
There are other widely recommended sites in the area, including Mayor Island and the Taupo wreck. Verdict - There is undoubtedly some very good diving in this area, though the best is quite exposed. But White Island in the nearby Eastern Bay of Plenty is better still. The area had fewer non-diving attractions for us than other parts of NZ.
Taupo - Lake Taupo lies in the centre of N Island. It was formed about 26000 years ago by a colossal volcanic explosion which ejected over 800 cubic kilometres of material. Taupo is the largest town in the area. It lies on the E shore, in a delightful setting looking across the lake to the mountains. At the edge of town the Waikato river flows out of the lake. Because it feeds a hydroelectric scheme further downstream, its level is controlled by floodgates. There is an LDS, Dive Shack tel 073781926, but we were unable to contact it by telephone, and the weekend we were there it was shut (perhaps because the town was hosting the NZ Ironman - an awesome event which we watched for several hours, including seeing a friend complete his first Ironman in 10 hours 9 minutes). Instead we arranged a dive with Casey tel 0800123483, who runs guided trips down the river. Normally I would miss the dive rather than have a guide, but we made an exception in this case because the dive was on our list and our time was limited. Casey could provide air; knowledge of the exit point (you would not survive a trip through the Huka Falls a mile or so downstream of the exit); and transport back from it. She was pleasant and competent:
* Waikato River - 12m. An article in the July 2005 edition of Sport Diver is headlined "Extreme Drift Diving - we dare to dive NZ's Waikato River". In contrast my dive log entry begins "Underwhelming novelty dive for $85". The average speed was 2-3 knots, with faster and slower bits as the depth varied between 2 and 12 metres. Vis was around 10m, there were a few trout, small fish and crustaceans, and the terrain was large boulders and bedrock surrounded by large expanses of gravel and pebbles. Small pieces of pumice were being trundled along the bottom by the current. The dive starts near the Taupo bungy jump and ends near a warm water stream, with a long surface drift/swim at each end. According to Casey the river level varies by a metre or so depending on the floodgates. The level was low when we dived.
There is lots of other stuff to do around Taupo - fishing, mountain biking, skydiving, walking in Tongariro, thermal spring watching etc, and in Taupo in 2003 they told us about some shore diving sites in Lake Taupo as well as their guided drift dive. Verdict - If you can organise some tanks and transport and do your own thing, the diving may be worth a look if you're in the area. If you have experienced fast turbulent UK drifts (egs Cuan Sound, Grey Dogs, Falls of Lora, Sound of Luing, the Swellies at Menai, Burra Sound in Orkney, Piper Gut at the Farnes, etc), I doubt you'll find the river alone worth going out of your way for.
These islands lie about 10 miles offshore at the SE corner of the beautiful Coromandel peninsula. We dived here in 2003, in less than perfect weather, from Tairua Dive, a standard NZ aluminium boat. We booked through Tairua Dive and Fishinn then, and used them again this time. They now run their own boat Scuba Diver, skippered by Dave Earley one of the operation's owners. The others were a very experienced diver from Washington State in the US, and a French former diving instructor turned successful businessman on honeymoon with his long-lost teenage sweetheart who he had recently met again after many years. It was one of those occasions when everybody gelled. Dave proved a good host and a competent boatman with excellent local diving knowledge. We did two good dives and had a very enjoyable day out. We paid about ?42 each including tanks and weights.
* The Sieve, Middle Island - 19m. A dive through a gully and around an isolated stack. Above water the scenery was reminiscent of The Barnyard at St Abbs Head. Good architecture underwater, plenty of fish including a large John Dory, and at least 15m vis.
* The Honeycomb, Flat Island - 15m. A large cave with an air-space and several entrances. Stingrays inside and tuna feeding on shoals of small fish outside. Good architecture and 15m vis.
The Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve is near Hahei, about half an hour's drive up the coast from Tairua. There are some nice beaches and sheltered coves here, but it would involve a long steep walk with your equipment to shore dive. We weren't tempted. There is a local dive operator Cathedral Cove Dive who run boat dives. We went to their shop but got a poor welcome and the impression that they would take anybody for $130 (?50 - expensive), so we left. Verdict - great beaches and a lovely part of the world to wind down in at the end of your trip - you're only a couple of hours drive from Auckland and the long flight home. There is some very good diving at the Aldermen. It's vulnerable to the weather in that your choice of sites can be restricted and it may be unsafe to sail out there, but there's enough else to do if you get blown out.
Rarotonga has survived its storms and is still idyllic for a stopover. NZ remains a brilliant country if you enjoy the outdoors. Although the exchange rate is less favourable for Brits than it was on previous visits, once you get there you can still live reasonably cheaply, without scrimping. There is worthwhile diving to be had in most parts of the country, but this trip has confirmed to us that for the casual diver-tourist the big three - Poor Knights, White Island, Fiordland - remain the must-do dive spots. Stay as long as you can, do non-diving stuff as well, and don't try to cram so much in that travelling overshadows doing. Enjoy.