|THE VIEW as we descended through the clouds reminded me of my native Scotland - miles upon miles of rolling countryside, beautifully green and unspoiled.
New Zealand comprises two main islands and the climate differs quite significantly between the two, with a sub-tropical influence on North Island and a sub-Antarctic influence towards the southern part of South Island. The marine life and diving conditions vary considerably; most of the best diving is found around the many little offshore islands.
I arrived in Auckland and made for the citys best-known and only sizeable dive shop, Junction Ski and Underwater, to find out what I could reasonably fit into two weeks. With a bit of guidance from the helpful staff, I headed north to the Poor Knights - a group of volcanic islands situated 26km out from the little fishing village of Tutukaka.
As we approached by boat, I could see the islands steep cliffs disappearing underwater from a tropical green plateau. If the scenery beneath the surface was going to match that above, I knew I was in for an exciting dive.
On the boat I met up with a well-known local diver, Wade Doak, who had been diving for 40 years, written numerous books and made several television diving documentaries. As we headed for our first site, the beautiful Northern Archway, Wade promised ledges, tunnels, chimneys and even a cave where you could surface up into an air pocket for a quick chat.
Situated close to the continental shelf, the Poor Knights are a divers playground. Years of weathering and erosion along the faults and weak areas in the rock have crafted a magnificent underwater arena.
There are well over 40 dive sites at the Poor Knights, many of them world class. The area is made up of two main islands and several smaller ones; the Northern Archway is one of the most popular sites and is situated on the largest island, Tawhiti Rahi.
I followed Wade and his wife Jan under the archway and descended. The visibility was not its usual 30m but from about halfway down we could see the bottom at 40m. We found schools of porae and golden snapper, and a plaque in memory of a diver who spent just a little too long at depth.
The bottom is an impressive garden of colourful sponges. On the walls are lovely gorgonians - although not quite the size of those found in warmer waters, they compensate in numbers for what they lack in size.
You will find brightly coloured anemones, firebrick starfish and urchins. The stunning diadema sea urchin found here has a rather unusual anal sack that protrudes from its centre, in which it stores its excrement and shoots it out in a powerful jet when required.
As we ascended, we startled one of the many stingrays that patrol the archway. It gave a little pirouette as it altered its direction to escape our tickling bubbles. Up in the shallower water we found ourselves surrounded by massive shoals of demoiselles and blue maomao, busily feeding on little planktonic animals.
The Knights must be one of the best places in the world to study fish behaviour. There are fewer species here than on a coral reef, but the fish tend to be concentrated in greater numbers and individuals are considerably larger than their warm-water relatives.
Here you will find warm-water tropical species living alongside local cold-water types. Regulars include blue maomao, little demoiselles and the beautifully coloured Sandagers wrasse; the fascinating Lord Howe fish, golden snapper, leatherjackets (a triggerfish species), jacks, pigfish, goatfish, conger and moray eels, and even our own UK favourite, the John Dory.
Between the two dives of the day we were given cups of hot soup and tea, and had a chance to use the boats sea kayaks to explore the islands little caves. One cave on Aorangi Island, called Rikoriko, is big enough for a dive boat to enter. It must be one of the most magical sea caves in the world. Spherical in shape, it acts like an amphitheatre, radiating sound like a purpose-built recording studio.
While filming his latest television documentary, Wade Doak arranged for rock star Niall Finn to perform a special concert in the cave. The show was brilliant, with special lighting effects and magnificent sound, but I do wonder whether the local fishlife appreciated it.
After a pleasant two-hour surface interval in glorious sunshine, we were more than ready for a second dive. We headed for Blue Maomao Arch on Aorangi Island, to the south of Tawhiti Rahi. It is a far easier dive than Northern Arch but equally enjoyable. Because the arch is quite low, you have the feeling of being inside a large underwater cathedral.
We found large shoals of demoiselles and blue maomao sheltering inside the cave, along with a couple of scorpionfish and a very hungry- looking moray eel. In the shallow area towards the back of the archway, I found several species of triplefin darting around on a sponge-encrusted rocky ledge.
I spent two days at the Poor Knights, but felt I had barely begun to explore the area. I would have liked to dive Wild Beast Point, Freds Pinnacle, Kamakazi Drop-off, Red Barrens Arch and the Tye Dye Arch, which forms part of a series of exposed rocks known as the Pinnacles and is meant to be a breathtaking dive.
The Poor Knights was established as a marine reserve in 1981. Some fishing is still permitted around the islands, but divers and naturalists are battling for a total ban. There are many other protected areas, including New Zealands first established marine reserve at Goat Island (Okakari Point) near Leigh, just an hours drive north of Auckland. Here marine life abounds, and swimmers and snorkellers can immerse themselves in one of the worlds largest natural aquariums.
Other protected sites include Kapti Island, Mayor Island (Tuhua Marine Reserve) and parts of Nulford Sound and Doubtful Sound in Fiordland on South Island. New Zealands largest marine reserve was created in 1990 around the Kermadec Islands, 1000 miles north-east of North Island. It covers 12 nautical miles from the shallow boulders and rocks, down to 3000m at the deepest reaches of the Kermadec trench.
I NEXT headed north to Paihia, one of New Zealands most popular and beautiful holiday destinations. The area is historically significant - it was once a Maori stronghold, and was the place where the famous Waitangi Treaty was signed in 1840, signifying peace and friendship among the Maoris and European settlers.
There are 144 islands and hundreds of protected bays here, many with lovely secluded sandy beaches. Many people come to visit the famous Treaty House and Waitangi Reserve. Others come to swim with wild dolphins and to ride on one of the fastest catamarans in the world through the famous Hole In The Rock at Cape Brett. I, like a growing number of dive tourists, had come to see the famous Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior. She was first sunk in 1985 in Auckland Harbour by French marines, but was raised and resunk in 1987 at the Cavalli Islands, about an hour and a half by boat from Paihia.
I found only one dive shop in Paihia. It seemed to double as a fishing tackle shop and a charter agent for fishing trips. It was here that I met my buddy and divemaster for the day. Although Rainbow Warriors upper cabins have now collapsed, much of her is intact and remarkably well-covered in life. Kelp grows on her upper decks, and her bow, stern and deck railings are covered in a dazzling array of jewel anemones.
The dive is recalled in detail on . The Cavalli Islands offer the best diving in the Bay of Islands. They are the furthest islands offshore and generally offer blue-water diving. There are a number of excellent sites including plunging pinnacles and deep walls and reefs, and there are often currents that bring in pelagics including jack barracuda and sharks. You tend to see huge shoals of blue maomao here, often before you jump into the water. Cape Brett, where you find the famous Hole in the Rock, is a nice scenic dive with huge shoals of demoiselles, blue maomao, koheru and the odd eagle ray. Cathedral Cave is another good site nearby, but on the day I went it was surprisingly quiet. The walls are fairly well-covered in sponges and anemones, but you will not find the same variety of life here as at the Poor Knights. There are many other excellent sites close by, including The Sisters, Nine Pin and Bird Rock. Before leaving the Bay of Islands, I had to stop at the magnificent Kelly Tarlton Tui Shipwreck Museum near the Waitangi Reserve. Kelly Tarlton, as well as being the first person to build an aquarium with a perspex walk-through tunnel, spent his life exploring some of New Zealands most famous shipwrecks. For anyone who is into wrecks, the museum is a must. Kellys collection of shipwreck treasures is displayed on board a splendid three-masted ship and includes the famous Rothschild jewellery from the Tasmania, which sank in 1897.
THE Three Kings Islands, 64km northwest of Cape Reinga, are always popular with the more experienced New Zealand divers. Here the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Seas meet, and you will encounter amazing marine life accompanied by frightening currents. Diving here is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but if you want an even bigger expedition, you can venture 1000 miles off the New Zealand coast to the Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve.
Nearer the mainland and considerably further south towards Auckland, there are several excellent offshore islands including the Hen and Chicken Islands, the Mokohinau Islands, and the Great Barrier and Little Barrier Islands.
White Island, an active volcano, and Mayor Island are reputed to be as good for diving as the Poor Knights, although less accessible. White Island, where you find the wreck of the Tasman, lies 48km from Whakatane, and Mayor Island is 40km out from Tauranga.
Further south, on the east coast near Napier, you can go shark-diving off Bare Island in Hawkes Bay. In the south-west corner of the island, 7km out to sea from Paraparurnu, just north of Wellington, there is excellent diving at Kapiti Island Marine Reserve, where you can dive through a spectacular archway known as Hole In The Rock.
Two main diving highlights are found on South Island - Waikoropupu Springs towards the north-west corner of the island, and Fiordland to the south-west.
To reach Waikoropupu Springs, I flew down to Nelson from Auckland, picked up a hire car and drove for just under two hours to Takaka. At first the springs appeared rather small and shallow, but when I descended I understood why they are considered to be so special.
The water temperature is a constant 11.7*C, but after the warm water of the sea it feels more like 5*C. However, you soon forget the cold water when you see the amazing colours and textures. It is like an underwater garden with rich growths of aquatic plant life everywhere.
The springs are reckoned to hold some of the clearest fresh water in the world. Once privately owned, they now belong to the Department of the Environment. Watercress flourishes so well that it is harvested twice a week and sold to local greengrocers. There are also lovely mosses, liverworts, milfoil duckweed and pondweed. I came across various fish and crustaceans, including chinook salmon, trout and koura - a freshwater crayfish - while experiencing the awesome power of several thousand litres of water bubbling up through the ground. There are eight vents in all, which spew thousands of litres of water per second. The force of the water moves boulders and causes sand to dance upwards to a height of almost 2m.
An hour from the springs is another excellent freshwater dive. The Riwaka Source lies beneath the steep hills surrounding the Takaka Valley. It comprises a series of flooded underground caves connected to each other by small river rapids, and is reputed to be an awe-inspiring dive. You can surface into underground caverns full of magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. One cavern, known as the Cathedral, is 75m long, 50m wide and 50m high.
If you are visiting New Zealand to dive, then Fiordland should be high on your itinerary. The area is made up of 14 long, narrow and incredibly deep fjords formed by massive glaciers thousands of years ago. They are beautiful, lined in thick vegetation with spectacular spouting waterfalls. The place is worth visiting for the scenery alone.
Fiordland is one of the most scenic places in New Zealand but it is also one of the wettest, with several hundred inches of rainfall a year. It is this rain that makes Fiordlands underwater world so unique, creating a permanent layer of murky fresh water up to 10m thick on top of the seawater within the fjords.
This murky freshwater blocks out much of the sun, so the sea life beneath is fooled into thinking it is in a deeper habitat than it actually is. Divers can see a spectacular species of red coral (Errina novaezolandiae) in just 5m of water, when it is normally found in over 100m, and huge bushes of black coral (Antipathes apertta), normally found below 50m.
Some of the black coral bushes are thought to be over 200 years old and appear to be more plentiful here than anywhere else in the world. There is also a good variety of fish species, bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins and little blue penguins.
Getting here is not easy. Because much of the area is inaccessible by road, it is best to fly to Queenstown and join a liveaboard.
In the north at Port Gore, in the Marlborough Sounds, is the massive 20,000-tonne 176m-long Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov, which sank on 16 February, 1986, while attempting to take a short cut through a narrow inside channel at Port Jackson. She is one of the largest and most accessible shipwrecks in the world, sitting intact on the bottom in 36m. Not far down the east coast from Port Gore is Kaikoura. From here you can swim with dolphins, dive with fur seals and turn your hand to a spot of crayfishing.
Down on the south coast and out over the notorious Foveaux Straight is Stewart Island. Here you can glide through wonderful kelp forests while encountering a rich variety of marine life. Huge abalone, crayfish, dogfish, beautiful seahorses, blue cod, southern pigfish and carpet sharks are just some of the inhabitants to look out for.