Cathedral Cove Dive at Hahei, New Zealand

by Carrie Patrick

The divemaster was a bit strange. As we headed down the beach, he was practically jumping up and down with enthusiasm. But once we got to the water, with no explanation, he decided to stay on shore while we explored. As we snorkelled out past the rocks, he rushed about shouting totally incomprehensible advice, and occasionally stopping to look into rockpools. But then we strayed a little too far from shore. Dropping the piece of litter he had just found and thoughtfully picked up, our hero leaped into the water and floundered to the rescue. ‘Aarrgh!’ There’s nothing like starting a dive with a wet dog trying to lick your face and climb out of the water onto your head at the same time.

Our companion was Jack, the smallest and hairiest staff member of Cathedral Cove Dive at Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula. He has obviously heard the word ‘dogfish’ and thinks it applies to him; or maybe owners Russ and Wendy are trying to promote the area as having large marine mammals. I had arrived that morning from Auckland, down the highway through mist-shrouded farmland, then winding up over the Coromandel ranges and down to a sunny shoreline on the other side. In a wonderful display of Government logic, the mountain road is marked every five kilometres with signs predicting a twisty road for the next five kilometres – after this distance, there is another sign. I couldn’t help wondering why they don’t just put up one sign at the beginning with the total distance – maybe they’re afraid that potential tourists will despair and hurl themselves into a crevasse just before Tairua.

The scenery on the way makes you long for a convertible so you can look up to the tops of the tree-covered mountains, and the little old lady in a Mini in front of you doing ten kilometres an hour makes you long for a heat-seeking guided missile. Every winding country road in New Zealand has one of these people on it, and I’m beginning to think it must be some sort of legal requirement.

Only two and a half hours from Auckland, and less from Hamilton or Tauranga, Hahei is perfect for a day trip. However, there’s so much more to do in the area that it would be well worth making a weekend of it. Most New Zealanders have heard of Hot Water Beach, where a quick shovel in the sand provides you with your own geothermally heated spa pool. The Mercury Islands and Aldermen Islands are nearby for diving or fishing. The Coromandel has numerous bush walks and scenic tracks, giant kauri trees and all the other typical land-based activities of wild New Zealand. Cathedral Cove itself, with its beautiful beach, white cliffs and huge rock arch, is actually the second most visited attraction in the Waikato, after the Waitomo Caves. Most importantly for divers, it became the heart of New Zealand’s sixth marine reserve in 1993, and locals say the difference to the marine life is now very noticeable.

Te Whanganui A Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve covers nine square kilometres of rich and varied habitats associated with the coastline and outlying islands. Reefs of hard rock, soft sediments, intricate caves and underwater arches provide homes for complex communities of plants, crustaceans, molluscs and fish. The area is ideal for beginner divers, but also has plenty of sites for the more experienced, such as South Sunk Rock just outside the reserve. Cathedral Cove Dive must be almost unique in their individual approach to training and dive trips. There is no minimum number of divers per trip – although they can take up to eight at a time, if you’re the only one there they will still take you out for a guided dive. The same goes for their PADI courses. While I was there, a young man was enjoying Module One of his open water course with Russ, probably not realising that in less advanced parts of the world he would be paying megabucks for the privilege of private tuition.

This was to be my first ever dive since my open water course, and I couldn’t have picked a better place. Many new divers find it a bit intimidating to go out with an experienced group, and may feel pushed to try a dive beyond their comfort zone. There are no such problems here. Even if you don’t want to go below 12 metres, Wendy and Russ can arrange diving to suit your level of experience. Hahei is also ideal for their popular Discover Scuba supervised tour, an inexpensive and simple option for those who would like to try the underwater world before committing to a full course.

Getting into the water is easy. You can walk right in off the beach for snorkelling or diving, but Cathedral Cove Dive have worked out a better way. Your gear is sorted out and loaded into the boat on its trailer. Then everyone gets into the boat, the tractor is fired up, and the dive trip progresses at a stately pace through the streets of Hahei down to the gorgeous pinky-white sand beach. In no time at all, you’re on your way to one of the many dive sites nearby, either in or out of the reserve – without having to move that heavy dive gear any further than a couple of metres.

My dive was at a site called the Long Drop, a pinnacle just off the north end of Mahurangi Island in the reserve. A pair of German tourists, experienced divers, were first in; they were given the choice of a guide but preferred to dive by themselves. After Wendy checked that I really did remember how to put all the gear on, it was over the side and into a huge cloud of koheru, sweeping back and forth around the boat with the surge. The weedy top of the pinnacle was visible from the surface through the clear water as we descended down the anchor line.

I was happy to find out that most of the things I’d had difficulty with on my open water course had magically vanished for this first real dive. The nervousness due to being in a training situation, and the pressure of knowing there were ten other students down there waiting for you to hurry up, were all gone. I had no trouble with the descent, the equalising, or any other part of the dive, although naturally there were plenty of things that could use a bit of practice. The water was a comfortable 19ºC and the visibility was around ten metres.

When you start out as a diver, you don’t even know what to look for, let alone where to find it. Wendy led me around the rocks, through the weed, down holes and up slopes, pointing out interesting things that I would never have spotted on my own. I held a lovely little purple and white nudibranch (funny how this can be an uplifting experience, whereas nobody goes on tours to stroke garden slugs). Every now and then the school of koheru would surge past. Wendy put a huge starfish on my hand so I could feel its icky little suckers schlupping onto me, while I smiled in a caring, environmental fashion and desperately tried to remember a hand signal for ‘Urg! Yuck! Get this damn thing off me!’

Some red moki were nosing through the weed, and I saw my first moray eel!!! The dive was over too soon (I need to work on my rate of air consumption!) and I would have loved to stay longer and try some of the other sites available. I’ll definitely be back for a whole weekend some time soon.

Earlier in the day, while snorkelling, the others had seen an octopus swimming out in the open – I just missed it. Eagle rays and stingrays are also quite common in the area, and some of the others came back from the dive raving about the size and number of crayfish seen – somebody said he saw 50 or 60 in one hole – and all apparently grinning and saying the crayfish equivalent of ‘Nyah, nyah, nyah’ knowing they were inside the reserve. Somebody else had seen crays walking about in the open, completely unafraid. The reserve has reached a point where the marine life is flourishing, but the fish have not yet learned to associate humans with food handouts as they do at Leigh Marine Reserve. The result is an environment where you can witness natural fish behaviour, not a marine Disneyland.

Wendy said that visitors to New Zealand are often amazed that we can just walk into the water at any beautiful beach, swim in a marine reserve or take a scenic hike without having to go through some sort of ticket gate. It’ll be a sad day if we ever go the way of some overseas locations, walling off the beauty of nature into paid-entry theme parks.

Hahei is a great place for any diver, and awesome for your first dive or if you’re not yet very confident. There may not be any luxury hotels, but anybody who’s been to the Coromandel knows how much more relaxing it is without them. There is some accommodation in Hahei itself – Cathedral Cove Dive advises calling first to make sure there’s room, but if not, it’s not far to Tairua or Whitianga.

Russ and Wendy take out dive trips all year round, with up to three or four trips a day during their peak period in January, and according to demand during the winter months, when a phone call in advance will ensure that something can be arranged to suit you. All equipment is available for hire or you can bring your own. They also do PADI courses from open water to divemaster for individuals or groups. For more information give them a call on 0-7-866 3955 or 025-271 3187, email

, or fax 0-7-866 3053.

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