Fresh Water Diving in New Zealand

By Angie Belcher

Want a dive where there are no surges or swells? Where you can find freshwater crayfish, trout, carp, eels, old bottles, or even the sunken palisades of an ancient pa? Where wreck diving may mean an old barge or a dumped car? Where water clarity can at times exceed that of the ocean, and where you don’t need to wash your gear after you’ve dived? Yes? Then head for fresh water. Although the great thing about New Zealand is that you’re never far from the sea, we also have plenty of choice if we decide to head inland. And like the sea, lakes and rivers offer a multitude of other adventures too.

Drift diving

Before organising a drift dive down any river, it is crucial to seek local knowledge. Check out river flow, levels, specific times for hydro dam releases, hazards and the weather forecast. Heavy rain can cause dramatic change within moments. Oh … and watch for eels. Especially in the South Island.

Tongariro River

The Tongariro is a river of many moods, thanks to the powerful snow-covered mountains from which its waters flow. The Mt Maunganui Underwater Club organises an annual drift down this river, with the aid of the Tongariro Underwater Club. Before the days of proper organisation and safety precautions, we began the dive from the trout hatcheries. Clad in wetsuits and not really knowing where we were going or what would happen on the way, all we knew was that we had to get out at the bridge that crossed under the main road, and that we should float with our arms crossed over our chests. I’ve still got the scars … looking back, the whole thing was pretty stupid. Today things are much better. Groups now use inner tubes so that you bounce painlessly off the rocks. You also enter the river well inland, a drift which takes you right past Rangipo Prison. Needless to say, the dive needs prior organisation for this very reason. For full information contact Errol Cudby at the Turangi branch of the Department of Conservation. Phone 0-7-386 8607.

Waikato River, Taupo

Where else in New Zealand can you fly along at eight to ten knots, aim for a boulder the size of a car, and at the last second zoom over the top? The Taupo control gates regulate the river, and the flow normally varies between 50 and 200 cumecs, which means cubic metres per second. Dive Inn can tell you what the flow is if you give them a call. With the recent flooding in the North Island, the river has been running at 308 cumecs. Although this sounds like a lot, the Waikato is a big river. Dive Inn organises guided drift dives for individuals or groups who enter the river at Cherry Island. Along the way, Taupo Bungy operates jumps above the river … please stay away! They cannot jump if divers are below, so if you want to avoid death via a 90kg German tourist arriving at 200 kilometres per hour, take notice. Taupo Bungy also operate a jet boat in the river and they ask that divers give them a phone call before entering the water. A dive flag or float is also a very good idea. Taupo Bungy’s phone number is 0-7-377 1135. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this. You are guaranteed to see trout down the river, and it is amazing what drops out of bungy jumpers’ pockets! You can exit at Hot Water Stream, an excellent spot to have a hot soak, or Reid’s farm further along. Divers who don’t get out here will find themselves hurtling over Huka Falls. For the benefit of overseas readers, this is not a desirable situation, unless you are suicidal and both the bungy jumpers and the jet boat missed you. This drift covers a distance of approximately 2.4 km in 30 minutes. The temperature gets to a minimum of 10.6ºC (honest!) in winter and up to 22ºC in summer.

Waikorupupu Springs

Famous for diving, but the drift down the river also deserves a special mention for those who relish a speed rush. Don’t try to do it in scuba gear. The river is clear, shallow and fast. Trout, weeds and rocks whizz by. Take care.

Lake diving

Lakes make a great area for dive training. Special emphasis can be placed on buoyancy and altitude. Lakes usually have safe, easy access and exits, and are enjoyable sites for your first night dive. Lake Taupo Most divers think this lake is just a muddy bottom with a splattering of oxygen weed, and they’re about 90% correct. However, the other 10% can be spectacular. There are some interesting places five minutes’ drive from the Dive Inn in Taupo. Here you can find about eight species of freshwater plants, a couple of kinds of snails, freshwater crayfish, trout, catfish, smelt, cockabullies, freshwater mussels, carp and our own orange freshwater sponge. If you’re running low on fishing lures, this is the place to stock up. Lake Taupo is one of the world’s great trout fishing meccas, and liberating a few of the thousands of fishing lures lost there every year entertains many divers. There are also lots of interesting wall dives in good visibility. Taupo was a mountain before it blew itself out of existence in what is believed to be the largest volcanic eruption the world has ever known. Obviously this was before human habitation of New Zealand. The explosion was seen on the other side of the world and rocks from it have been found in the Northern Hemisphere. The result was a lake that holds enough water to cover the whole of the North Island in water half a metre deep. At 357 metres above sea level, Lake Taupo qualifies as an altitude dive. It also makes a safe night dive venue.

Lake Okataina

Half an hour’s drive from Rotorua lies one of the area’s most scenic lakes, Okataina. Like others in this region, it is a crater lake with many mysteries hidden in its depths, one of these being an ancient Maori pa complete with erect pallisades. In pre-European times it was the only pa in the area which had never been taken by an enemy. Much of this area is rich in Maori history. Many sites are tapu, and divers are not necessarily welcomed. A DoC permit is needed to dive this lake and can be obtained from the local DoC office. The shoreline is decorated with a heavy frill of dense green duckweed up to three metres deep in places. Swim out past this before descending. Visibility can be reduced to zilch with careless buoyancy techniques, as layers of silt have built up on the bottom due to the lack of current. Look out for trout spawning, as well as freshwater crayfish. Photographing them can be a challenge. The sunken pa site is worth a look, but we have heard that the sensitive or spiritually inclined find it a bit freaky. Overall, if you wish to do a lake dive, this would be one worth doing.

Lake Tarawera

This moody, brooding lake lies beneath the dominating presence of Mount Tarawera. While the expectations of what to see are not too different from the other Rotorua lakes, Tarawera has the added attraction of a thermal warmup after a rather cold dive. There is a beautiful beach where hot mineral water runs from the bush to the lake edge. Visitors over the years have formed small pools along the beach edge. These pools are large enough to lie in, or you can always dig your own hole. If you have a boat you can go to the thermal pools established a bit further along, which is a favourite gathering place for water skiers. The small charge is paid into an honesty box.

Freshwater springs

Photographers in particular are captivated by the crystal clear waters gushing from New Zealand’s freshwater springs. Others are drawn by the mysteries surrounding them, areas immersed in history and legend, and guarded by legendary taniwha.

Hamurana Springs

Supposedly the home of the friendly female taniwha Hinerua, Hamurana Springs lies tucked away in a redwood grove 13.5 kilometres north of Rotorua. The largest vent, hidden beneath a ponga canopy, is the size of a spa pool and gushes out nearly five million litres of pure fresh water every hour. Rainbow trout hang in the current which flows rapidly in an enigmatic blue trail towards nearby Lake Rotorua.

Diving down the chasm was like being head first in a fountain. Air in my drysuit boots didn’t help! It was hand-over-hand clawing as the walls narrowed to become not negotiable at ten metres. My temperature gauge read a constant 7ºC. Coins representing the wishes of visitors lie at rest on narrow ledges among beds of pumice pebbles. Dislodged, they dance and twirl in the upwelling, shimmying in the rays of light until they escape from the flow and drop to rest once more. Hamurana Springs are not open freely to divers; special permission should be sought from the owners.

Waikorupupu Springs

According to folklore, this is the home of the taniwha Huriawa who moves through the dark underground caverns beneath the Aorere Mountains. Early Maori regarded the springs as sacred, a place of spiritual cleansing for travellers along the greenstone trails. Commonly known as Pupu Springs, they are the largest, clearest and most popular of New Zealand’s freshwater springs. Situated ten kilometres from Takaka in the South Island, the basin containing the main spring is 42 metres across. Using a system of mirrors, scientists from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research recorded the horizontal visibility at 62 metres (203 feet). Millions of litres pour from the spring’s eight main vents with a constant temperature of 11.7ºC and enough force to make the covering rocks joggle rhythmically. Smaller sand-covered vents fountain in a mesmerising way. Unlike the majority of dive sites in this country, diving in Waikoropupu Springs is strictly regulated to protect this remarkable site. [See Letters to the Editor in this issue for an on the current situation.] Contact DoC in Blenheim for more information. It’s possible to dive the springs independently, or with Blenheim Dive Centre or Motueka Sports Centre.

The Secret Lake

Don’t ask me where it is. It’s a secret, one which has kept New Zealand’s underwater photographers intrigued for years. One by one the lucky few have ‘discovered’ this lake, which was first photographed by Quentin Bennett. It took us seven years and the threat of a horrible death if we ever disclosed its whereabouts. The small group who know the location keep it a closely guarded secret, protection against possible desecration.

In the Secret Lake, a combination of fresh water, bush foliage and an undisturbed location has resulted in bizarre fungal formations which reach up through the water with the fragility of gossamer. Even bubbles of expelled air have the potential to destroy this amazing composition. Only after finding and diving the lake did we truly appreciate the importance of keeping its location hidden

There is something to be discovered in every stream, lake and river. These are just a few. If you’ve never tried fresh water diving, give it a go. You may be pleasantly surprised.

• For more information on diving central North Island lakes, phone Dive Inn on 0-7-378 1926. Guided drift dives cost $65 and include gear, transport and hot soup. Club days can also be arranged. These include a guided dive, barbecue lunch, lake dive and night dive or combination. It is seriously recommended that you see or talk to them before diving the rivers due to potential hazards.

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