The Bay of Plenty(ful) Diving, New Zealand

The Bay of Plenty(ful) Diving

Text and images by Dave Abbott

I really rate the Bay of Plenty as a year round dive location and have great memories of fascinating shore dives and exciting offshore dives both winter and summer.

I watched the larger of the two octopuses in front of me flush deep-red and wrap up the smaller one in a tangle of sinuous suckered arms, giving him the message that this was HIS fish head and to get the hell out of it!  The smaller one paled, extricated himself and shot off in a cloud of ink forfeiting his meal.  I was enjoying being back at one of my old nightdive sites off Tauranga again, totally absorbed by the fascinating life to be found only metres from the bustle and lights of Mount Maunganui.

Something that never ceases to surprise me about the Bay of Plenty is that despite having one of the biggest variety of really good coastal and offshore island dive sites in New Zealand, this region (with the exception of White Island) doesn’t have much of a profile on the New Zealand dive scene yet.

Within an hour or so’s boat journey from Tauranga you can choose from Karewa Island, Motiti Island, Plate Island, Schooner Rocks and Mayor Island, or offshore reefs such as Penguin shoals, Astrolabe, the Okaparus, Tokoroa shoals and Tuhua reef.  There are two great wreck dives close by: the Taupo with its resident giant conger eels and the Taioma, a beautiful and largely intact little wreck covered in invertebrate life and teeming with fish.  There are also some sheltered harbour dives where you can spend an hour or two photographing all kinds of creatures in a few metres of water or pick-up a feed of scallops, depending on your inclination and local knowledge!

I really rate the Bay of Plenty as a year round dive location and have great memories of fascinating shore dives and exciting offshore dives both winter and summer during the two years I spent there. In summer the Bay is home to large pods of dolphins and several species of whales, as well as sunfish and the tuna, marlin and sharks that follow the blue water down the northeast coast. In winter fur seals colonise some of the less visited islands and rock stacks, occasionally followed by the occasional great white if you believe some of the local fishermen!

Visibility is generally pretty good, and can be exceptional around the offshore islands in mid-summer, while relatively warm water temperatures and plenty of sunshine make the diving enjoyable for all but the softest Kiwi!   Wind can be a problem for small boats but then it is for just about everywhere else in New Zealand too, and there are plenty of shore dives to do!

A few ‘Northern BOP’ favourites:

Mayor Island: A large island 18-miles offshore. Mayor or Tuhua Island has numerous great dive sites to choose from, suitable for all levels. The waters around the northern end of the island are a reserve and within this area fish life is impressive with several species more commonly seen further north: sharp nosed pufferfish, crimson cleaners, combfish and bluefish to name a few. It is also the best place I have ever seen for large schools of splendid perch. Sites such as the Baitpond and Two Fathom reef have some great reefy terrain and awesome diving, while Southwest bay offers shallow areas where you can see bubbles coming out of the sand – proof of thermal activity underneath. Nearby Tuhua reef is a good spot to see kingfish and other pelagics, and the southern end of Mayor is home to some good sized crays.

Motiti Island: This is the most dived of the islands around Tauranga but can always provide something new (it was the first place I saw barracuda while diving, as well as bluefish and porcupine fish!).  There are often big kingfish and snapper lurking around; the occasional Spanish lobster or packhorse cray, plenty of red moki and other reef fish, morays, octopus and a variety of nudibranchs. Being quite a large island you can usually find a spot to dive out of the wind and there is some great and varied underwater terrain here, with many interesting guts and caves.

Plate Island/Schooner Rocks: I love these two sites, a bit more weather dependant and harder to get out to, these small rocky islands have some great deeper dives and a wilder feel to them.  On winter dives at either of these two sites you will often be buzzed by curious fur seals, and occasionally by the bronze whaler! There are some impressive canyon overhangs and small pinnacles to explore and the fish life is good, with rich encrusting life on the walls, a few good crays to be found, and morays and octopus to keep things interesting!

The Taioma: A great little wreck dive! Sitting upright on sand at 30m this small tug is carpeted in anemones and home to hundreds of goatfish, leatherjackets, sweep and maomao as well as to passing schools of Jack macks and kingfish. The deck is at 21m and the funnel at 18m, so you can have quite a long dive on this one -with no shortage of things to look at! Juvenile crayfish wave their feelers at you from the nooks and crannies and there are some well-lit little swimthroughs to check out once you have done a tour of the hull and inspected the prop.

Rabbit Island Leisure ‘Island’: Leisure Island is really a narrow spit projecting from Mount Maunganui’s main beach. Heavily fished, it is amazing what a variety of marine life hang around its rocky edges, and I have had plenty of 90-minute shore dives here!  It seems to have its fair share of stroppy octopus that enjoy playing tug of war with curious divers, some large and colourful anemones, plenty of smaller fish species, the occasional John dory or large squid drawn by all the baited lines in the water, and loads of  temperamental paddle crabs waving spiky claws at you from the sand edge.

Nearby Rabbit Island is a longish swim offshore and separates the keen divers from the rest. More often dived by boat it has some great little reefs and caves and is a good option if you don’t have time to go further afield.

Tauranga Harbour: It’s hard to convince some divers to get their head underwater in a harbour but I have some of my most interesting dives around wharves and mooring blocks!  Baby octopus and tiny dumpling squid, small flounder and juvenile gurnard, paddle crabs, seahorses and pipefish…all the things I don’t get to see at the Poor Knights! Tauranga harbour has some excellent night dives if you are into critters, but watch out for boat traffic and beware the current around the harbour entrance at the base of the Mount; even around the corner from the channel it is too strong to swim against!

Last but definitely not least are the northern Bay of Plenty’s reefs. I have had mind-blowing dives on Astrolabe on a good day, with massive schools of kahawai and marauding kingfish to makos and the occasional turtle!  I believe a world record mako was caught on Penguin Shoals, and marlin, blue sharks and sunfish are also seen on these offshore reefs in summer!

Conclusion … the Northern BOP has massive diving potential and is pretty central (unless you live in the south), so if you haven’t already – grab your gear and pay this area a visit!

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