By Dave Abbott
There cant be many divers in the world that dont get a thrill of anticipation at the prospect of seeing manta rays and one of the best places to see them close to New Zealand is Boulari Pass in New Caledonia. From April to June these huge and graceful creatures are common here, sharing the pass with spawning Dagsit sharks, barracuda, Napoleon wrasse, turtles, and of course teeming fish life. Mantas arent the only underwater attraction of this beautiful archipelago though … its barrier reef, over 1600km long, protects a massive 24,000 square kilometres of lagoon and harbours an array of marine life as diverse as humpback whales and nautilus, dugongs and leopard sharks, as well as a host of smaller and equally fascinating creatures. With its clear blue water, idyllic beaches and close proximity to New Zealand New Caledonia is a fantastic destination for Kiwi divers and you can be there two and a half hours after leaving Auckland airport!
Flying into Noumea one immediately notices how blue the water is around the island and the vast size of its barrier reef, as well as how many smaller reefs there are just below the surface all waiting to be dived! Noumea itself is a wonderful city with its laid back French-Polynesian atmosphere and friendly inhabitants; the people here seem very relaxed and enjoy a great lifestyle, in the mornings you see them running and cycling along the waterfront or swimming in the sea before work, then at the end of the day theyre back at the beach windsurfing and boating or just enjoying a cold beer in one of the many waterfront cafes.
Both scuba diving and free-diving is big here and well catered for with numerous dive operators spread throughout the islands, and a high level of professionalism. Boats and equipment are good quality and well maintained, the dive guides know their stuff and certainly many of the divesites are spectacular! Water temperature varies seasonally from 21- 28C so although not quite as warm as island groups further north it is still very pleasant to dive especially with the often stunning visibility! In fact winter is a great time to dive in New Caledonia as the humpback whales are migrating to the southern lagoon from July to September, followed by the hatching period where juvenile fish appear in the lagoon in huge numbers, triggering boil-ups of frenzied feeding activity by tuna and other pelagic predators.
As well as a great variety of fascinating dives around the main island – including good wreck and reef dives, and passes such as Boulari with its manta rays, there are also New Caledonias surrounding islands to explore: Ouvea, Lifou, Mare and the famous Isle de Pines. These outer islands are truly stunning with their idyllic white sand beaches, palm trees, clear water and world class diving and are all just a short easy flight from Noumea.
Dive sites around the Isle de Pines range from fantastically sculpted reefs and canyons adorned with huge soft coral fans to large bommies teeming with fish life, and the diving depths from 5-50m. Marine life here is prolific, with major diving attractions including leopard sharks, nautilus, turtles, manta rays, grouper and reef sharks,..not to mention the smaller critters such as gold ribbon eels, leaf scorpionfish, painted crayfish, Spanish dancers, cuttlefish and of course seasnakes!
For something completely different there is also a fantastic freshwater cave dive set amidst lush forest in the middle of the island; an eerie underwater journey through narrow passages, tunnels and caverns lined with incredible polished limestone pillars, organ pipe formations and fragile stalagmites and stalactites…very cool!
There are loads of other activities on offer here for non-diving days as well: great windsurfing and sailing, 4WDing, sea kayaking, mountain biking, horse-riding, flying or island-touringand as the roads are mostly very good this is easily done yourself in a hire car. If you are into nightlife Noumeas Citron Bay has great bars, nightclubs and restaurants and if, like me, diving makes you hungry, the food in New Caledonia is as mouth-watering as you would expect with its strong French influence!