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The Best Diving in New Zealand: South Island

New Zealand is known for a wild and dramatic terrestrial landscape, but it’s also home to 36 marine reserves and a spectacular array of dive sites. Here are a few of the South Island’s best.

In an earlier article we covered New Zealand’s North Island, but the South Island holds treasures for divers as well. It’s known for diverse and spectacular landscapes, including remote national parks, golden beaches, World Heritage-status rainforests, glaciers and Mount Cook. With scenery made famous by “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” it’s a popular vacation destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The South Island is also home to a number of marine reserves, a healthy population of great white sharks and a variety of dive sites suitable for all dive levels. Here are our top picks for the best diving in New Zealand: South Island.

MS Mikhail Lermontov

Where is it: Port Gore, Marlborough Sounds

What makes it special: The Mikhail Lermontov, a 20,000-ton Russian cruise liner, sank in 1986 after striking rocks near Cape Jackson. It’s one of the world’s largest and most dive-accessible wrecks, at 576 feet (176 m) long. It lies intact on its starboard side, from a minimum of 40 feet (12 m) to a max depth of 125 feet (38 m). Those with the proper training can penetrate the wreck and dive within the ballroom while admiring the spiral staircases and chandeliers.

Details: While the deeper parts of the wreck are accessible only to advanced divers, the hull sits at only 50 feet (15 m). This dive is suitable for Advanced Open Water divers and technical diving is possible as well. We recommend an orientation before penetrating the wreck. If you’re trained on a closed-circuit rebreather, it’s an excellent choice for the wreck’s interior for visibility’s sake. Viz ranges from 16 to 66 feet (5 to 20 m) outside the wreck. The main diving season runs from October to April, with water temperatures ranging from 54 F (12 C) in winter to 68 F (20 C) in summer. You’ll want at least a 7mm wetsuit, but we recommend a drysuit. As with any wreck dive, you should bring a torch and dive knife.

When to go: February through April for warmer water.

Riwaka Caves

Where is it: Nelson

What makes it special: The Riwaka Caves offer an interesting freshwater cave dive that’s suitable for relatively inexperienced divers. This subterranean system contains two sumps, or passages that are submerged underwater. The entrance lies at the bottom of Takaka Hill, surrounded by ancient forests. Highlights include stalactite and stalagmite formations and a waterfall of pink limestone inside sump two.

Details: The dive site is suitable for Advanced Open Water divers accompanied by experienced cave divers who know the caverns. Cave diving rules apply and, as this is a cold-water dive with an average summer temperature of 43 to 45 F (6 to 7 C), a drysuit is essential. Average dive depth is 40 feet (12 m).

When to go: Summer means warmer air temperatures post-dive. The site is only accessible during periods of dry weather.

New Zealand fur seals

Where is it: Kaikoura

What makes it special: The scenic town of Kaikoura offers the opportunity to swim with playful and approachable New Zealand fur seals, and is also home to an array of dive sites. The proximity of the continental shelf has created a biodiversity hotspot in Kaikoura’s waters, where you can find whales, dolphins, sharks and other marine life in abundance.

Details: There are dive sites at Kaikoura suitable for novice and experienced divers, and you won’t need prior experience to swim with the seals. The water temperature ranges from 50 (10 C) in winter to 62 (17 C) in summer, so we recommend a 7 to 10 mm wetsuit or a drysuit.

When to go: You can dive year-round in Kaikoura, though summer offers the best water temperature and climate for exploring the coastline and mountains during non-diving days.

Milford Sound

Where is it: Fjordland

What makes it special: The Fjordland National Park lies within the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area, and diving the Milford Sound marine reserve is a fascinating experience. The sheer cliff faces of Milford and heavy rainfall provide a unique ecosystem where black-coral trees flourish. These are usually only present in deep- water trenches. The sound is home to abundant crayfish, nudibranchs and a variety of fish species. You may also see great white and other shark species, dolphins and seals while diving.

Details: Dive depths vary depending on the site. Dives are suitable for novice and experienced divers. Milford Sound also offers Discover Scuba Diving experiences and snorkeling. The water temperature ranges from 54 F (12 C) in winter to 57 F (14 C) in late summer, though the thin layer of surface freshwater remains a steady and cold 46 F (8 C). A drysuit is recommended.

When to go: Summer for warmer air temperatures.

Great white sharks

Where is it: Bluff, Southland

What makes it special: The waters surrounding Southland have a population of more than 100 great white sharks. The area is also home to whales, penguins, albatross and other wildlife. Cage diving with great white sharks and wildlife safaris are available for diver and non-divers alike from the coastal town of Bluff, and are suitable for ages 12 years and up.

Details: You don’t need any experience for this dive, as the cage sits at the water’s surface. Trips are available December through June and you should wear a 7 to 10 mm wetsuit given the lack of movement when observing sharks from the cage.

When to go: December through June. Peak season is in the summer months of January and February.

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