I first visited the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island of New Zealand in May 1982 when on a cruise on the famous (or should that be infamous) TSS Fairstar. We cruised right in through the most spectacular islands and tied up at the wharf at Opua. We spent the day with a couple of New Zealanders blokes that one of my mates had met on a previous cruise and they took us to Waitangi and Russell.
In March 2011, a group of members from St George Scuba Club did a dive trip to the Bay of Islands and the Poor Knights. I had been trying for almost 20 years to get members interested in a dive trip to New Zealand without success, so it was great that Kelly and I could finally get to dive this area.
The Bay of Islands is about 240 kilometres north of Auckland, NZ's largest city. It consists of over 100 islands, some tiny, others quite large, that were named by Lieutenant James Cook, RN, in 1769 when aboard his famous trip about HMS Endeavour. The islands are spectacular, with the water around them as blue as the tropical seas of Papua New Guinea.
There are a couple of small towns around the Bay of Islands, Russell, Waitangi, Paihia and Kerikeri the main ones. Other than this, all the other places shown on maps are just localities.
GETTING TO NZ
You can fly into Auckland from most Australian cities as well as many other places. Flights come from the Cook Islands, Chile, Argentina, Fiji, Vanuatu, Japan and major Asian cites. From Australia, there are choices of Qantas, Air New Zealand, Pacific Blue, Emirates and some South American airlines.
We flew Emirates as they have full service, a 30 kg baggage allowance and the flight is on an Airbus A380 (very comfortable, lots of leg room). They were also the cheapest for full service flights. Note that a lot of the Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue flights found on the net do not include luggage at all and no service. It is about three hours from Sydney, a bit more from Melbourne and Brisbane.
The best flight to catch is one leaving Sydney about 8 am or so as this will get you to Auckland just after 2 pm. This way, once you are through customs, you will have time to drive to the Bay of Islands and still arrive at a reasonable time.
GETTING TO BAY OF ISLANDS
From Auckland, it is about three hours drive to the Bay of Islands area. You will really need to hire a car, as there is no other way to get to most of the places where the dive operations run from. Do a Google search and you can find some cheaper off-airport hire firms.
We hired a 14 year old second-hand Japanese import Nissan Cefino station wagon which was not a bad car, although the rear suspension was not great and it only had a space saver spare tyre (we know this as we had to change one on the other car). This easily fitted three divers and gear, including one with a rebreather. Total cost was NZ$132 per day, that is NZ$44 per person per day (A$32). Fuel economy was a reasonable 10 litres per 100 kilometres. Fuel costs about NZ$2.15 per litre, which at the time was about A$1.57, very similar to prices outside the major capital cities in Australia.
If you arrive about 2 pm, you will be on the way by 3 pm or so. You will probably need to stop along the way to get some supplies. There is a good supermarket at Warkworth (town is just off the main road). You can get beer, wine and spirits in the supermarket, as well as food.
You travel north along Highway 1, via all the Ws, Warkworth, Wellsford, Whangarei and Whakapara.
Make sure you have sufficient fuel when leaving Whakapara as there is no fuel if you are heading towards Russell and staying outside the towns.
There are a number of dive operations that service the Bay of Islands. There are shops are Russell, Paihia and Kerikeri. Do a Google search to find them.
|Julia and Shane from Northland Dive||The "smaller" of the two Northland Dive boats|
We used Northland Dive. This is not located in a town, but located on an old dairy farm on the Old Russell Road, about 36 kilometres from Russell (back towards Whakapara and Whangarei). It is run by Julia and Shane and is possibly the best set up and run dive operation I have used in Australia.
They have two boats, one a 7 metre (or so) rigged inflatable (RIB) with twin 135hp 4 stroke motors. The other is a 8.6 metre long RIB with a 350hp Yamaha V8 4 stroke. As can be imagined, both these boats fly, even with a full load. They are relatively roomy but there is no dry space. Make sure you take a dry bag to keep cameras etc free of water.
The diving is run as a double dive, with the surface interval spent out. Normally you set up your gear and load onto the boat, together with second tanks. Start time is pretty relaxed, 9 am normally, although a bit earlier if going to the Rainbow Warrior. The boat is then towed about 10 kilometres (15 minutes) to the boat ramp at Te Uenga Bay where it is launched across the beach (very easy, totally protected and hard sand). You either go in one of the dive operations small buses or drive yourself there.
Once at the ramp, you put your wetsuit/drysuit on (if you do not, you need to wear a lifejacket). The waters inside the Bay of Islands are very calm, and the boats can easily do 50 km/h in comfort. It is about 15 minutes to HMNZS Canterbury and about 20 to 25 minutes to most other dive sites. It is about one hour to the Rainbow Warrior.
After the dive, you are taken to a nearby beach for the surface interval and lunch (or dinner if doing an afternoon and night dive). As such, it is wise to take a shirt and towel in a dry bag. Lunch is sandwiches, make your own, with plenty of water provided. The sandwiches are great, lots of interesting and varied fillings.
|Sunset from the beach near HMNZS Canterbury where we had dinner||The other beach near the Canterbury where we had lunch|
Some of these beaches are on islands, some are on the mainland, but all are magnificent. What Kelly and I would not give to have a yacht and be anchored off these beaches now! After a good surface interval you do your second dive and then head back to the boat ramp. You are normally back at the dive operation at about 3 pm to 4 pm.
They have a couple of compressors, steel and aluminium tanks and do nitrox as well. There is some hire gear.
Diving was very relaxed, no dive Nazis telling you what you must or must not do, good dive briefs and just the right amount of assistance.
Dive and accommodation and food cost us NZ$152 a day (note that this may not be the advertised rate, as we had extra meals I think). This worked out at A$112. Brilliant value.
If staying at any of the towns, there are lots of accommodation options. Consult the dive operation or Google it.
Northland Dive have their own accommodation on site. This consists of five rooms, two with queen sized bed (one with bunks), another with bunks, one with four bunks and one twin. The only fault I had with the rooms that there is no storage space at all and not even a couple of hooks to hang your towel on. They can also supply linen and towels for those coming from overseas. There are two showers/toilets, a TV/lounge room and the kitchen and dining area. There is also space to camp for those so inclined.
|One of the double rooms||The kitchen and dining room|
As mentioned above, we had a package with all meals included. There is nowhere else to eat apart from Russell which is 36 kilometres by tar road and 26 kilometres by tar and dirt. The food was excellent! We had cereals, fruit, toast and coffee/tea for breakfast, lunch was sandwiches out on a beach between dives. Dinner was roast chicken and vegies one night, spaghetti bolognaise another night and when we did the night dive, hamburgers and little boys. Tea and coffee was available all day.
There are also some nice outdoor settings to sit at and read and lots of space in the fridges for drinks.
As mentioned, we had all meals included, but we still bought some things like cheese and biscuits for pre-dinner drinks. We also purchased beer and wine and soft drinks. You will need to do this on the way to Northland Dive as there is nothing at all within almost 40 kilometres.
Beer cost about NZ$15 to $20 a 12 pack. Even the premium beers were available at NZ$20 on special, this equals about A$30 a carton. Great value. Some beers we tried and liked were Tui East India Pale Ale and NZ Pure.
There are dozens of sites you can dive. Click on this link to see the ones we did when at the Bay of Islands. All were great, especially the reef dives. Water temperature was about 22Â°C in March. Visibility was generally 20 to 30 metres.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
There is not a lot of time to do much else away from the diving if you are staying at Northland Dive. However, you can drive to Russell and have a beer or two at the fabulous Duke of Malborough Hotel. This is right on the waterfront and with fine weather, it is great sitting on the verandah having a beer or two. It is about 26 kilometres from the ramp to Russell (say 35 minutes) and 26 kilometres back via the dirt road (make sure you get directions, we got lost as our map was totally wrong) or 36 kilometres back the way you came.
The small village of Bland is anything but bland. Supposedly it was originally called Blind as the bay is "blind" from the sea. It seems that the name got changed somehow. There is nothing much here except a caravan park, nice beaches and some walking tracks. Kills a morning if you are doing the night dive.
|The Duke of Malborough Hotel at Russell||Bland Bay|
Combine this with some diving at the Poor Knights. I would suggest four days at Bay of Islands (three at least) and four or five at least at the Poor Knights. It is only about 90 minutes drive to Tutukaka from here (a bit more if you need to stop for food etc).
As mentioned, Kelly and I thought that Northland Dive is the best dive operation we have used in Australia or New Zealand and throughout most of the Pacific. I can only think of one other combined operation that comes near, and this is in Papua New Guinea. Friendly, small, attentive but not overbearing, with great accommodation and dive boats. Highly recommended.
TOTAL COST OF TRIP TO BAY OF ISLANDS AND POOR KNIGHTS
The total cost of a 10 day trip to New Zealand for diving, with 8 days diving and 16 dives, accommodation and transport was NZ$1847 which equals A$1358. Airfare was A$420 return from Sydney to Auckland. Therefore, before other spending, the cost was A$1778.
Return to the Tutukaka/Poor Knights menu.