Goat Island Marine Reserve
This marine reserve is New Zealand’s first where the marine life has been protected since 1975. It’s the best place on the coast to snorkel or dive amongst the fishes. Be aware of the marine reserve boundaries and remember that all marine life is protected within it.
Snorkellers can enter off the beach on any tide. Where you go depends on the direction of the wind and swells. Best when there is less than one metre swell and the wind is offshore. Snorkelling gear can be hired locally and if you are an inexperienced snorkeller consider going out with someone experienced.
Shag Rock, about 150m directly off the beach, is a good place to see heaps of fishes. Alphabet Bay on the north-west side of the island has good kelp forest and fish life. The channel is also good for snorkelling. These sites are ideal for beginner scuba divers with depths of just 6m.
Diving off the Beach
Scuba divers can drop equipment off at the 5-minute loading zone near the beach entrance, before parking up in the top carpark. Entry is usually best directly off the beach with the near high tide being a good time. It won’t take long to see fish such as snapper that follow divers. A bright float and dive flag is handy for inexperienced divers. Swim out to around 3m depth before descending. Don’t swim just below the surface as boats cannot see you, especially if conditions are choppy.
Diving off a boat or kayak
To get to deeper dive sites, further out, you are best to dive off a kayak or a boat. There are many dive sites to explore and the best places often depend on the weather and sea conditions. Boats can be launched at Leigh Harbour. Large yellow triangular markers show the boundaries at Cape Rodney and Okakari Point.
North Reef is a large reef just north of the northwest point of Goat Island. Best to dive when there is limited swell or current. Schools of large silver drummer, blue maomao, big snapper and occasional blue moki. Depth from surface to 14m.
Pink Beach, to the west of the main beach is a good place to see large crayfish and snapper. Occasionally giant boarfish and electric rays too. In summer there are often very large stingrays. Depth is 6-18m.
Moki Heaven around 100m north of North Reef is a large area of kelp forest that drops to sand and sponges. Plenty of red moki, large snapper, occasional giant boarfish plus lots of reef fish with kingfish schools in summer.
The Outpost, Leigh Harbour
This dive site, just a short trip from the Leigh boatramp, is sheltered when the wind is coming from the north. Be aware of any current near the point. The wall drops to sand where it is dotted with rocks covered with sponges, kelp and heaps of goatfish. Look for snake eels protruding from the sand or stargazers that hide there. The walls have solitary corals, brachiopods, sponges, soft corals, nudibranchs and a good selection of fish species. During summer large schools of kingfish move in and if you’re lucky you may spot a giant boarfish or a porcupinefish. Depth 6-25m.
It’s easy to find this reef as numerous boats anchor there to fish. Divers should be experienced and a boat person is a must. In summer big kingfish feed on the schools of baitfish. There is a wealth of colourful reef dwellers and plenty of rocky reefs and caves to explore. Marine life includes nudibranchs, sponges and sea anemones. Depth 12-30m.
Tawharanui Marine Reserve
Snorkellers will need to take equipment and should check out the sea conditions as there is often some swell. Plenty of big snapper and crayfish to view, lovely sponge growths and kelp forests. Schools of baitfish in summer plus reef fish, the occasional giant boarfish and large stingrays.
Divers are best to access the sites from a boat as it is a long walk carrying gear from the parking area. There are plenty of places to explore along the coast with the best places inside the reserve. Depth ranges to 25m. Remember this is a marine reserve and all marine life is protected.
Omaha and Kawau Bay are good areas for collecting your limit of scallops in season. The sand is nice and clean. Divers may also come across big stingrays. Measure and count your catch before surfacing. Depths vary from 15-25m in Omaha Bay and 10-20m in Kawau Bay.
Snorkellers can swim out alongside the rocks at the eastern end of the beach and across to the little island. There are a few small snapper, parore, blue maomao and leatherjackets. Invertebrate life is good with plenty of crabs, seastars and kina or sea urchins.
Divers have easy access off the beach and can explore the channel where there are a variety of nudibranchs. From there you can swim to the outer edge of the island or explore the shallow area inside the island. Depth ranges from 5m in the channel to more than 25m where the reef meets the sand.
South of Matheson Bay the coastline here is edged by large boulders. There are often crayfish plus scallop over the sand. Kingfish mooch around in summer amongst fish schools and snapper are occasionally seen amongst schools of maomao and butterfly perch. Depth ranges from 8-25m.
The Ti Point Wharf area is a dive site where you may see seahorses and pipefish. It’s best when the ocean is rough limiting boat traffic using the wharf. Enter off the stairs about an hour before high time. Under the wharf you’ll find interesting bits and pieces (junk) plus nylon so take a knife. Sea stars, nudibranchs, sea shells, shrimps and triplefins.
Little Barrier Island
No landing is allowed without a permit on this predator-free nature reserve. The island is surrounded by rocks and boulders and offers plenty of dive sites. You can usually find a sheltered spot or two somewhere around the island. Crayfish often abound amongst the rocks and there is a scallop bed off the ranger’s house. The pinnacles and reefs on the north and eastern sides of the island are excellent dives with large fish schools. Depth up to 30m.
This is a large area of rough ground to the east of Little Barrier Island. There are plenty of cracks where you may be lucky to find a crayfish or two. Good schools of trevally, blue maomao and kahawai drift above the colourful walls. Best with no wind or swell. Depth 6-25m.
Great Barrier Island
There are the remains of several shipwrecks including the historic Wairarapa near Miner’s Head and the Wiltshire off Rosalie Bay. Northwest of Tryphena Harbour is the intact wreck of the yacht Taniwha with the top at 17m and the sand at 25m.
The eastern side of Arid or Rakitu Island has interesting diving and the archway on the northwest side is great for snorkellers. Good schools of demoiselles, maomao, occasional snapper and big blue moki with kingfish in summer. Depth from 6m in the archway to more than 25m on the walls.
These islands lie more than 40km northwest of the Leigh coast in the clear waters of the East Auckland Current. Burgess Island is the only island that landing is permitted and is the one with the lighthouse. Spectacular dive sites include Simpson Rock and the Canyon. Massive schools of fish congregate with kingfish feeding on them in summer. The northernmost island, Groper Island, drops steeply to beyond sport diving depths. Here almost anything can and does swim past. Good colourful walls, plenty of fish life and the chance of a crayfish or two.
Hen & Chicken Islands
This island group, 40km north of Leigh, is protected with no landing permitted. Crayfish hunters can be lucky at most dive sites with the more exposed sites less dived and more productive. Fish include blue and pink maomao, trevally, kingfish, kahawai, wrasses, leatherjackets and occasionally small hapuku. Dive sites vary widely in depth from 6-30m+.
This tall rock is to the south of Hen Island. Divers descend past walls covered in anemones to boulders with sponges and kelp cover. Silver drummer, maomao, kahawai, red moki, wrasses and pigfish are all common. Depth ranges from 6m on the ledges on the west side of the island to 30m.
The best time to snorkel this estuary is around an hour before high tide when the water is still flowing in. Start from the sports ground and swim towards Horseshoe Island or the large mangrove trees just to the south. Expect to see yellow-eyed mullet in schools of hundreds. Camouflaged against the sand are flounder and there are lots a bivalves like cockles. In the little holes live mantis shrimps. Parore and other fishes often school around the mangrove trees. Watch for any boat traffic that may be moving past.