For me, the prospect of entering the enchanting neighbourhood of Nemo doesn’t quite quash the paralysing fear of what lies in the shadows of the murky depths. So scuba diving is not something I have prioritised in my adventure travel itineraries.
In my defence, I still believe it’s completely rational to not want to breathe in while your head is immersed in water. And anyway … what really lies beneath?
I can pin point the exact moment my fear of the sea was heightened. While I was exploring the gems of the Pacific Ocean a few years back, I naively doggy-paddled over a large, colourful reef in Vanuatu. Quite suddenly, I found myself swimming over a severe drop of what seemed like thousands of metres into the belly of the earth. I may as well have been standing on the edge of the Empire State Building, half naked, in foggy goggles.
Needless to say a panic attack ensued, along with the uncontrollable sensation of vertigo. The vivid intensity of feeling out of my depth (literally) in the deep blue has stuck with me ever since.
Yet despite this entrenched fear, I’ve challenged myself to completing my PADI Open Water course this summer. Why? My husband has used emotional blackmail against me – and wants us to give it a go as a couple. Reckons it will be something I’ll never forget and will help me overcome my ‘issues’ (… he uses the term “issues” – I call it “common sense”).
Plus, it would quell that feeling of FOMO I often get at BBQ’s – so many Kiwis dive in summer!
Where to PADI dive? In the Bay of course! I’ve heard through friends who consider themselves pros that it’s the best place in New Zealand to give it a go. I’m based in Auckland, so is only a hop, skip and jump north.
So if you’re nervous (if not terrified) of scuba diving like me, but have an adventurous spirit (or pushy husband) that keeps tempting you to give it a go, I’ve done a bit of research for us.
Diving the Bay Of Islands
Well, the reef diving is considered to be one of the country’s most colourful and beautiful waterscapes. I’ve been told by Craig Johnston, the owner of Paihia Dive that it’s completely different from anywhere else for loads of reasons.
“It’s stunning here – both below and above the water. I reckon it’s the best diving in New Zealand and even the world”, Craig says. And given his wealth of experience, I believe him.
The terrain is volcanic and there’s a range of great wall dives. Naturally, I’m not so keen on long drops, so I’ll stick to caves and caverns, and crevasses you can swim through.
Attached to rocks and boulders is a forest of kelp that grows to around 1.5m high, which is quite different to tropical reefs in other parts of the world – adding both atmosphere and marine life.
Craig explains that they have a ‘blended zone’ in the Bay that’s often referred to as ‘sub tropical’ – with tropical fish brought down by currents to our temperate environment. “So there’s a great mix of species to meet – both visitors and locals”.
On the Paihia Dive website they list some memorable fish to spot, including Lord Howe Coral fish from Lord Howe Island, Kermadec Scalyfins from the Kermadec Islands, Gold Ribbon Grouper, Toadstool Grouper, and Green Wrasse.
In terms of New Zealand water residents – you could spot the largest stingrays in the world that weigh over 300kg and can be up to 3 metres across. I’m not yet sure how I feel about this fact – but have been told repeatedly by experts that stingrays are harmless (curious but friendly!) and are quite cathartic to swim with.
There are up to five different types of Moray Eels, and also Scorpion Fish (Northern Scorpion Fish can get up 60cm in length but don’t have the deadly sting of their tropical equals).
In late summer, you could see Sea Turtles and maybe even Whale Sharks. Amazing! (I think?).
Warmer water temperatures
Water temperature in the Bay range from 15 degrees Celsius in late winter, and early spring up to 22 in late summer and autumn.
Late summer is when east winds blow and pushes open ocean water onto the coast.
Tara Harrison, an instructor from local PADI training company and store, ‘Dive Zone’ says, “We’re lucky in the Bay that water temps are so mild – it means we can enjoy the water all year round. This also means there’s way more marine life to enjoy than other spots in New Zealand”.
Visibility is consistently around 15 to 20 metres, but can get up to 40m in late summer.
As well as being one of NZ’s most beautiful underwater vistas, diving the Bay of Islands provides you with two historically rich shipwreck sites, each with their own unique underwater ecosystems.
Explore Shipwrecks – Dive Into History
A sight that attracts loads of divers is the HMNZS Canterbury F421, pictured here when she was part of the Navy.
She now rests peacefully in Deep Water Cove near Cape Brett. It’s upright and very much in tact, which makes her a popular underwater vessel for exploring.
Another shipwreck is the Rainbow Warrior – the Greenpeace vessel infamous for being sunk by the French government the 1980’s to stop protesting against nuclear detonations at Muroroa Atoll. It’s now an artificial reef covered in sea life.
This ship is an iconic part of New Zealand’s proud anti-nuclear stance, which put us on the world stage at the time. So you can get your fix on local history as well as a great dive.
Tips for Beginners
Choose the right diving instructor
The diving company and instructor you choose will affect your diving experience and I’d suggest even your diving future. This might sound dramatic, but I know that a negative experience would put me off for life at this early, tentative stage.
And the way I see it, you’re entrusting an individual with your life. So you’d better pray they’re awesome at their job, right?
Do your research and read reviews (it’s essential to read authentic comments and testimonials – not just on company websites but on independent sites such as Trip Advisor). And when you get there, have a chat, face to face. Really size them up – do they put you at ease, and importantly, are they sensitive to any anxiety?
I haven’t met the instructors in person but specifically for this article I chatted to Tara from Dive Zone and Craig from Paihia Dive – who were both genuinely enthusiastic and really knew their stuff. I got a great vibe from both places.
Tara from Dive Zone assures me that instructors who teach the accredited PADI coarse (i.e. both of these companies) will be extremely professional, as their standards are so closely monitored globally.
“No one should ever throw you in the deep end! An instructor should take it at your own, personalised pace”. She said. A good start to hear this!
Learn to Breathe
We do it without thinking – so why is it so hard to imagine doing it underwater?
Well, apparently it’s a strange sensation at first, but by focusing on it before you dive as well as during, your breathing can be the most effective tool to … yes, to stay alive… but also to keep calm.
Tara emphasised that you will get training on this through your PADI course – and it’s almost like yoga or meditation.
I know when I’m stressed at the best of times I tend to hold my breath; so learning to do it consciously is key. If panic does take hold when you a few feet under, knowing about breathing will really help, apparently.
Tara says she also teaches visualisation techniques as well as breathing, to help people control any anxiety.
“It’s a different feeling being right underwater and actively diving with the marine life. It’s usually no where near as scary as it may seem floating on the top, looking down”.
This is reassuring considering this was how my fear started – from the top starring down into the unknown.
Craig from Paihia Dive said they’ve helped people overcome a number of fears – from fish phobias, to those afraid of water, or people who suffer from agrophobia or cloastrophobia.
“It’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job”, he says. “When you can help someone over come those nerves, and introduce them to something new and see a huge smile on their dial, it’s just aweome”.
Tell them you’re nervous
I’m personally an open book, so my nervous disposition (and probably shaky hands) will be difficult to hide. But for many beginners who are desperate to come across as brave or at least look cool – hiding nerves could be a bad idea.
Both instructors say that being honest about where you’re at emotionally will only help you. This way, they can look out for you, which has got to be comforting.
Craig emphasised it’s only normal to be nervous (thanks Craig!). It’s all about baby steps and personalising the training. Everyone is different when it comes to different water activities.
Don’t be shy to ask questions even if topics have been covered. You won’t look silly – knowledge is power. The more clued up you are, the more in control you will feel.
I get the impression from my research that dive instructors the world over are pretty chilled out in general. They’re at one with nature so much after all. Plus, learning how to keep punters calm as a cucumber is a central part of their job.
Sometimes you could get rattled underwater. Don’t worry, I’m not referring to shark attacks here… it can take a small gear failure, a sudden movement, or even someone looking you funny to make your heart race, I reckon.
But everyone has to control the need to ball his or her eyes out or scream or rush to the surface. Getting emotional is a luxury reserved for above water.
A technique that’s commonly used is to look into your buddy’s mask and hold eye contact. Apparently your heart rate slows as a natural response. I like this concept.
Train to dive in the Bay Of Islands
There are different ways to be introduced to scuba diving.
Tara from Dive Zone says that a day trip where you get a short set of instructions and go only a few metres deep can be a good way to introduce someone to diving – especially if they’re time poor.
“But, if you’re considering this option”, she warns, “you generally need to be quite confident in the water. A full dive ticket, where you spend 4 days with an instructor, gives you more time to practice skills and get comfy”.
Paihia Dive do offer day trips like this, and owner Craig says they can be an effective way to give someone a slice of what to expect before investing in a full course.
“You’re certainly not thrown in the deep end doing a day trip experience with us. They’re personalised tours that are designed to go at the client’s pace and safety is paramount”.
Craig emphasises that the main incentive is to get people breathing underwater with the apparatus and comfy with the idea of doing bigger dive later on.
The most well known world certification for diving is the PADI course. There are a number of different levels, but the basic ‘Open Water’ course usually takes a few days, and covers the important stuff.
With this certification you can dive around the world.
Check out this promo video on the PADI website – It will give you an insight into what to expect, (note it’s a tad cheesy!).
As mentioned there are two main local providers in the Bay, both with a great rep (from the research I’ve done– but I’d suggest you do your own as well!).
Their groups sizes are much smaller than what you might get overseas, which is a huge plus.
Paihia Dive is a Five Star PADI Centre.
The team offer a days dive intro for $260 where you stick to no more than 12 metres, and get the basics covered. You don’t need your PADI for this. It would be great to do as a couple or with few friends if you’re not sure about the investment in full training.
Or, you can do the PADI Open Water certification for $650. This is done over four days, where you progress at a good pace from a heated pool (yussssss) to the open water. They also have another good option to undertake some training online (around eight hours worth), then three days practical training.
They also have a number of other advanced options listed here, depending on your time and wallet.
Their main point of difference is that they also specialise in fab charter crews – so once you’re ready to dive for real, you can hand pick the trip of a lifetime!
Dive Zone is also a Five Star PADI Centre – so it’s top notch.
These guys are based in Waipapa, just north of Kerikeri (so arguably it’s a tad harder to get to if you’re based in Paihia, which lots of tourists are. But it’s just a 30-minute drive inland from there).
They offer training for all ages that comes with gear, (including for those as young as eight years old – which is rather intimidating), through to tertiary level certification with the Diploma in Professional Scuba Instruction.
The PADI Open Water course here costs $550.
Check out their full offerings here.
As well as scuba training, both companies offer cylinder testing, private dive trips, spearfishing and free dive training. And they sell equipment.
I’ve learned a tiny bit about scuba diving writing this article, but this doesn’t extend to scuba equipment – yet.
But I’ve been told the both companies stock all the major brands for hire and sale, including Aqua Lung, Apex, Tusa, and Sherwood.
Craig at Paihia Dive, says they dive in one or two piece 7mm wetsuits and use hoods, boots and gloves in winter. In summer you can get away with a 3mm, I’ve been reassured.
Dive Zone also has a wide range of equipment and will fit you out with the best.
When book training or a chartered trip, gear is supplied.
Next steps? I’m booking a dive in the Bay!
I asked Tara from Dive Zone why she started a career in diving, and she told me a romantic tale of how she met her husband on some early dives, who was an instructor. She soon fell in love with the lifestyle as well as the bloke.
So perhaps there really is something romantic in my husband’s desires to dive as a couple?
Craig’s story was just as poignant. He’s grown up in the Bay of Islands, and can still vividly recall snorkelling on family boat trips as a pre-school kid, looking down over his older siblings diving in the depths below, exploring and gathering kai (seafood) for dinner. He got a job in the Paihia Dive shop at age 15 – and now owns the place.
“Diving is the greatest sensation. I’d love to get you up to the Bay and I’ll prove it to you!” he told me.
So yes, it didn’t take long for them to both suck in me in and want to give it a go! And it wasn’t a sales pitch. They’re both passionate, down to earth kiwis wanting to help me out.
Now, to book! I think I’m more excited than nervous now. I’ll let you know how I get on over summer.
- Written by Sarah Davies