Dive destination or destination with diving? That’s the choice for many of us when we are flicking through travel brochures looking for a holiday to suit us and our non-diving partners. Although not as such a dive destination, Rarotonga still has a lot to offer both the novice and more experienced diver.
And, with many dive sites only a short boat ride away, you’ll even be back in time to have cocktails on the beach in the afternoon!
Rarotonga is a volcanic island surrounded by lagoon and fringing reef. Outside the reef the terrain drops off in some areas quite steeply, in fact, not too far off shore, there is over 1/2km depth of water. The island has over 70 species of fish, including, lionfish, anemonefish, butterflyfish, angelfish, puffers, parrotfish, trumpetfish and many, many more. There is also a very good chance of seeing moray eels, reef sharks, turtles, napoleon wrasse and eagle rays. From June to October, we often see humpback whales and calves meandering by during the surface interval.
Another reason to dive into the tropical waters surrounding the island of Rarotonga is that they offer a year round comfortable temperature from 23 C to 29 C (73 F to 84 F). Above all, Rarotonga has some of the consistently clearest water in the South Pacific, with visibility that always takes my breath away as I look over the drop-off into the blue. The warm temperature and clear water is conducive to some of the most relaxed and easiest diving in the world.
For qualified divers, there are sites suitable for all levels of training and experience, from coral gardens to drop-offs, and wreck dives to caves. Dive operators on the island offer guided dives for certified divers and training courses from first bubbles. With clear, warm water Rarotonga is a superb location to learn to dive.
All dives for qualified divers are conducted by boat. The surrounding reef limits shore diving to the shallow lagoon which is only a couple of meters deep. There are around 30 dive sites, with spots on all sides of the island which are accessible by boat, exiting through the reef at one of 4 locations. This allows short boat journeys, in the order of 5-20mins. Around 70% of the diving is carried out around the top half of the island. The main breaks in the reef on this side are at the main harbour, ‘Avatiu’ and smaller ‘Avarua’ harbour. Dives sites to the south of the island are reached with a beach launch out of ‘Rutaki passage’ and some dives depart from the often windswept south eastern ‘Avana passage’ on calm days.
For most divers visiting Rarotonga, one of the many sites around the north such as ‘Paradise’ and north east of the island, such as ‘Sand River’, are the best option. Most of these sites are suitable for all levels of experience and offer some of the most consistent dive conditions, with little or no current and some of the best coral and wildlife. From this area round towards the eastern side of the island, with its reef in closer to land, there some interesting drop-offs. The more experienced diver can swim on the edge in 18-24m of water with the bottom dropping off into the depths below. Sites such as ‘The Gap’ can offer some amazing views out into the blue where larger game fish can sometimes be seen, along with the occasional white tip reef shark.
Here’s a more ‘in depth’ description of a couple of popular dive sites around the north and north east:
Sand River ‘A river of sand sloping from the shallows down to as far as you can see, surrounded by reef and interspersed with coral bommies’. No description can do this dive site justice. After mooring in 12m of water it’s only a short swim to the edge of the blue. The reef edge is home to lots of colourful reef fish and also a couple of resident giant moray eels. For the experienced diver there is nothing like the view as you swim out over the drop-off where you can often see the distant silhouette of sharks deep below.
Paradise If you want to see lots of colourful fish and pretty coral formations then ‘Paradise’ is the dive site for you. A short trip from town, this site is ideal for all levels of experience. And with lots to see at 16-18m, it means you can get a good dive time to explore the beautiful reef. The amazing thing about this dive site is that the fish here are so friendly. The two main characters, ‘Tommy’ and the ingeniously named ‘Son of Tommy’, are regulars at this spot. They are extremely social blue/green trigger fish and quite often one, or both, follow you round for the entire dive!
Mataora Wreck The Mataora, once a Tongan registered cargo vessel, was 44.25m in length and 299 Gross Tonnes. She was purchased on the 11th Dec 1990 from Silk and Boyd for the massive sum of $1 to form an artificial reef. Her last voyage to the sea bed started a couple of days later and the wreck now lies in 18m, just off the reef to the north of the island. Not too long after sinking, the island was hit by a cyclone. The buffeting waves set to work on the wreck, separating the bow and stern. Now quite broken up, the wreck is a haven for lionfish and groupers.
With regard to the rest of the island, the west and north western dive sites offer deeper coral dives between 18 and 30m of depth, along with some interesting volcanic formed shallow caves that are safe to dive on really calm days. Also round this side is another one of the three wrecks available on the island, the ‘Maritime Reefer’, lying in 26m of water. Generally the fish life on this side of the island is not quite as prolific, but there is a reasonable chance of seeing eagle rays at ‘Diana’s Ridge’ and if you are really lucky this is the side of the island that hammerhead sharks visit.
The dive sites to the south of the island are based in and around the passages where there are natural reef breaks. Although there is a drop-off here too, most of the life can be found shallow in these gaps in the reef. Unfortunately these passages can be a bit unpredictable as far as visibility and the current is concerned. Often the current can be very strong, making it impossible to get up the passages safely. In general these sites are only suitable for the experienced diver. If you are an experienced diver and you are looking for something a little different, these can make interesting dives. On a good day you can see grey reef and white tip reef sharks at ‘Avaavaroa’ and ‘Papua’ along with eagle rays.
Selection of dive sites is weather dependent, but with sites all around the island, most days there is a calm side.
Hopefully this has given you a taste of what is available on Rarotonga. The Cook Islands may not be a cult diving destination, but with my experience of diving different places around the world, you could definitely do a lot worse than Rarotonga.
Does all this sound great.. but you have never tried scuba? All is not lost, with no prior experience you can do a boat dive with an instructor after a short training session in the pool, or complete your PADI Open Water course on the island in as little as 4 days. Why not put some depth into you life?!!