The Catlins coast is a kaimoana (seafood) larder and although diving can be daunting for beginners, the rural resort of Papatowai keeps an open secret. A short beach walk from the Tahakopa River mouth reveals a lively network of spacious rock shelves harbouring crystal-clear pools, safe from the ocean swell. Affordable kits include tempered-glass diving masks, flippers and self-sealing snorkels with valves to keep water out while exploring the depths.
Papatowai’s nearest rock pools feature an oblong inlet allowing dissipated waves to roll in and swirl its kelp.
After widening to a bowl, a narrow channel opens to the left
— the entrance to a northeast pointing V with rugged submarine walls.
Eighty metres later, as the open apex of the V is approached, the channel widens and the floor falls to about two stories.
Just as the close-by ocean currents begin to feel intimidating, the other stem of the V is revealed — another long, enthralling channel ramps back to shallow water and dry land.
At any time a swimmer could simply climb out of the channels and walk back to their favourite spot.
Paua is scarce at these pools but the underwater canyon teems with colourful plants, molluscs and darting fish.
Those with advanced ability and safety measures might investigate richer waters further south or out to sea.
In this naturally sheltered ecosystem, fins, snorkel and mask enable endless exploration to teach the basics of the diving skill set, all within view of comfortable picnic spots sheltered by Papatowai’s famous, bush-clad coastal cliffs.