Go North, Traveler: The Bay of Islands, New Zealand

New Zealand has increased its tourism since the movies.
New Zealand’s tourism has boomed since the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

New Zealand has experienced a tourist boom in recent years, fueled in part by the success of The Lord of the Rings films. Most tourists travel south from Auckland, the largest city in the country, and then head to the thermal mud pools and cultural attractions of Rotorua (central North Island). From there, tourists often venture south to the dramatic landscapes of the South Island.

Yet there are many things to see and do in the Northland region of the North Island. The Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga ― New Zealand’s northernmost point ― are probably two of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations.

The Bay of Islands is close to the northern tip of the country. It’s a natural harbor, with several arms extending into the land. There are almost 150 islands and secluded bays boasting an abundance of marine life. Captain James Cook visited the region in 1769 and named the area. It was here that the first Europeans settled. But you’ll also find many historical sites documenting the original Maori culture.

Paihia is a friendly little beach town in the Bay of Islands and a good launch spot to explore the area. If you have your scuba diving license, it’s possible to explore the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior. TheRainbow Warrior was Greenpeace’s flagship. In 1985, it was due to set sail to protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Instead, it was bombed in Auckland Harbor by the French secret service, killing a Greenpeace photographer in the process. Two French secret agents were captured in New Zealand. The others escaped and were picked up by a French submarine. The Rainbow Warrior was towed to the north of New Zealand and sunk as a memorial.

I wanted to see the ship for myself. This was the first time I had done a wreck dive, and it had been over two years since I had done any scuba diving, so I was a bit nervous. It was different diving in colder water, and I had to get used to wearing a thicker wet suit with hood and booties. Four other tourists aboard my tour were all more experienced divers than me ― the couple from Germany were dive instructors themselves ― and so I got the dive instructor as my “dive buddy,” as you are always supposed to dive in pairs for safety.

First, we had a look at photos and a map of the wreck to orient ourselves, and then we all got into the water. The ship lies at a depth of about 82 feet (25 m). We knelt down in the sand at the sea bottom just in front of the bow of the boat and looked up to see the Rainbow Warriorlooming over us. The wreck is covered in algae, barnacles and coral. We spent about 20 minutes exploring the boat, first swimming around and then inside the ship.

The mess hall was filled with a mass of fish (who soon parted when we appeared). And while there wasn’t much else to see inside the boat, it was still a great experience. There is a certain eerie feeling to swimming through an abandoned vessel where someone has died.

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