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Diving in the Cook Islands

The dreamy Cook Islands in the middle of the South Pacific are the ideal getaway for scuba divers looking for peace and quiet topside but lots of action underwater.

Diving in the Cook Islands

Quick facts

You can sum them up in two words: coral atolls. Around the islands, stunning coral reefs encircle central lagoons. The outside of the reef plunges steeply into the blue oceanic abyss, the inside is sheltered and shallow. It’s not hard to find empty white sand beaches, complete with shady palm trees, on the shore of these volcanic, mountainous islands. They seem to have leapt right off the pages of a coffee table book. For divers, the numbers speak volumes: The 15 Cook Islands share a total land area of 240 square kilometres/93 square miles. But they’re spread out over 2,200,000 square kilometres/850,000 square miles of ocean. Think there’s some good diving here? You’re right. The main center of activity is Rarotonga, which is well served with PADI Dive Centers and Resorts. Here you’ll find airports, resorts, restaurants and accommodation to suit nearly every budget. But if you can, head north to some of the more remote outlying islands. You may have them pretty much to yourself, and they are the place you’ve always dreamt about. Diving is relatively easy and suitable for beginners around Rarotonga as the island lies within a protected lagoon. Some experience might be needed when diving at the passes as currents can be swift. But there are around 40 dive sites consisting of coral gardens, sloping reefs dotted with coral bommies, drop-offs, caves, passes and also some shipwrecks like the Mataora Wreck. At Aitutaki, a similar reef profile is to be found within its lagoon and at the passes. Diving is a more intimate experience here as the island is less visited than Rarotonga. A highlight of diving the Cook Islands is the chance of bumping into humpback whales, which pass by Aitutaki and Rarotonga during the Southern Hemisphere summer and autumn months.

Recommended training

Take the PADI Underwater Naturalist course to help you identify all that you will surely see in the Cook Islands. Consider the PADI Digital Underwater Photographer course to capture images of all the marine life.

When to go

The Cook Islands see sunshine on a year-round basis, but there is more rain from November to March. These are also the hottest months of the year. The islands do experience occasional cyclones during the rainy months, so check the weather forecasts before planning your trip. Visibility is often excellent in the Cook Islands, regularly well in excess of 40 metres/130 feet, and water temperatures range from 75-82˚F (24-27˚C). Plus, the air temperature averages 27°C/82°F year-round.

Rain and temperature

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Water temperature

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* Avaavaroa Passage – Strong currents add an element of excitement to the dives here and help make this a great spot for white tip reef shark encounters. From April through August, divers may even come across large numbers of seriously impressive grey reef sharks. Schools of eagle rays also patrol the passage and divers will regularly find turtles and massive morays. There’s a drop off here too. Divers cruise along a sand chute, which suddenly plunges straight down to the blue abyss where schools of large pelagics roam. * The Mataora – This popular wreck, originally a Tongan cargo vessel, was sunk just for divers as an artificial reef in 1990. The 45-metre/150-foot ship, well battered over the years by tropical cyclones, lies in several pieces in depths of 10-18 metres/35-60 feet. The bow and stern are still relatively intact and the adjacent reefs are interesting too. The spot is a renowned lionfish lair. * Bluewater Diving – There’s something about diving way out in blue water that really gets your attention. Around the island of Rarotonga, blue water dives are made on fish aggregating devices (FADs) made up of a floating object anchored in very deep water well offshore. These structures attract sessile organisms and small fish, which in turn attract larger predatory pelagic species. Make a point of dropping down and seeing what passes by. * Edna’s Anchor – Divers follow a sandy-bottomed cut in the reef to the anchor, which lies at 22 metres/72 feet. There are other anchors too, reputed to date back to the time when whaling ships dropped their hooks here. There’s also a dramatic drop off that goes straight down to more than 65 metres/200 feet. But most of all this is a great place to get up close and personal with the full cast of reef characters. You’ll find trigger fish, parrot fish and angel fish. You’ll marvel at the multicolored morays and delight in the damsels. Just don’t get too distracted and miss the anchor.

What to see

There is plenty to see in the turquoise lagoon waters of Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Dive with colorful reef fish, small critters like crab and shrimp and also eels. Green sea turtles and hawksbill sea turtles also frequent the reefs, looking for food and resting spots along with whitetip sharks, groupers and humphead wrasse. Closer to the outer reefs at the passes, the diving is more exciting. Schools of barracuda, snapper and fusilier are often seen while grey reef sharks, blacktip sharks and the occasional oceanic whitetip shark patrol the passes. This is also a good place to see eagle rays and oceanic manta rays. Eagle rays are most often seen at Papua Canyon off the south coast of Rarotonga. During the period between July and October, a mega bonus for any diver would be an encounter with the humpback whales which pass through the South Pacific Ocean. Another bonus would be to see hammerhead sharks, which have been spotted occasionally at the drop-offs and in all that blue water.


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Most likely sightingsPossible sightings


Lying to the northeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean are the idyllic and beautiful Cook Islands. Consisting of fifteen islands, which are coral atolls and volcanic islands, they spread over a large area of 849,425 square miles (2,200,000 square km) but have a land mass of only 91 square miles (240 square km). The Cook Islands has a population of 14,974 people with more than 10,000 of them living on the main island of Rarotonga. The people of the Cook Islands are mostly Māori. The Cook Islands is an island country in free association with New Zealand. These islands were settled by the Polynesians in the 6th century. Similar to most of the islands in the South Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands were discovered by Europeans in the 16th century. However, it was the British, namely, a navigator named Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 18th century that eventually resulted in the modern day name of the islands. Fringed by white sand beaches, Rarotonga is the tourism hub of the Cook Islands. It boasts many resorts, facilities and activities on land or in the sea. Besides Rarotonga, other tourist islands include Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Pukapuka, and Manihiki. Activities like snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, caving and also hiking are popular.

Other attractions

Take hiking trips into the jungles or explore with off-road vehicles. Many islands have wonderful caves. Some of these even have fresh water catchments. Enjoy a little nightlife in barefoot bars or soak up the ancient Cook Island Polynesian culture. Besides that, relax on beaches, head out to snorkel, do some birdwatching or partake in big game fishing.

Getting there

Fly to Rarotonga International Airport (RAR) in Avarua, Rarotonga. Airlines like Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti, and Virgin Australia service this airport. Then, Air Rarotonga can be used for inter-island flights.


Time zone




Calling code

240 V

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Plug type


Main airport
Note - Travel to any destination may be adversely affected by conditions including (but not limited) to security, entry and exit requirements, health conditions, local laws and culture, natural disasters and climate. Regardless of your destination, check your local travel advisory board or department for travel advice about that location when planning your trip and again shortly before you leave.

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