New Caledonia is the world’s largest lagoon. So it sounds like an excellent destination for scuba diving. And it is. We did a dozen dives in the archipelago and loved every single one of them. But scuba diving in New Caledonia is not always easy to organise. I hope our experience and research can help you plan your trip.
You’ll often find dreamy descriptions of the best scuba diving sites in New Caledonia. Even if it’s a small archipelago, it’s very likely that you won’t be able to check them all in one trip as some aren’t easy to access. But we’ve managed to dive reputed spots and I’m sharing my tips to help you get there too.
Are you covered for scuba diving by your travel insurance? It’s worth double-checking. If not, I recommend DAN (Divers Alert Network) for those who dive regularly. WorldNomads* and Covermore* also make it easy to add adventurous activities like scuba diving to your plan.
What can you expect to see when scuba diving in New Caledonia?
My experience of scuba diving in New Caledonia is limited. I have only done a dozen dives in three different locations in the archipelago: the Isle of Pines (in 2016), Poindimie (2016 and 2022) and Hienghene (2022). We still haven’t dived in Noumea simply because we were busy with other activities, but we’ve heard good things about dive operators there. Lifou was on our list in 2016, but the dive shop never replied to us and we heard bad comments about them so we preferred to do something else (things may have changed since!). We also never heard back from the dive shop in Ouvea when we contacted them.
All the dive sites we went to in New Caledonia were suitable for beginners.
Dive shops cater for all levels so it is unlikely that you go to a site that’s more than 20-metre deep.
However, a few had currents or had to be done as a drift dive, which can be impressive the first time. We sometimes had to do a backroll entry with no air in our BCD to sink from the start and avoid drifting too much.
Of course, you can expect beautiful corals and tropical fish when scuba diving in New Caledonia.
We saw the usual reef inhabitants: sharks (white-tip, grey reef, tawny), turtles, pufferfish, groupers, anemone fish, moorish idols, Maori wrasse, Spanish dancer… plus a few pelagic and even a manta ray! The coral looked healthy. But we’re used to scuba diving stunning places on the southern Great Barrier Reef full of life with excellent coral diversity, so that’s not what impressed us the most during our dives in New Caledonia.
I don’t imply you’ll be disappointed by the corals in New Caledonia. We weren’t. I even noted in my logbook comments such as “very big coral formations”, “very tall and old branch corals”, and “impressive rose corals” (Poindimie – Val d’Isere), for example. I’m simply saying that when scuba diving in Australia, we’ve been in awe of the diversity of corals we could see on one dive at some sites close to home (Lady Elliot Island or Heron Island for example) and we saw huge coral formations too (Lady Musgrave Island). We sometimes forget to check the beauty in our backyard, and those trips are easier and cheaper to organise. However, there were a few impressive and special things in New Caledonia that we didn’t see on the Great Barrier Reef.
Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!
New Caledonia is a heaven for divers who love architecture and gorgonians.
New Caledonia is the only place where we’ve seen gorgonians that big. They truly are impressive.
In Hienghene, we loved the architecture of the reef with many canyons, caves and swim-throughs creating fascinating lights. The gorgonian corals looked amazing. But they were even bigger in Poindimie! We’re big fans of gorgonians, so our guide on the Isle of Pines also took us to a spot with stunning gorgonians.
Also, in more than 200 dives, the Isle of Pines is the only place where I saw a pygmy seahorse (and I commend the patience of our guide as it took me a while to actually see it). You may be lucky and see one in Poindimie or Hienghene too.
There are also good diving sites to see pelagic fish.
The Boulari Pass (Noumea) is quite reputed for pelagic fish. We haven’t been there but heard about them from different people. If you manage to plan a dive in Koumac (north of the main island) during an incoming tide, you’ll also have great chances to see many pelagic fish. Dive shops from Noumea regularly go there, but it’s always better to ask them when you’re booking to increase your chances.
When is the best time to go scuba diving in New Caledonia?
To have higher chances of great visibility and lower risks of bad weather, the best time to visit New Caledonia for scuba diving is in winter (June – August). The water temperature will be colder (about 20-23°C), but it’s comfortable with a good wetsuit.
Summer isn’t the best time to plan a trip to New Caledonia as it’s the humid season and cyclones can hit the archipelago (mostly in February and March). You’ll be safer to travel to New Caledonia from May to mid-November. Heavy rain not only impacts underwater visibility but can also increase the risk of shark attacks. We love sharks, but it’s worth noting New Caledonia has had an increased number of bites in the last few years.
Make sure you book your dives and accommodations in New Caledonia well in advance if you’re travelling during the peak season (local school holidays, especially in summer around Christmas and New Year, and for Easter).
Is New Caledonia a good destination for a holiday solely focused on scuba diving?
If you’ve got in mind to stay in one place and scuba dive as much as possible, New Caledonia might not be the best destination for your scuba diving holidays. I find New Caledonia more suitable for travellers who want to add scuba diving as an activity while exploring the archipelago. There’s a lot to see and do. My best memories from our trips to New Caledonia are not underwater. I’ll never forget the beauty of the Upi Bay on the Isle of Pines or the stunning cliffs and mountains near Hienghene.
Planning a trip to New Caledonia? Read these travel tips that will make your holidays easier (and cheaper) and make sure you pack all the essential items by checking this packing list for New Caledonia.
You can only do one double-dive per day in New Caledonia.
New Caledonia is a stunning place with many different activities for nature lovers (hiking, kayaking, snorkelling). It also has splendid beaches where you can relax and admire the views. So it did not bother us to be limited to one double-dive a day. We loved having the rest of the afternoon for other activities.
But if your wish for your holidays is to dive as much as you can, you may prefer to look into destinations that offer two dive trips per day.
There may not be many other divers during the week in the low season.
Some dive centres will go out with only two divers (in Poindimie for example). But not all of them. Sometimes, more frequently in Noumea, dives are a bit more expensive during the week as they know they won’t have a full boat. I recommend confirming the minimum number of divers needed for the trip to go ahead while you plan your holidays to avoid disappointment. If they need more than two divers (or one if you’re travelling solo), it won’t be too hard for you to find another activity in case your dive gets cancelled, in most places. Having a mobilis (local phone sim card) to call the dive operators a few days before will make it easier for you to know in advance if you have good chances to go out.
Travelling to New Caledonia when you don’t speak French isn’t always easy.
Have you heard about French people not being good at speaking English? Well, New Caledonia is France. Most people had a few English lessons at school but can’t really speak or understand English. Some will make efforts, some won’t (like in France really!). It doesn’t make it easy for planning or understanding what’s happening while you’re there.
Operators on the Isle of Pines and Noumea are used to receiving international tourists. They even had international staff at the Isle of Pines dive centre when we visited back in 2016.
Elsewhere, it gets more complicated. If you stay at a resort or bigger hotel, the people at the reception are usually happy to make some phone calls for you or organise bookings. But if you don’t speak French at all, be ready to potentially struggle with the language in New Caledonia. It can make the trip more special, but if you’re only here for scuba diving, you may find it annoying.
Where can you scuba dive in New Caledonia
You can go for a road trip around the main island and dive in at least five different locations.
If you’re looking for an itinerary to explore New Caledonia and scuba dive, you may want to go for a road trip around the main island, Grande Terre. You can dive in the morning and drive in the afternoon. Driving around New Caledonia will take you on very scenic roads.
- Noumea | This is the capital of New Caledonia and where you will land as an international tourist. There are a few dive shops in the small city that will take you to the reef.
- Bourail | It takes 2.5hrs to drive there from Noumea.
- Koumac | It takes 3hrs to drive there from Bourail.
- Hienghene | It takes 2.5 hrs to drive there from Koumac (you’ll need to drive in altitude so it’s recommended to wait until the next day).
- Poindimie | It takes 1h to drive there from Hienghene.
It is easy to hire a car in Noumea. We’ve used Avis, Europcar and Point Rouge before. Remember to drive on the right side of the road. Most of the roads are well maintained. If you visit after a cyclone alert, you may find potholes on the road. It is recommended not to drive at night in New Caledonia. Locals also often go over the speed limit, so watch your speed and drive carefully.
You can go on a multi-day cruise to dive in New Caledonia
A scuba diving liveaboard in New Caledonia is very expensive (prices on the website don’t include food). But it can be a fantastic opportunity to visit further spots without worrying about how to get there. You’ll still be limited to two dives a day. Check out Odyssey Diving for more information.
Accommodations and dive resorts in New Caledonia
There are no dive resorts per se in New Caledonia. But you’ll find a couple of resorts next to dive centres that all have onsite restaurants and easy access to the beach. When planning your trip, keep in mind that you cannot fly after diving. If you’re looking for cheap accommodation in New Caledonia, you can often camp, share a case (a traditional house with multiple mattresses) or stay with a tribe.
Isle of Pines
The easiest way to reach the Isle of Pines from Noumea is by plane with Air Loyaute. Some travellers on a budget choose to take the Betico ferry, but it takes more time and it does not operate every day. If you’re travelling with your scuba diving gear, you’ll need to add extra luggage to your booking with Air Loyaute. It’s quite easy. However, note that carry-on luggage is very limited (5kg for a very small bag), so keep this in mind when packing your gear.
The Isle of Pines is one of the most touristy places in New Caledonia. Many boat cruises from Australia stop there, so they’re used to welcoming foreign travellers.
Kodjeue Hotel on the Isle of Pines is located in the north of the island, next to Kunie Scuba Centre. It’s also very close to the airport. They used to offer scuba diving packages, so ask about it before you book. However, you’ll be a bit far from the other popular activities on the Isle of Pines, so you’ll have to organise a transfer to the south of the island. It can be challenging to hire a car on the Isle of Pines so I recommend asking your hotel or the tourist office about the best number to contact at that time.
When we visited the Isle of Pines, scuba diving was only one of the many activities we wanted to do there. So we stayed in the south of the island. The dive centre picked us up in the morning to drive us to the north of the island for diving. Check out Le Meridien* and Oure Tera* if you’re after the most comfortable accommodations.
It’s hard to find cheap accommodation on the Isle of Pines, but you’ll also find a few campings, mostly in the south. Relais Kuberka* and Gite Nataiwatch* are two options to consider if you cannot afford the most beautiful hotels on the island.
Poindimie – Hotel Tieti*
It takes about 4 hours to drive to Poindimie from Noumea, which is the easiest way to get there. If you don’t want to drive, the closest airport is Touho, 30 minutes north of Poindimie. If you’ve got time and want to travel on a budget, you can also take a bus from Noumea to Poindimie.
The scuba diving centre in Poindimie is located at the Hotel Tieti*, a lovely resort with comfortable rooms. We don’t usually chill in the afternoon. But it was really nice to just lay on the bed watching the ocean as our room was really close to the beach. If you don’t want to rent a car, they offer transfers from the airport. You can also rent a car just for one day at the resort with Point Rouge, or rent a car in Noumea and leave it in Poindimie. We used Point Rouge for our road trip around the main island.
Hienghene – Koulnoue Village*
The easiest way to go to Hienghene is by car. It takes about 5 hours to drive there from Noumea, and one hour from Poindimie. If you don’t want to hire a car, the closest airport is Touho, 40 minutes south of Hienghene. You can ask the hotel to arrange a transfer for you (a taxi, I believe). If you’ve got time and want to travel on a budget, you can also take a bus from Noumea to Hienghene.
Koulnoue Village* in Hienghene is only 1.5 km away from the scuba diving shop. Unfortunately, they do not offer transfers between the hotel and the dive shop. So it’s not ideal if you’re carrying your equipment. You cannot hire a car in Hienghene.
There are multiple dive shops in Noumea, and you can usually find accommodation not too far from them. It won’t be a dive resort, but some accommodations in the small city offer beautiful sea views. You can ask the dive shops if they can organise a transfer from your hotel, but they usually don’t. Taxis are available in Noumea if you don’t want to walk (call 28.35.12); you can also ask your hotel reception to book one for you.
- Plongee Passion dive shop is located in the hotel hall of the Hotel Beaurivage*.
- Some other boats leave from Port Moselle or Port du Sud Marina – Gondwana Hotel* is not too far (but it wouldn’t be easy if you carry equipment). I recommend booking in a nicer hotel and taking a taxi. Why not enjoy sea views at Hotel Beaurivage*, the comfortable Hilton* or Meridien* or the beautiful Chateau Royal*?
Scuba diving in New Caledonia – prices: How much does it cost?
Travelling to New Caledonia is not cheap. We find everything is at least as expensive as in Australia. Surprisingly, the last time we visited, scuba diving in New Caledonia was a little bit cheaper than in Australia.
All dives are boat dives, so scuba diving isn’t a cheap activity. It also all add up quickly when you consider transport costs (it’s expensive to fly or hire a car), accommodation costs (unless you go camping or stay in a tribe) and restaurant costs (you can buy food at the supermarket, but they’re not always open).
In 2022, we paid on average €130 (AU$190) for a double dive with equipment hire on the Grande Terre. Tariffs were a little bit higher on the Isle of Pines.
Is scuba diving in New Caledonia safe?
The equipment we hired in New Caledonia was recent and well maintained. The guides were skilled and knew the sites and operations very well. Everything went smoothly during our visit.
The rules in New Caledonia follow the French scuba-diving system. It’s different from what we’re used to elsewhere with PADI or SSI, and to the strict rules in Queensland (Australia). We never felt unsafe while scuba diving in New Caledonia, but we still noticed differences that could make things worse if there’s an incident. It wasn’t a problem for us, but some people may prefer this not to be a surprise.
You can dive without a computer in New Caledonia.
Divers without a computer must follow the guide and keep the same depth to have the same dive profile. I was glad we brought our own as some dive shops don’t even offer to hire computers. I believe it is safer and it gave us more freedom underwater.
They don’t mind surfacing with less than 50 bars in New Caledonia.
In Queensland, we do our safety stop at 70 bars, and we have to be at the surface with at least 50 bars by law.
The guides in New Caledonia would still plan the dive according to the group’s air consumption. We were always near the boat when we reached 50 bars. Those getting low on air would only spend the time on their reserve at a 4-5 meter depth near the mooring. It was really a good surprise to be able to dive for more than one hour. But we’ve heard stories of inexperienced divers running very low on air in New Caledonia (not with Hienghene or Poindimie dive centres), which of course is not safe.
There isn’t always a lookout on the boat when diving in New Caledonia.
On some of our dives, no one stayed on the boat. They tied the boat very carefully with a mooring and an anchor so it wasn’t going anywhere. But if an emergency happened, it’s indeed safer to have someone on the boat ready to act.
Again, we always felt safe when scuba diving in New Caledonia (in Hienghene, Poindimie and the Isle of Pines). There’s so much to see underwater and on land there. It doesn’t matter how long we stay there, we always wish we had more time. We’re looking forward to our next visit!