The body of an American scuba diver who vanished off the Kaikoura coast yesterday evening has been recovered.

The 32-year-old man had been diving with friends off Omihi camping ground 15 minutes south of Kaikoura when he left them to search for paua on a rocky shelf.

But when the friends returned by boat to the site they last saw him, there was no sign of the US visitor, who had been in the country only for a fortnight.

A search and rescue operation was launched about 8.15pm yesterday, using the Coastguard and a helicopter, but was suspended after three hours.

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It was continued at first light today and the body was recovered 70m offshore about 12.30pm.

Sergeant Barry Hansen of Kaikoura police said attempts were still being made to trace the man's family in America. It is understood he was working in Christchurch as a volunteer for charity Habitat for Humanity.

Mr Hansen said the diver had seemed confident in the water earlier in the day, according to the group he was with.

He said: "He had been diving with a group but had gone into some rocks looking for some paua himself.

"The boat they had went away to get a catch bag for another member of the party who was spearfishing further around (the coast). When they went back, they never saw him again."