Dr Russel Norman and two other Greenpeace protesters face charges after they threw themselves in the sea in front of an oil exploration ship, forcing it to stop its seismic blasting work.
The group are being charged under a 2013 Amendment to the Crown Minerals Act, dubbed the "Anadarko Amendment", which was put in place to stop protests at sea around oil exploration.
The law change makes it an offence to interfere with or get closer than within 500m of an offshore ship involved in oil exploration, with a potential fine of $10,000.
In addition, interfering with the operations of such a ship is punishable by up to 12 months' jail time or a fine of up to $50,000.
The protesters have been charged by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, a division of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. This is the first time the amendment has been enforced.
Norman is executive director of Greenpeace and a former co-leader of the Green Party. He said the ship was forced to halt operations and deviate off its course after the swimmers jumped in its path yesterday.
The 125m Amazon Warrior was 50 nautical miles off the Wairarapa coast, where it is exploring for Arctic driller Statoil and US oil company Chevron.
The ship collects data about oil reserves by blasting regular sound waves at the sea floor, travelling in straight lines in a grid pattern.
Forcing the ship to deviate from its path would have made the data unusable, Greenpeace says.
Statoil and Chevron have permits to drill to extreme depths of up to three kilometres if oil is found.
In response to the charges Norman said: "If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we cannot burn even known fossil fuel reserves, let alone new oil - which is exactly what the Amazon Warrior is looking for."
Norman said the group had "no choice but to take action yesterday".
"We will continue to resist the oil industry by every peaceful means available - until our action, and the collective action of millions of people here and across the planet, eject this industry from New Zealand and from the rest of the world."
The protesters are expected to appear in court in May.