A diving mission for seafood ended in tragedy off the Northland coast and it has rescuers warning people to check sea conditions and weather forecasts before heading into the ocean.

The body of a 49-year-old man was recovered from the sea near Cape Reinga after he was washed out to sea by waves surging over rocks.

Two men went diving from Sandy Bay, near Cape Reinga, on Thursday.

Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe said the men parked in the carpark at the cape and walked down the track to the beach. When they tried to make their return trip the incoming tide stopped them from taking the same route back around the rocks.

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Following a different track around the rocks they were forced to negotiate a gap. One of them was successful while the other was swept out to sea.

"The surge of the waves over the rocks has swept him out and eventually he has disappeared from sight," Mr Metcalfe said.

His dive companion returned to the carpark and raised the alarm about 5.50pm.

Search and Rescue teams arrived at Sandy Bay on Thursday night but were unable to conduct a water search due to darkness and a full scale search resumed at first light Friday morning.

An officer using binoculars spotted what looked like a person in a rocky gut in the coast about 10am. Volunteers with the Ahipara surf lifesaving club were able to get close enough in their rescue boat to drop a swimmer in the water who then managed to retrieve the man's body.

"This is a tragic accident that didn't really need to happen. The weather and sea conditions were not conducive to going diving."

There were wind gusts up to 35 knots. It is the third time search and rescue crews have been called to the area this year in rough sea conditions but is the first fatality they have dealt with.

"People don't seem to learn and in this case it's cost someone their life."

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He said checking sea conditions prior to launching into the ocean was vital. The matter had been referred to the coroner.