Two bodies have been found this evening by divers searching for a father and son who failed to return to shore from snorkelling for pāua off the Wairarapa coast.

A 49-year-old Masterton man and his 10-year-old son were lost on Friday morning while searching for the shellfish about 50m offshore.

A man's body was found first at about 4.30pm by the Police National Dive Squad near Mataikona where the father and son went missing.

The second body was found a short time later. Both were on the sea floor.

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While formal identification is yet to take place, police believe the two deceased are the father and son reported missing after failing to return from a snorkelling trip, Sergeant Tony Matheson, the search and rescue co-ordinator, said.

The man's partner and the boy's mother was among a big group of family members and friends waiting on the beach.

Police are working to support the family, who are distraught at the loss of their loved ones, Matheson said.

The discovery came after the dive squad concentrated on a channel not far from shore where the father and son were last seen.

While the exact circumstances were not clear, Matheson said they were in a reef system on an outgoing tide and were not using fins. He said they may have been pushed by the tide into rougher water and not wearing fins made it hard to get back to shore.

Matheson said the deceased are from a family that is well known in the area.

"They are a lovely family. It is just awful."

The discovery of the bodies came after a big effort from professionals and volunteers and involved Westpac and Amalgamated helicopters, commercial and recreational boaties and fishers.

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The alarm was raised after another adult family member returned to the beach earlier than planned because of rough conditions.

A search soon after they went missing by rescue helicopters and about 10 nearby fishing boats at Castlepoint found no sign of them.

Throughout Saturday police divers searched the shallows as a large group of family members gathered on the beach near Mataikona, north of Castlepoint.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter was stood down Saturday afternoon after a pattern search of a wide area revealed no sign of the pair.

Police believe the two deceased are the father and son reported missing after failing to return from a snorkelling trip. Photo / Wairarapa Times-Age
Police believe the two deceased are the father and son reported missing after failing to return from a snorkelling trip. Photo / Wairarapa Times-Age

Matheson earlier acknowledged the chance of finding them alive was slim.

"Everyone here who is experienced in searches of this type has no illusions as to where this is potentially heading, but at the same time we are reluctant to take hope away."

A police liaison officer assigned to the family was a friend of some of them and knew the missing man, Matheson said.

Tangata whenua in the area have placed a rāhui from Whakataki River mouth north to Mataikona River and 12km out to sea.

"It's a very close family group. It's just soul destroying really for those involved," Matheson said.

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The missing father and son were part of a family group of four who had driven from Masterton about an hour to the west.

The pair became lost off the Mataikona rocks after the third diver returned to shore.

"It appears they were looking to get pāua from the reef systems there, perhaps not looking to go out too deep, just in a channel," Matheson earlier told the Herald.

"Three of them went into the water. One decided the sea conditions weren't particularly good around the rocks and told the others that he was going back in."

By the time he swam the 40 or 50m back to shore, the others had disappeared from view.

It is understood the family were fishing without fins but Matheson said that was not unusual.

"Some of the reef systems in the Wairarapa, you've only really got to have a wetsuit and some booties, a mask and snorkel to wander round some of the rock pool areas to gather seafood."

Mataikona Beach, Wairarapa. Photo / File
Mataikona Beach, Wairarapa. Photo / File

It was a popular diving area but also known to be regularly murky and affected by swells, he said.

"Mataikona coastline is quite a rugged reef system. It's sort of protected by the weather a lot of the time. But the conditions can be quite rough.

"Obviously something quite bad has happened out there for them not to have made it back to shore."

Chairman of Riversdale Surf Life Saving Club Dave Rose said it was "quite a tough coastline with rocky areas".

"It's a good little community and they'll be shattered by this. There's a number of people that holiday there," Rose said.

"It's not a big community but they're quite close-knit and this will obviously be a tragedy for them up there."