“The best subtropical diving in the world” (Jacques Cousteau). That’s a big reputation to live up to! We are here to test it out.
Will the Poor Knights live up to the claims made about it?
You betcha it will. Imagine diving in open water in a ball of 5,000 schooling trevally, on top of several hundred kingfish? Or diving with over 20 schooling rays? Or in a tunnel filled with iridescent blue fish, so thick that you can’t see past them? Seeing birds under water, or swimming through a tunnel into a lagoon walled by sheer cliffs? These are only some of the delights we experienced at the Poor Knights.
The Poor Knights Islands lie 24km (15 miles) off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. They comprise two large islands and a host of islets, rock stacks and pinnacles. There are over 100 dive sites around the islands.
We have arrived at the invitation of Kate and Jeroen from Dive Tutukaka. When we stumble into the shop at 8pm they greet us like long lost friends and drag us straight off to the ‘staff movie night’, where we see… OPEN WATER! Divers left to be eaten by sharks. Is this some kind of hint? Or a twisted dive briefing? We laugh nervously.
Not to be deterred, we are at the shop bright and early the next day. The sea conditions are a little up, so we are taken to Rikoriko cave. The water at the entrance of Rikoriko cave glows with a vivid blue light. The name ‘Rikoriko’ refers to this shimmering light that reflects from the water’s surface, forming sparkling patterns on the walls and the roof. In winter when the sun is low these spectacular reflections almost fill the cave. Rikoriko is the largest known sea cave in the world. It was formed by a gas bubble during a volcanic eruption. It measures roughly a hectare (2.5 acres) in sea surface. Rare ferns hang from the roof. They receive light for photosynthesis only from the reflections off the sea, are fed by water that drips through the porous rhyolite ceiling of the cave, and in high seas are washed by salt water. The walls of the cave are covered in algal growth and patterned with colour from mineral seepage.
Underwater, visibility is good – like diving in freshwater. The front of the cave has lush kelp, colourful sponges and encrusting life, but a venture to the back of the cave leads you into unusual territory. Because of the shape and aspect of the cave, life normally only found at great depths is found here. A cup coral that is normally found at depths of over 200m (656ft) grows here in 15m (49ft). However the best thing about Rikoriko is what we discover at lunchtime when our skipper takes the boat right into the cave. All passengers assemble on the sundeck, cup their hands, and shout “RIKO” to the ceiling, followed by a stamp of the foot in haka fashion. The echoes reverberate for a full minute. Though we did this every day I never tired of it.
The Poor Knights are all about terrain diving. It is hard to describe the sheerness of the walls and the height of the beautiful cliffs reaching above the boat, topped by the pretty green and red of the pohutukawa (New Zealand Christmas trees). Underwater, the terrain reflects the view topside – the walls are steep and sheer. On some of the sites the back of the boat will be in 30m (98ft) while the front will be in 50m (164ft)! Underwater, you swim along almost vertical walls and through soaring arches. These volcanically formed islands are as spectacular underwater as they are above.
One such site is the beautiful Northern arch. This is the famed site where stingrays collect. The bottom is at about 43m (141ft) and the arch is about 15m (49ft) wide at the widest point. With a touch of current running through the arch you get kingfish, trevally and schools of blue and pink maomao. It is a spectacular early afternoon dive, with the sun streaming through the arch. Unfortunately on our dive we see only one stingray. One of the dive staff suggests this is because the previous season a school of orca came through this area. Orcas were seen on several dives and were seen to prey on the rays. The rays that are left are obviously elsewhere. While we are doing our safety stop after this dive we watch a juvenile kingfish hunting. Suddenly something shoots up from the bottom right in front of us. I scream at Craig through my regulator “Oh my god, it’s a BIRD!” It is a cormorant in fact, hunting. Successfully too, judging by the fish in its beak!
Away from the walls, volcanic pinnacles rise steeply from the ocean floor. On the island side these pinnacles might have stepped platforms, covered in fixed life and are perfect for multi-levelling. On the ocean side they can be sheer to great depths. At the spectacular Landing Bay Pinnacle we follow the steep wall down to a depth of 40m (131ft), which is still only two-thirds of the way to the bottom. Far below us cruises an eagle ray. Attached to the wall are colourful seaweeds, hosting triplefins and mosaic morays. As we return on the shallow side we explore interesting formations of seaweed covered rock – small swim-throughs and boulder peaks surrounded by demoiselles.
Another beautiful terrain dive is The Lost World. Descending a sheer wall to a bottom depth of 40m (131ft), we find shy schooling boarfish, and a pretty school of pink maomao. We multilevel up the steep ledges encountering eels and thousands of schooling koheru (baitfish). With air to spare we head over to Jan’s Tunnel. Only a few hundred metres from the Lost World but totally different in character, Jan’s Tunnel is a shallow open cave that one can swim through. Coming out the shallow side I find myself in a tiny hidden lagoon. When I look up through the crystal-clear water to the cliffs above, I can see the trees that grow tenaciously on these steep walls.
After a few days diving we decide to have a short break and travel north a little. I am keen to try a hot spring bath at Ngawha, to visit the Kauri forests and to see the famed Bay of Islands, just a short hop north. We make our slow way round the incredibly windy roads that are a feature in this area: there is not one straight stretch! I have to laugh when we reach the hot springs at Ngawha: I had asked our hosts for a less-commercialised operation and that is exactly where they sent us. As we walk into the 50s era pool area and smell the gloopy green and grey pools we wonder whether we really want to do this! Eventually we egg each other on enough to get in and… are pleasantly surprised! They are actually lovely. The mud underfoot is soft and squishy and the hot smelly water does seem to have a relaxing and rejuvenating effect. A word of warning though – wear a swimsuit you don’t mind parting with: mine stopped smelling only after many washes – Craig threw his away!
From Ngawha we work our way across to the west coast and visit the beautiful Waipoua Forest. It is here that we find the Tane Mahuta, this giant kauri tree, estimated to be over 2,000 years old is New Zealand’s tallest tree and is one of the largest trees in the world: 51m (167ft)-high, with a girth of over 13m (43ft). This is at an incredible lookout from which you can see only forest in all directions. Even travelling the roads through this forest is an experience – rainforest vegetation grows right down to the edge of the narrow roads. We are sorry to leave this area.
Back at Tutukaka, the conditions are good enough that we go to the Sugarloaf. A small, steep pinnacle, the Sugarloaf lies several kilometres away to the south of the main Poor Knights Islands. It has vertical walls above and below the water. The visibility is a spectacular 30m+ (98ft+). The first time we arrive at the Sugarloaf we are faced with an enviable choice. Away from the island in the open blue water and at a depth of over 100m (328ft)) is a massive school of feeding trevally. The school is 40m (131ft)-wide and who knows how deep. On the other hand this may be our only opportunity to dive the Sugarloaf, where the elusive rays have been seen schooling recently, and where you commonly see feeding kingfish and blue and bronze whaler sharks also known as blue and copper sharks.
It’s a very tough choice but we opt for the schooling fish. The other divers on the boat opt for the island, so Nick the skipper drops us off, then floats the boat between us and the other divers. Straight away we realise that no matter what the other divers are doing we are having the time of our lives. Literally thousands of trevallies school around us. They are 10m (33ft)-thick from the surface. Beneath them are hundreds of enormous kingfish, each close to the maximum size of 1.6m (5ft). We descend to a depth of 10m (33ft) and try to look every which way at once as well as keep an eye on our depth gauges!
Fish circle around us and shoot at us from every direction. Awesome! This is a pure adrenalin dive: MASSIVE fish EVERYWHERE!
The next day, our luck holds and we return to the Sugarloaf. Yesterday the other divers got back on the boat raving about the rays. So this time Craig and I opt for the island. The water is a crystal clear 40m (131ft) visibility. It’s possible to circumnavigate the island, but we don’t need to. 30m (98ft) from the boat we find the rays. I can see rays all around me – some off in the open, silhouetted against the surface, some cruising above and below me. I am only at 15m (49ft) and stay at this depth, hanging onto a convenient piece of kelp, for the entire dive as the rays continue to swim over, under and past me. Craig has been out in the open water. As he joins me and we leave the rock for the boat, a huge school of kingfish zoom in to investigate us: a little alarming. They circle us but shear off at the last minute. Another incredible dive.
Lest we give you the impression that it is all deep diving, let us move to the channel at the south end of Aorangi Island. Here is another of the Poor Knights signature dives: Blue Maomao Arch. Named after the blue maomao fish that fill the arch, this shallow dive is a tunnel with an entrance at the east and the west ends. Blue maomao are a beautiful feature of diving at the Poor Knights. A medium-sized fish, they are bright blue, and form huge schools in archways and reef areas. They also feed on the surface and can be seen from the boat, shimmering just below the surface.
Blue Maomao is one of the most spectacular dives I have ever done. Fractured rays of sunlight stream through several holes in the roof. The light illuminates the beautiful invertebrates that cover the walls and the floor. Only 8m (26ft)-deep, the tunnel is literally filled with fish: thousands of maomao, plus schools of demoiselles, the occasional kingfish and a blackspot grouper. Because it’s so shallow and the tunnel is well lit you can stay here for ages simply appreciating the splendour of this place.
Another relatively shallow dive is the vibrant Tie-Dye Arch. Multicoloured walls of invertebrates give the arch its name. Inside the arch it’s very fishy, with kingfish, porae, golden snapper and even Lord Howe coralfish. There is beautiful macro life along the wall outside the arch: jewelled anemones, triplefins, blennies, and soft corals.
As always our holiday is over too soon. We feel privileged to have been there. The Poor Knights has lived up to and over our expectations. During our time in Tutukaka, Dive Tutukaka looked after us brilliantly. The largest operator at Tutukaka, they also somehow manage to make each client feel special. This is not an accident, but rather a program of training and management put in place by proprietors Jeroen and Kate. The staff put their all into the job and into making sure all divers have a fantastic time. We certainly did.
Poor Knights Islands
Nearest International Airport
December to April
230 V, constant
Country Dialling Code