Exploring The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve
The Poor Knights Islands are the remnants of a 4 million year old rhyolitic volcano. Sitting at the edge of the continental shelf, the islands are a heaven for marine life and offer intrepid explorers the chance to discover an architectural wonderland bursting with life.
It is said that the islands are cursed and consequently, no one has set foot on their shores for hundreds of years. A fiercely protected marine reserve, the Poor Knights offer a rather unique experience to those who dare to kit up and explore below the waterline.
Having been off limits to both commercial and recreational fishermen for the last 30 years, the marine park has encouraged life to flourish and Mother Nature to take hold.
A Volcanic Underwater World
One of the most notable features of the Poor Knights is the dark volcanic rock that has formed a veritable maze of tunnels, bubble caves and overhangs to explore.
Thanks to a string of violent eruptions and the earth shifting impact of the most recent ice age, the islands bare the scares of Mother Nature’s awesome power. The rugged beaches that were once bruised and battered by ferocious seas and bitter weather are now almost 40m below the waterline, meaning that much of the now submerged coast is negotiable by scuba divers.
A number of the dives here are named after the architectural forms of the site. Middle Arch, Taravana Cave and The Labyrinth are just a few of over 50 spots where you can take a dip beneath the waves.
While the barren shores are spiritually restricted by an ancient Māori curse, the shallows that surround the islands appear to be under a spell of an entirely different kind. Diving the Poor Knights is like swimming in an aquarium: fish approach you, turtles swim past unperturbed by your presence, and sharks and rays hover close by.
The black volcanic walls are also blanketed with corals and aquatic plants which shelter a community of macro life.
Abundant Marine Life
A visit to the Poor Knights will include innumerable sightings of species large and small. Influenced by the subtropical currents that flow south from the neighboring Great Barrier Reef, the islands play host to a diverse range of life. From brightly colored schools of fish to rays, sharks, turtles and even fur seals, no diver will ever leave the water disappointed.
While the clarity of the water is not affected by river run off or strong oceanic currents, seasonal visibility does fluctuate with the beginning of the annual algae bloom.
Although the slightly cloudy viz inhibits the opportunity to marvel at the scale of the volcanic architecture, the additional nutrients encourage a greater wealth of life to visit, and this trade-off is more than adequate.
Vibrant Macro Life
Vivid colors catch your eye, bright forms are juxtaposed against the jet black.
Clinging to the sheer volcanic walls are thousands of Nudibranchs, tiny hermit crabs, sea slugs and miniscule reef fish. If you were so inclined you could concentrate your gaze on a section no larger than a square foot and find yourself mesmerized for the entire length of your dive.
If you’re a keen macro photographer, the Poor Knights offer an endless bounty of subjects to capture.
Yellow, pink, purple and turquoise, each creature has its own unique markings, its own quirky style.
Caves, Tunnels and Swim Throughs
From the ancient beaches, the rocky cliffs disappear into the abyss of a gargantuan channel forged by prehistoric glaciers and upheaval from the neighboring continental shelf. While divers of all abilities can find enjoyable spots to explore, those after a more challenging dive can venture into one of the many caves and swim-throughs.
Jan’s Tunnel, named after the wife of well-known New Zealand diver and photographer Wade Doak, offers an intriguing dive through a cave system that branches off into the heart of the island. Traditionally visibility is superb and you’re likely to catch sight of juvenile squid whizzing past your mask and the blanket of blood red warratah anemones that covers the ceiling.
I would advise that only trained cave divers enter any submerged structure in which a CESA is not possible, and to heed the advice of the operation with which you are diving before doing so.
The World’s Largest Sea Cave
RikoRiko, a sea cave of world record breaking proportions, is set back into the sheer cliffs of Maroro Bay on the north west side of Aorangi Island. Most trips out to the islands will include a visit to either dive the floor of this gigantic cave or take in its sheer capacity.
In the past, everything from a Māori Haka to Swiss yodeling and even a didgeridoo player have performed within this giant natural anomaly.
A dive in the waters of the cave offers something of an unforgettable experience as littering the floor is the carcass of a sperm whale.
Washed into the cave by the passing southerly currents, what remains of the whale now rests amongst the kelp and provides divers with the change to marvel at the sheer size of the once magnificent creature.
When To Visit
The Poor Knights offer world class diving year round and have become New Zealand’s premier destination for scuba enthusiasts.
November to May offers good visibility, average 20m, and tepid waters, 20-23 degrees Celsius.
May to September ensures superb visibility however a dry suit is mandatory as the temperature can fall to just 14 degrees Celsius.
September to February offers warmer waters however this brings the annual algae bloom into full swing and while visibility is reduced, the wealth of life and activity rises significantly.
There are a number of dive operators who charter trips to the Poor Knights however many offer simply a two dive day trip. Let me tell you right now this will not offer enough time to immerse yourself in all that the Poor Knights have to offer.
I joined the crew of the Pacific Hideaway, a private vessel chartered each month by the team at Globe Dive in Auckland. Offering a nine dive itinerary along with the opportunity to visit RikoRiko cave and view the islands from the waterline, I found the experience to be superb and would have no qualms recommending the trip to fellow divers.
Setting sail from the small coastal town of Tutukaka which is a 3 hour drive north of Auckland, the islands are accessed in just over an hour ensuring maximum bottom time and minimum travel.
Divers of all levels are welcome at the Poor Knights and I found that the community of local divers who frequent the islands are keen to showcase this Kiwi gem to visitors. While most of the operators offer no dive guide you’re sure to be exploring with someone who has dived there before.