Scuba diving is something that’s been on my bucket list for a long time. I’ve always dreamed of exploring the underwater world filled with colorful fish, beautiful coral reefs and historic ship wrecks. Although both Jordan and I were certified in the Great Lakes in Canada a number of years ago, we’ve never taken the opportunity to do a REAL dive in the ocean.
So when we were heading up to Northland over Christmas we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore the Poor Knights Islands. Hailed as offering the best sub-tropical diving in the world, we made plans with Dive! Tutukaka to explore this underwater paradise on the last day of 2014.
Located 23km off the north east coast of New Zealand, the Poor Knights Islands are a cluster of ancient volcanos that have been hollowed and shaped by the sea into a web of caves, tunnels and cliffs. First named by Captain James Cook in 1769, there are two theories of how they got their name. One claims while Cook was admiring the flowering Pohutukawa on the island, they reminded him of jam on his ‘Poor Knights Pudding’ breakfast’ made of stale bread fried with eggs, milk and cinnamon (similar to French Toast). Another simply because the shape of the islands resemble a fallen Knight from battle (with his arms folded over his chest).
After a 45min cruise across the sea towards the islands, our Skipper Jack shared the rich history and unique features of the islands. Washed by the warm currents that sweep down from the Coral Sea, the warm waters surrounding the Poor Knights Islands create a unique environment in which subtropical and temperate marine life co-exist with extraordinary diversity, beauty and density. The islands have been uninhabited since the 1820s and have been protected as a marine and nature reserve allowing species that have been lost on the mainland to continue to flourish. Tuatara, many species of lizard, giant weta, flax snails and a giant centipede are the main inhabitants of the islands these days.
Nestled into a small cove, we dropped anchor at Trevor’s Rocks. Split up into groups based on experience and skills, the crew at Dive! Tutukata had our gear all organised, making us feel really comfortable (considering it had been a number of years since we’d been on our certification dives). Once we were all geared up and ready to go, we were paired up with our dive master, Cam, who was quite a character and had a ton of energy!
With a wide step off the back of the boat, we were in the water and after a quick buoyancy check descended below into the crystal clear waters. As we began to sink, we saw a large school of fish that are known to collect under the boat for protection from the larger King Fisher.
After finally getting my buoyancy stabilized, and Jordan’s ears adjusted, we began our exploration of the underwater world just below Trevor Rocks. This first dive was about 15m and along an open coral reef with lots of seaweed along the ocean floor. One of our first encounters was with a Kina sea urchin! Cam passed him around for us to hold. I was surprised at the sharpness of his spines as they pricked my hands as I held him.
The colors down there were pretty incredible. Vibrant oranges and yellows of the reefs with a diversity of sea life surrounding us. Two of my favorite creatures we encountered were the Mosaic Moray and the Northern Scorpion Fish. While the look on the Mosaic Moray’s face made it seem scary as hell, apparently they aren’t considered dangerous (unless provoked). The Northern Scorpion Fish on the other hand was barely noticeable until Cam pointed him out as they are masters of camouflage and totally blended in with the colors of the reef.
We continued to see a variety of species, from Black Angel Fish, Red Pig Fish and both male and female Sandager Wrasse. White compound ascidian (looks like coral) and many types of sea urchins lined the coral reefs along the ocean floor. Jordan really wanted to see a stingray up close, but unfortunately we only managed to catch a glimpse of a short tailed stingray just as Jordan and I were surfacing since we were running low on air.
Back up at the boat, we enjoyed a Milo (hot chocolate) and soup to warm up and refueled with a delicious packed lunch provided. While we enjoyed our snack, Skipper Jack pulled the boat into what is believed to be the largest sea cave in the world – Riko Riko Cave. Our boat was dwarfed by the size of the cave as we enjoyed the view from the bow of the ship.
Surrounded by a series of stunning archways, we dropped anchor at our next dive spot at Blue Maomao Arch. The waves crashed against the rocks and through the archways as we scoped out our next adventure. Having the first dive under our belts we were quick to get our buoyancy in check and were ready to explore.
Known for it’s dense population of Blue Maomao fish, this dive location is one of the best in the world. As we descended along the rocky shoreline, we came up to the famous tunnel and a school of Blue Maomao came swimming out. Making our way through the narrow tunnel, they surrounded us as we swam through to the other side.
This dive was by far my favorite of the two. I loved the close quarters and being surrounded by the colorful walls of the cave. Cam pulled out his light to show us some of the amazing orange Encrusting Sponge. It’s texture what really soft and felt pretty cool to touch. We saw lots of different fish again and even encountered another eel, this time a Grey Moray, that slithered along the ocean floor (and Jordan preceded to follow for some time).
Despite scuba diving not being what you’d consider a very ‘active’ sport, it provides with you with access to some pretty incredible underwater worlds. I found myself in a very calm, relaxed state, yet extremely excited every time I saw a new fish or sea creature. What’s challenging is trying to express that when you have a regulator in your mouth and are unable to easily communicate. I wished we could spend so much more time down there, but unfortunately air is always the limiting factor when it comes to diving.
My favorite part of the day was being amongst the sea of Blue Maomao. They loved to swim along the cave walls and moved together like they were one large fish. It’s no wonder this archway got its name as these little guys seemed to really enjoy hanging out here!
We reluctantly returned to the surface, wishing we had time for another dive down there, but it had been an incredible day and one I won’t soon forget. As we changed back into our regular clothes, we made another sweep around the islands, passing by Southern Arch – the largest in the Southern Hemisphere! Although deceiving from the picture, normally there’s more than enough room for our boat to pass through, but with the swell that day it was just a bit too risky to try.
Back at the Tutukaka Marina we documented the day in our dive books and bid farewell to the awesome crew at Dive! Tutukaka. Having spent a day at Poor Knights Islands, its going to be pretty tough place to beat, but this experience has definitely rekindled my love for exploring underwater worlds and hope we can continue to do more of that soon!
Check out Episode 50 – Poor Knights Island
Big thanks again to Dive! Tutukaka for hosting us and Skipper Jack and Cam for making the day a memorable one!