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New Zealand’s North Island is home to some of the finest sub-tropical diving on the planet, centred around the Poor Knights Islands off Tutukaka in Whangarei. The islands' stunning volcanic landscape of arches, sea caves and towering cliffs, combined with clear water and remarkably abundant marine life, make them a mecca for divers. Huge schools of mao mao fill the underwater caves, scorpionfish hide amongst the kelp, giant stingrays in their hundreds can be witnessed as they gather to mate and even that ultimate predator of the seas, the Orca, can often be encountered around the Poor Knights. Throw in the nearby wrecks of the Tui and the Waikato, and divers have everything they need for an incredible dive experience.
The unique environment of the Poor Knights continues below the waves, as the cliffs of the islands sweep down into the surrounding water. The volcanic landscape has been eroded into dramatic caves and arches, sheer walls and wave-cut shelves thick with kelp and filter-feeders. This diversity of habitats, combined with the mixing of warm- and cold-water currents that meet at the islands results in an rich assemblage of species - and some fabulous diving. Over 125 species of fish share this environment with soft corals, encrusting sponges, bright anemones, kelp forests, gorgonian fans and huge numbers of filter-feeding species, including many species brought south from the Coral Sea.
The nutrient-rich water creates blooms of plankton that in-turn supports an entire food chain of life. For divers, the most obvious signs of the richness of this environment are the incredible numbers of fish that can be seen around the islands - even before a dive, the sea surface often ‘boils’ as small fish feeding at the surface dart away from marauding predatory kingfish, whilst below the waves, huge schools of pink and blue mao mao, snapper and trevallies drift amongst the rocks and kelp. At one of the islands best known sites - Blue Mao Mao Arch - a large swim-though is often completely filled with huge schools of fish taking shelter under the rock. An extraordinary sight, particularly when a bright red pigfish joins the crowd to add a bit of contrast.
During the warm summer months, tropical visitors are carried down to the islands on the East Auckland Current, including species such as the Lord howe coral fish, topical wrasse and groupers, along with the occasional manta ray and turtle. Stingrays also congregate to mate at this time of year, and can often be seen hovering in large squadrons at sites such as Northern Arch. This behaviour is thought to be a defence against the Poor Knight’s top predator - Orca, that visit the islands every year and are known to feed on big rays.
As the water cools and the visibility increases, the summer visitors disappear and other species become the focus for visitors. Groups of bronze whaler sharks can be observed in the deeper, colder water, whilst scorpionfish and New Zealand eagle rays can be found amongst the kelp. The macro life amongst the reefs is at its richest during the cold winter months and divers can easily be distracted by the beautiful blue-eyed triplefins and stunning nudibranchs that shelter amongst the encrusting life. All in all, the Poor Knights offers visiting divers a wide range of dive sites, incredible schooling fish and a fascinating diversity of species, as well as some truly unique encounters.
The Poor Knights are one of the best locations for snorkelers in New Zealand. The prolific marine life, beautiful scenery and plentiful bird life - along with very good chances of seeing whales and dolphins - make trips out to the islands a highlight for anyone on a snorkeling trip around New Zealand. Visitors can expect to see dense schools of kingfish, snapper and two-spot demoiselles feeding right up to the surface, along with cruising sting rays in the depths below and even manta rays that visit the islands during the warm summer months. Even without the marine life, the dramatic cliffs and sea stacks make for some exciting exploration, and the world’s largest sea cave at Rikoriko offers a unique, albeit eerie experience for adventurous snorkelers.
Like much of New Zealand, the Poor Knights islands are of volcanic origin, and the jagged peaks that break the water are all that remains of volcanoes that erupted over 4 million years ago. The chain consists of two large islands, Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi, along with a group of smaller islets between the two, the largest of which is Motu Kapiti. Separated from mainland New Zealand by water for tens of thousands of years and protected from invasive intruders, the Poor Knights are an oasis of endemic species and a snapshot of a time past, before the arrival of man and his rats, pigs and other associated species, that have changed much of the fauna and flora of New Zealand.
The valleys and cliffs of the Poor Knights still have stands of ancient forests, filled with many rare species including endemics such as the Poor Knights Lily and the nocturnal tuatara, an ancient reptile closely related to the dinosaurs. Rare native birds such as the bellbird and red crowned parakeet thrive here, but the islands are particularly famous as a nesting area for the Buller’s shearwater - of which hundreds of thousand arrive every year to breed. These birds range over the entire pacific to feed but return to the Poor Knights every year - an extraordinary migration for these ocean-going birds.
The bird life and rich marine life of the islands attracted Ngati Wai Maori who grew crops, fished and harvested the birds and their eggs. However, after a massacre on the island in the early 1820’s, the local Maori declared the islands Tapu - a Polynesian concept denoting sacred and prohibited, from which the English word ‘taboo’ can trace its origins - and the local people abandoned the islands, never to return. After the removal of the pigs that had gone feral on the islands, the Poor Knights were once again free of human activity and have remained protected ever since.
The closest international airport to Tutukaka is in Auckland, which as New Zealand’s biggest city, is well-connected to the rest of the world. There are frequent international flights to other countries in the South Pacific, Australia and Asia, as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Europe and South America. From Auckland, visitors can travel by road, rail or fly to the nearest major town to Tutukaka, Whangerei, which is just a short flight or a 2 hour drive from Auckland. Tutukaka is just a 30 minute drive to the northeast.
If you are planning an extended stay in New Zealand and plan on doing some touring and diving, it is worth hiring a car in Auckland and planning your itinerary as a round trip, starting and ending in Auckland.
Tutukaka has several small hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants - including the fantastic Schnappa Rock on the Marina - as well as shops to buy groceries and supplies for those that book into self-catering options. Dive! Tutukaka has recently opened Lodge 9 in the small valley behind their dive centre. Using materials salvaged from the old marina piles and wooden boardwalks, the lodge offers comfortable rooms, a salt water pool, lovely wooden decks for BBQs and a great atmosphere. The dive centre, Shed 7 training facility and marina are literally steps away from your door, along with several of Tutukaka’s great bars and restaurants - everything a visiting divers needs!
A great alternative is to book a liveaboard trip onboard the MV Archeron, an ex-research vessel that has been converted into a dive liveaboard by Dive! Tutukaka. The boat can take up to 8 divers on 3 or 4 day trips out to the Poor Knights, mooring in the shelter of the islands every night. An amazing alternative to staying on land!
Whangarei is located in the far north of the North Island and is New Zealand’s warmest region. The sub-tropical weather means plenty of sun but with enough rain to keep the land green and lush. Summers are warm and humid, winters mild. Underwater, there are two distinct seasons at the Poor Knights. Over the summer between November and April, the water can reach 20-23C and visibility averages around 20m. This is also the best time of year for stingrays and orcas, but the warmer water can trigger plankton blooms which reduce visibility but bring with them an influx of marine life. During the winter months between May and September, the water temperature drops to as low as 14-16C whilst the visibility improves, reaching over 30m on good days.
The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve is considered one of New Zealand’s most important marine protected areas. The island’s varied and abundant fauna and flora, along with cultural and archaeological significance have long been recognised by the New Zealand Government and the island’s were first designate a reserve in 1975. Over 20 years later the protection was strengthened and the Poor Knights are now a full Marine Reserve and are being considered for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today the island’s are strictly off limits except to scientific researchers and the protection extends 800m out from any part of the islands and their associated islets and stacks - reflecting the importance of the ocean waters around the Poor Knights. The government, researchers and dive organisations in New Zealand continue to work on protecting the Poor Knights as well as building relationships with the Ngati Wai, the indigenous Maori people from the Whangarei region.
A timeline of highlights for the Poor Knights Islands:
Courtesy of Dive! Tutukaka