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Diving New Zealand | Poor Knights Islands
Set in one of the of the world’s richest seas, New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands offer the world’s most spectacular subtropical diving
When one coral reef starts to look just like the next, you know it’s time for a change. With its tapestry of caves, kelp and critters, the Poor Knights Islands offer exactly that. However, although these waters have long been popular with native Kiwis, they have been neglected by the majority of the international diving community, probably due to New Zealand’s geographic isolation. Still, logging a few dives at the Poor Knights wins you a lot of kudos – and we looked forward to carrying home the bragging rights.
Located 17 miles off North Island’s northeast coast, the Poor Knights have been guarding against the rolling Pacific swell for two million years. Born of violent volcanism, they are skyscrapers of weather-beaten basalt: bronze capped with green. The two largest islands are Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi, and along with a scattering of smaller islets and pinnacles, they stand hard by the continental shelf and are encircled by nutrient-rich waters that are not quite tropical, not quite temperate – subtropical, the books say.
Indeed, my gauge reads 20°C, and at a depth of 20m, I’m toasty warm in my drysuit, taking in a marine scene that is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Hanging in the blue, I look up, down and side to side at the river of fish streaming through the Northern Arch dive site, flowing like mercury around us. They are blue maomao, and there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of them. But it’s not just fish that have joined us. Three stingrays glide past in the opposite direction, and we decide to follow, letting the current carry us along until the water brightens dramatically. We’ve emerged from the shadow cast by the towering rock overhead. The stingrays turn about and sink downward.
These are productive waters, the richest in New Zealand in terms of fish species (more than 120) and invertebrate diversity. The islands are protected as a marine and nature reserve managed by the Department of Conservation, and fishing of any kind is prohibited in the Poor Knights, as is removing rock or shell souvenirs, feeding the fish, and stepping onshore.
I was determined to find a blue-eyed triplefin, a 3cm-long dynamo endemic to New Zealand. When I asked our skipper/guide where to find them, he laughed, answering ‘at every dive site’. I should be able to check it off my list. Success came in spades at Jan’s Tunnel, where we spent so much time chasing this super-cute fish and the most outrageously coloured Tambja verconis nudibranchs that we never made it to the tunnel. Too bad.
Luckily, there’s no shortage of tunnels, caves, archways, grottoes, chimneys, and other shadowy spaces here. They say you don’t dive around the Poor Knights, but in them – and it’s true. Burrowing into or through the islands themselves is one of the most memorable parts of the diving here.
Looking over the chart one night, I came across a site called Matt’s Crack, which looked like it had amazing topography. Getting there, however, was a problem. The first time the bow of our dive boat, the Mazurka, poked between Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi in an attempt to access the windward side, 40-knot easterly winds quickly changed our minds. We turned tail and beat a hasty retreat to the leeward west, anchoring in flat water to enjoy an excellent dive on Landing Bay Pinnacle.
It’s a Matterhorn-like twisted rock spire that drops off quickly. In 25m visibility, we plummeted 40m to a ridge sporting orange finger sponges and beaded gorgonians. Wandering about were strange boarfish, awkward creatures seemingly all angles and protuberances. Very cool fish – another new species for the logbook. Actually, most of the critters we came across were new to us. Consulting the marine life identification guidebooks became part of our daily ritual.
At the second attempt, the weather gods blessed our mission. First thing in the morning, we steamed north up the Poor Knights’ windward side, surfing the hint of a swell under a clear, windless sky. Along the way we marvelled at more Tolkienesque island architecture: jagged rock formations, soaring cliff faces and precipitous slopes mantled in wind-sculpted trees that sprouted impossibly from bare stone.
We paused alongside the terraced gardens, once a Maori settlement where crops were raised and livestock tended. Pastoral bliss ended here in 1820 when Chief Waikato and his war band rowed to this site from the mainland upon learning that the islands’ men (led by Chief Tatua) were abroad raiding. Waikato’s force easily overwhelmed the defenceless women and children. The majority were killed or taken prisoner, but some chose death over captivity by taking their own lives, jumping from the cliffs. The Poor Knights Islands were declared strictly tapu (sacred) and have been uninhabited ever since.
The atmosphere was subdued as we suited up to dive into Matt’s Crack. But spirits were lifted immediately on our descent when my wife Melissa sighted a pekapeka, the Maori name for a type of carpet shark. It was a discovery worthy of a happy dance, for this harmless, 80cm-long critter had been on our wish list since day one.
With time winding down and weather holding, we committed to visiting the Squires. Also known as the Pinnacles, this cluster of rugged monoliths erupts from the blue six miles southwest of the Poor Knights proper. More desolate than the other islands here, the Squires reminded me of Galápagos – raw and remote remnants of the past. Shags and gulls shrieked from lofty perches, a seal opened its sleepy eyes to look at us, and a squadron of gannets dive-bombed into the sea to feed.
As clichéd as it may sound, diving Blue Maomao Arch can be a near-religious experience. Its name offers a good idea of what to expect, though apparently the residents are not always home. We approached the site 10m under, swimming through a high-walled gutter. At first, the occasional fish passed here and there, and there was a little colour on the rock, but nothing special. Just as the archway opening came into view, a male Sandager’s wrasse sauntered up, nearly bumping into my mask. Picasso could have painted him, for the gaudy pastels were almost too much to believe. He performed a mysterious dance in front of us, boldy swimming to within inches of our faces one moment and then swerving away to retreat briefly before starting the ritual anew. Amused and a bit confused, we pressed on.
Blue Maomao Arch was stuffed, packed to the gills with gills. Sunbeams lanced downward from a window in the rock, shining on the fish like a spotlight. Though we’ve seen this fish at nearly every site in the Poor Knights, there’s something extra special about viewing them here. Back on board, the smiling never stopped. The clinking of the anchor chain signalled that it was time to head back to port. Though facing the end of our adventure, we were upbeat, chattering with excitement as we began recounting the dives – the last, the first, the 20-odd in between. However, part of me was still underwater in that cathedral-like archway, awash with memories of a magnificent shimmering blue.
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