New Zealand. Poor Knights Islands
New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands are said to take their name from a French toastlike pudding that they somehow resembled in the eyes of Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to visit here. For latter-day English explorer Matthew Oldfield, Poor Knights proved a feast. “I first learned about Poor Knights from a few of my Scubazoo colleagues, who had gone down from Malaysia to film killer whales, which come into the islands each year to feed on mating stingrays. When we were commissioned to create our coffee-table book Reef, we wanted to expand beyond tropical climes to include cooler waters, and Poor Knights was included. After spending nine days there, I felt it was the kind of place I could relocate to—and that’s saying something, as we work from near Sipadan!”
Poor Knights Islands
Poor Knights Islands lie roughly twelve miles east of the Tutukaka coast, in the Northland region of the North Island of New Zealand. The two predominant islands of the chain are Aorangi and Tawhiti Rahi, with several smaller islands in between. Volcanic in origin, the islands of the Poor Knights chain have steep cliffs and steep drop-offs, in some places more than 300 feet not far off shore. Aorangi and Tawhiti Rahi were once occupied by a band of Maori, but in the early 1800s, much of the tribe was massacred by members of the Hikutu tribe from the mainland. Thereafter, remaining members of the Poor Knights Maori band declared the islands tapu (meaning sacred/forbidden, and off limits), and the islands have been uninhabited ever since. Today the islands and surrounding water are part of a marine reserve—and are considered one of the North Island’s premier scuba sites.
Poor Knights Islands
Two qualities conspire to make Poor Knights special—the proximity of the East Auckland current, and the archipelago’s volcanic origins. “At Poor Knights, you get a great mix of species,” Matthew continued, “as you have a mix of warm and temperate waters. Temperatures can vary by ten to fifteen degrees, depending on where you’re diving. The warm current brings in many tropical species that aren’t generally found around New Zealand. The topography is stunning, dotted with caves and undersea arches. This makes for some stunning photographic settings. With the open Pacific to the east, you never know what might swim by, and this introduces an element of uncertainty and excitement.”
There are scores of dive sites scattered around the islands; most are within a few minutes’ run of each other, with the exception of those at the Pinnacles, which lie five miles south of the main islands. Of these, none is more celebrated than Blue Mao Mao Arch. “Blue Mao Mao Arch is the archetypal dive at Poor Knights, and presents what is perhaps one of the archetypal dive images to be found anywhere,” Matthew continued. “It’s one of the biggest arches at Poor Knights, some sixty-five feet across, and there are two holes in the top that let in shafts of sunlight. It’s quite like a cathedral. Within the arch are vast schools of blue mao mao, a veritable fish soup. These fish are electric blue, and they barely seem to move. I just sat on the bottom and stared up, utterly captivated.” Moray eels—both yellow and gray—are also often found in the arch.
New Zealand eagle ray, Poor Knights Islands
Another “must-dive” spot at Poor Knights is Riko Riko Cave, reputed to be the world’s largest sea cave, quite capable of accommodating a sailing yacht. “When I was there, we had a killer whale come into the cave,” Matthew said. “But it was also wonderful for smaller animal life, which is my primary interest. I saw some wonderful nudibranchs there and at Poor Knights in general. I also came upon lovely triplefin blennies—bright pink with purple candy stripes.” Thanks to its popularity among boaters as well as divers, you’ll tend to find company at Riko Riko, though that shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting; with a mix of shallow and deeper water, Riko Riko is ideal for groups that combine beginners and more seasoned divers.
The Pinnacles, and nearby Sugarloaf, an isolated rock stack, were another attraction for Matthew. “Sugarloaf is very exposed to the open ocean,” he continued. “On the dive, you drop into a big gully. At times it becomes filled with huge bull rays, cruising back and forth. My coworkers tell me that many of the arches and caves around Poor Knights will get congregations of rays like this, stacks of a hundred or 150 at a time, and that it’s quite an experience to get underneath them and look up. I didn’t experience the rays in this abundance; a few weeks before my visit, the killer whales had been in munching on them, tossing around these three-to-six-foot-wide stingrays like they were Frisbees.”
Poor Knights Islands Diving
If You Go:
Whangarei is served by Air New Zealand (800-262-1234; www.airnewzealand.com) via Auckland.
Best Time to Visit:
Poor Knights can be dived year round, though October through March is considered the best time.
Accommodations: Destination Northland (+64 9-402-7683; www.northlandnz.com) has a comprehensive list of lodgings options in and around Whangarei, the region’s tourism hub.
Dive Shops/Guides: A number of operators serve the Poor Knights Islands, including Dive Tutukaka (+64 9-434-3867; www.diving.co.nz). Poor Knights Liveaboards (http://www.oceanblue.co.nz) is one of several live-aboard options in the region.
Recommended by Matthew Oldfield