New Zealand is a land of extremes, of sunlit valleys and soaring peaks, of rugged coastlines that bear witness to the volcanic activity that created this magnificent landscape. Nowhere is New Zealand’s dramatic geology more evident than at the romantically named Poor Knights Islands. Here, sheer, jagged cliffs plunge into the ocean to create a fascinating underwater topography of caverns, caves and spectacular submarine archways. Located 14 miles from the mainland town of Tutukaka on the country’s North Island, the Poor Knights are represented by two main islands, Aorangi and Tawhiti Rahi, between which a handful of smaller islets are scattered. The archipelago is its own unique microcosm thanks to the confluence of cool waters with the warmer East Auckland Current. Because the islands lie at this junction of tropical and temperate water, and because they have been isolated from the mainland for so long, they boast an impressive array of flora and fauna both above and below the waves, some of which is found nowhere else. The islands themselves are uninhabited, and have been since the 1800s, when invaders from the mainland massacred the resident population of Maoris. Now, the Poor Knights are visited purely for their underwater wonders. The archipelago is protected as the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, and the species that inhabit its seas have flourished as a result.
Over 125 species of fish inhabit these sheer volcanic walls, enormous sea caves, fantastical arches, pinnacles and dense kelp forests. These range from huge game fish venturing into the area from the Pacific to tropical species brought south by warm-water currents and impenetrable shoals of blue maomao and trevally. Rays are a mainstay of Poor Knights diving, with huge aggregations of bull rays and long- and short-tail stingrays often occurring at several of the islands’ dive sites. During New Zealand’s warmer summer months (winter in the Northern Hemisphere), these stingrays gather in large numbers to mate, and are in turn preyed upon by visiting pods of orca whales. The orcas have developed complex hunting strategies that allow them to disable the rays’ sting before consuming them, and visitors to the Poor Knights at this time of year have an excellent chance of seeing these spectacular apex predators in action. Highlights of Poor Knights diving include Blue Maomao Arch, perhaps the islands’ most famous site, where shoals of the eponymous fish are often thick enough to block out the light. Along with the blue maomao, divers can expect to see trevally, shoaling demoiselles, stingrays and a wealth of smaller creatures including some beautiful nudibranchs and invertebrates. With light streaming through the archway and illuminating the treasures within, this is a truly photogenic dive site that encapsulates what makes Poor Knights diving so special. Another popular spot is Rikoriko Cave, the world’s largest surveyed sea cave, measuring 427 feet long and 262 feet wide.
For an archipelago that feels so wonderfully remote, the Poor Knights are actually remarkably accessible. Dive charters run day trips to the islands from Tutakaka, and offer diving, snorkeling and boat-based sightseeing. In line with the islands’ protected status, it is against the law to remove plants, animals, shells or rocks from the reserve. It is only legal to alight on the islands themselves with a permit from the Department of Conservation. Dive conditions vary quite considerably depending on the time of year, and some sites are only appropriate for more advanced divers due to their depth and the presence of strong current. Make sure you book with an operator who knows the sites well and can advise on their suitability. There are three distinct seasons at the Poor Knights. Between November and April, water temperatures sit between 68-73F/20-23C and visibility averages around 65 feet/20 meters. This is also the best time of year for spotting orcas. From September to January, the warming water increases chances of plankton blooms, which may reduce visibility but bring with them an influx of marine life. The best visibility occurs between May and September, when water clarity often exceeds 100 feet/30 meters. At this time of year, water temperature plummets to a cool 57-60F/14-16C. Each season has its highlights, however, and whenever you choose to visit the Poor Knights, you’ll find exploring them to be a hugely enriching experience.