The Riches of the Poor Knights Islands
When someone talks about clear blue water, white sand and so many fish you immediately think tropical. Yet a place fitting this description exists just off the Northland coast only 2 1/2 hours drive from Auckland, New Zealand. The Poor Knights Islands, 22 km from Tutukaka, is reported as being one of the top ten dive sites in the world.
Above the water the islands consist of spectacular cliffs climbing 200 metres vertically from the sea. These islands are the last remnants of an ancient volcano chain which ran down the eastern side of the Northland coast. In many cases the high cliffs continue straight down for up to 100 metres below the water surface.
The islands are totally protected and landing is strictly controlled by the Department of Conservation. Landing is by permit only and scientific research is generally the only reason for such a landing.
Many of the birds and animals seen here can no longer be found on the mainland. Rare species found include the flax snail, giant weta (the world's heaviest insect), giant centepede, several species of small gecko and also the tuatara. The tuatara is a unique lizard which has survived in New Zealand for over 200 million years.
The complete absence of rats, possums and other introduced predators has meant that this group of islands has retained its wealth of life. The only human inhabitants were a Maori tribe, which lived on the islands until they were wiped out by another tribe from the mainland during the 18th century.
The islands are at their best during November when the huge number of pohutukawa and rate trees are in flower. The dark green of the normal foliage is broken by the vivid crimson of these two species of trees in flower. Another rare plant flowering at this time is the Poor Knights Lily, found only here and on one other island in the Hen and Chickens group to the south. This plant has a vivid red flower which appears at the end of a long spike, similar to an orchid.
Many of the islands have archways and sea caves both above and below the surface. The largest of these is the magnificent Rikoriko Cave on the island of Aorangi. This cave is well known to divers and fishermen alike. Some nights up to six large charter vessels and yachts shelter inside the cave.
The Poor Knights was gazetted as a marine reserve in 1984 and, since fishing is prohibited, fish are abundant. Schools of tevally can be seen on the surface, along with blue maomao. Further down below them pink maomao, snapper, porae and other fish appear in reasonable numbers, certainly in greater numbers than seen elsewhere off the Northland coast.
It's not until you leave the back of the boat and begin to drift down through the clear, warm (2 degrees C warmer than the coast) water that the real beauty of this place is appreciated.
The Northern Arch at the north end of Tawhiti Rahi drops to 40 metres at its deepest. To get to that depth you travel down through layer after layer of fish. From the travally and blue maomao at the surface, through the pink maomao and mado, red snapper, porae and demoiselles. All these are interspersed with kingfish, stingrays, john dory, snapper and sandagers wrasse.
The walls are a brilliant array of colourful sponges, hydroids and gorgonians. Mixed in with these are brilliant anemones, nudibranchs and spiny sea urchins.
Many of these animals are relatively new to New Zealand waters. Some arrive as larvae from the tropics in the warm current, others breed and colonise the area. Many of the nudibranchs are recent arrivals such as the pink Jason nudibranch, and the brilliant yellow and blue Verco's nudibranch.
Many of the dive sites are similar to Northern Arch but vary in depth. The Poor Knights is a dive destination with dive sites suitable for divers ranging from those on their first sea dive, to the very experienced
New and different marine animals are seen every year. A high point of any dive is for someone to literally pop out of the water and bubble excitedly about something new or or different they have seen on the dive.
One of the most spectacular animals to be found is the Palmer sea urchin, named after diver Bill Palmer who discovered it in the 1970's. The animal with its array of needle sharp spines generally lives below the 20 metre mark in the shadows. Seen in natural light it looks like just another black sea urchin. Once the diadema is lit with strobe or torch, the black suddenly becomes a vivid red, with pulsating electric blue lights running through it.
Other tropical creatures now seen here are the Pacific Deer Cowrie and one of the spindle cowries. Bothe of these animals are still very rare and not often seen.
Many species of tropical fish can also be seen from time to time. The most spectacular found was a Lionfish in 1990 off Ngaio Rock on the southern end of the islands. Unfortunately this animal did not survive the cold winter of that year.
A safety stop on the walls or top of a pinnacle at the Poor Knights is an experience in itself. Moray eels can be seen (five species are found in New Zealand). At no stage is there any aggression, the open mouthed stance and the brilliant array of teeth are part of the animals method of processing water over the gills.
Below the kelp other interesting animals such as crayfish, scorpionfish, tiny blennies, plus many species of crab, sea shells and still more nudibranchs can be found. Many a five minute safety stop has become a half hour nature study. Many of the photographer-divers do not venture below this region as most of the subjects they want can be found here, and the light levels are better.
Even the hour and a half boat trip from Tutukaka and back can be interesting. A large number of marine mammals are found in area. Bryde's (pronounced Broodah's) whales are common here all year round. At times pods of up to eight have been seen. These 13 metre animals are a spectacular sight... blowing, tail slapping or, lifting their head or body from the water and falling back with a mighty splash.
Other species of whale can be seen from time to time as the area is on the migration path from the Antarctic to the tropics were they travel to give birth each winter.
Orca can also be seen travelling through the area in pods of between four and eight but, it is their smaller cousins the dolphins that are the most common marine mammals seen.
Both the bottle nose and the small two coloured common dolphin often ride the bow wave of the boats on the way to and from the Knights.
Some charter boats will take groups out for extended trips which may include other islands. Usually there are plenty of places to shelter at the Poor Knights, Rikoriko cave being one popular place. This also gives an opportunity for a night dive in a place where you feel very safe surrounded by the walls of the cave.
Several charter boats are available to the casual diver and dive gear is available for hire. For the non-diver or diver, kayaks are taken on all trips and give you another chance to explore the archways and caves whilst allowing more time for a closer look