Diving the Poor Knights Islands  

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By Kaelyn Lynch

The first thing I wondered about the Poor Knights Islands, as I stared at their amorphous shape 23 kilometers off the Tutukaka coast, is how they got their name.  As it turns out, there’s no clear answer.

All the theories trace back to Captain Cook, who is credited as the first European to circumnavigate and map New Zealand back in the 1700s. Unfortunately, he kept no record of his reasoning for naming the islands for curious travelers like myself. One guess is that the islands resembled a popular English breakfast dish, Poor Knights Pudding, essentially what we know as French toast. Another theory surmises that the craggy rocks looked to Cook like resting knights, and were subsequently named for the Poor Knights of Windsor, a military order that saw knights who had fallen into povertyreceive housing and an annuity for life. Either way, the name doesn’t do them justice—the islands and the waters that surround them are anything but “poor.”  

As far as days go, we couldn’t have picked a better one. Clear skies and calm waters greeted us as we motored out on Bright Arrow, one of the smaller of Dive Tutukaka’s fleet of diving and snorkeling vessels. My guide and former work colleague, Kelsi, rushed over excitedly to brief us on our plan for the first site. Rarely caught without a smile, hers was especially big that day: with the near-perfect conditions, Steve, the skipper, had decided we could give the Poor Squires a try. Just south ofthe main island chain, the Poor Squires are rarely dived due to their exposure to New Zealand’s variable weather, but offer some of the best sites in the region. From my time spent as adivemaster, I knew that when the guides are excited, you should be, too.

With fingers crossed our good fortune would hold, we arrived at the steep pinnacles. The black volcanic rock was dotted with specks of white from the massive colony of gannets that called the islands home. Amidst them, grey, down-clad chicks stretched their wings, preparing for their first flights. Bobbing there, I could almost hear David Attenborough’s voice narrating the scene, “Here, at the Poor Squires…”

Instead, we heard Steve’s voice telling us to gear up.

Before long, we had dropped in on Tie Dye Arch, known for its array of colors said to resemble a hippy’s t-shirt, as well as large aggregations of sting rays that can fill the arch to the brim. Arches at the Poor Knights are some of the best places to explore due to their concentration of life that thrives on the nutrient-rich soup that swirls through them.  

We made our way along a wall with massive stalks of kelp jutting from jagged rock, a kaleidoscope of sponges and anemones filling the spaces in between. Blending in with their bright colors were scores of nudibranchs, who were apparently in the midst of their mating season. In addition to two we interrupted in the throes of egg making, their rose petal eggs were scattered everywhere, which Kelsi cheerily signaled by forming a heart with her hands. A moray eel and scorpionfish joined us as well, their camouflage no match for Kelsi’s keen eyes.

We then entered the arch, dyed various shades of orange, purple, and yellow by the life covering every inch of it. While a passing group of orca had cleared out the sting rays (the only place in the world orcas are known to hunt them), we were instead delighted by a massive shoal of blue maomao, so dense they seemed to create a third wall in the arch. Breaking and reforming in unison as they fled from our bubbles, we swam through the holes they formed for us, only to look back and see they had instantly filled the gap again.

This density of life is possible because of the Poor Knights Marine Reserve. First incorporated in 1981, it took a further 17 years for all the waters surrounding the islands to be completely protected, when recreational fishing was banned in 1998. Now, the sanctuary extends to 800 meters around the islands. Even the fishermen have found the sanctuary useful, as the spillover effect from inside the reserve brings them larger and more plentiful catches.


Onour surface interval we motored over to the Poor Knights proper, passing beneath what is thought to be the largest sea arch in the Southern Hemisphere. As we approached our next site, we learned from Captain Steve that on the Poor Knights, the life above the surface is just as fascinating as that below.

The islands are the remnants of an ancient volcano that erupted between 2 and 10 million years ago. Since then, they’ve become the home to some of New Zealand’s most endangered native flora and fauna, tens of thousands of years of isolation from the mainland preserving them in a land that time forgot. The islands house the country’s largest pohutukawa forests, also known as New Zealand Christmas trees, for the bright red flowers that explode over the island in November and December. (This adds legitimacy to the pudding naming theory, supposedly reminding Cook of the jam covering his breakfast).

They are also the only nesting location of the endemic Buller’s shearwater, which travel all the way from North America to breed. They share their burrows with New Zealand’s very own living dinosaur, the tuatara. The tuatara guards the eggs during the day whilst the shearwater is at sea feeding, the symbiotic pair reversing roles at night. Terrifyingly large insects called weta also call the islands home. Steve passed around a photo of one unfortunate diver who had surfacedto find one had fallen from the cliffs above straight onto her head—which the insect covered a good portion of.

For a time, the wildlife shared the islands with a group of 3 to 400 Maori, who carved terraced gardens out of the rocky walls. Human habitation ended after a bloody massacre by a neighboring tribe, and the islands were named strictly tapu (sacred). Now, no one is allowed to set foot on them, save Department of Conservation rangers and researchers.

Entranced as I was with the world above the surface,I was eager to get back in the water. Originally, the plan was to dive on blue maomao arch, the dive site that caused Jacques Cousteau to name the Poor Knights one of his top 10 dive sites in the world. But assuming we’dhad our fill from the morning’s blue maomao-filled dive, the team opted for Scary Cave. The site was named for the eerie dead tree marking the entrance to one of the Poor Knights’ labyrinths of still mostly unexplored marine caves.

We glided along a steep vertical wall until we reached the wide mouth of the cave, bottoming out at around 14 meters. Air bubbles trapped in crevices on the ceiling acted as mirrors. Peering into the darkness, I could just make out the outline of a tree, a deeper black shadow silhouetted in the ever-darkening cave, marking the point where we should venture no further.

Exiting the cavern the topography continued to impress. We wove our way through massive boulders strewn on the sea floor, presumably fallen from the land above to their watery grave. But here, they provided a canvas for new life: anemones and sponges were splashed in vivid yellows, oranges, and purples across the stones like a Jackson Pollock painting. The wall was pockmarked with crevices for nudibranchs, sea urchins, shrimp, and some of the largest scorpionfish I’ve ever seen, to hide.  As we hovered at five meters for our safety stop, a dense school of snapper rushed by.

After about an hour in this underwater playground, I was feeling the 16 C water—the East Auckland Current, which brings the warmer water that allows for the Poor Knights’ tropical life, was running unusually late this year. I was thankful for the tea and hot showers waiting for us on the boat.

The end of the dive didn’t yet bring an end to our day, as no trip to the Poor Knights would be complete without a visit to Rikoriko cave. Formed by a giant gas bubble when the former volcano erupted, Rikoriko is the world’s largest sea cave.  Measuring over 221,000 cubic meters, it has impressive acoustics, even hosting several concerts. To demonstrate, Steve had us stamp our feet and shout “rikoriko!” in unison, our cries reverberating through the dome for over a minute afterward. The cave was named for the Maori word meaning “dancing light,” for the patterns the sunlight makes when reflected off the surface of the water upon the cave ceiling.

In the end, it was in fact this topography, above and below the water, that left the biggest impression. The sheer cliffs coated in green foliage, rising hundreds of meters out of an ink-blue sea, were almost as impressive as the web of undersea caves, archways, tunnels, and cliffs coated by living color below.  Designed by nature’s great architects, the Poor Knights offer endless opportunities for discovery.