POOR KNIGHTS IS­LANDS

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Marine Sanctuaries Around The World - By Scott Ben­nett

Since the re­lease of The Lord of the Rings,

New Zealand has been syn­ony­mous with Mid­dle Earth; a South Pa­cific won­der­land of forests, moun­tains, vol­ca­noes and gey­sers. Al­though revered for its top­side beauty, the coun­try re­mains ob­scure as a div­ing des­ti­na­tion. Yet, the

North Is­land is home to a place Jacques Cousteau rated one of the world’s top 10 div­ing lo­ca­tions: The Poor Knights Is­lands.

Bal­anced on the edge of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf, the ar­chi­pel­ago con­sists of two pri­mary is­lands, Ao­rangi and Tawhiti Rahi, along with many smaller islets. Cliffs plunge up to 100 me­tres below sea level, cre­at­ing an aquatic won­der­land of caverns, sea caves and arches. Sixty dive sites play host to over 125 fish species. Cool wa­ter merges with the warm East Auck­land cur­rent, cre­at­ing a unique en­vi­ron­ment where sub­trop­i­cal en­demics blend with trop­i­cal vis­i­tors.

WHEN

1981

WHERE

New Zealand

WHAT

Ma­rine Re­serve

MUST-SEE

NORTH­ERN ARCH – Fa­mous for the large num­bers of stingrays that con­gre­gate dur­ing the sum­mer, the con­di­tions at the North­ern Arch are su­perb, with a wa­ter tem­per­a­ture of 21 de­grees Cel­sius, no cur­rent, and a vis­i­bil­ity of around 25 me­tres. Brown al­gae shrouds the walls, along with sea plumes and strap kelp, as mas­sive yel­low­tail king­fish hover out­side the arch. De­moi­selles and blue mao­mao cas­cade the walls along with schools of po­rae, cre­at­ing a sym­phony of blue. While the cave floor is bar­ren, the walls are ablaze with sponges, bry­ozoans, hy­droids and minis­cule com­mon anemones. Soft, hard and gor­gonian corals are also present. Short and long­tail stingrays glide near the bot­tom, along with the dis­tinct eagle rays.

MID­DLE ARCH – Also on Tawhiti Rahi, the Mid­dle Arch is shal­lower than North­ern Arch, de­scend­ing from 10 to 20 me­tres, but equally en­thralling. Grey pil­low sponges punc­tu­ate the reef, along with tiny gor­goni­ans, fin­ger sponges, crater and orange golf­ball sponges. North­ern scor­pi­onfish quickly be­come a photo favourite, of­ten seen car­ry­ing tiny hitch­hik­ers – blue-dot triplefins that like to perch on their heads. Red pig­fish prove es­pe­cially in­quis­i­tive, while yel­low morays peer from crevices. The pres­ence of sandager’s wrasse, black an­gelfish, de­moi­selles and blue mao­mao will send your cam­era into over­drive, and for­tu­nate divers might en­counter glimpses of the Lord Howe coral­fish, a sub-trop­i­cal species found nowhere else in New Zealand. Other rar­i­ties in­clude spot­ted black grouper and mo­saic morays. Bronze whaler sharks are known to ar­rive in win­ter.

The is­lands also fea­ture ge­o­log­i­cal won­ders above wa­ter. On Ao­rangi Is­land, Riko­riko Cave is the world’s largest sea cave, with an in­te­rior mea­sur­ing 130 me­tres long, 80 me­tres wide, and 35 me­tres high from wa­ter­line to ceil­ing. Pods of orca are known to en­ter and dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, a Japanese sub­ma­rine was con­cealed in­side for two weeks un­der­go­ing re­pairs.

OCULINA POINT – With a mild cur­rent run­ning, divers will en­joy drift­ing along the wall while ob­serv­ing speckled morays, fire­brick starfish, banded wrasse and leather­jack­ets. The leop­ard anemones are es­pe­cially fas­ci­nat­ing: With their del­i­cate white bod­ies punc­tu­ated with brown spots, they can dis­en­gage to be swept along by the cur­rent to colonise new ar­eas. Fur­ther on, an im­mense wall of ma­genta jewel anemones makes an as­ton­ish­ing sight.

ABOVE The blue-eyed triplefin is one of New Zealand’s most en­dear­ing en­demics

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