POOR KNIGHTS ISLANDS
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.
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