Amazing diving in the Poor Knights Islands

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Back when I was planning our time in New Zealand, three days in Northland had seemed like a decent amount. Hang out on the beach in Paihia, head up to Cape Reinga, chill out a bit. Perfect.

That was before I remembered just how much else there was to do in this part of the country.  I spent several hours not swimming with dolphins in the harbour, which was wonderful … but the whole time, I couldn’t help but look forward even more to what I had planned for the following day.

Diving the Poor Knights Islands.

Famous French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once included this small group of islands off New Zealand’s east coast in his top ten dive sites.  The underwater cliffs and caves of the marine reserve play host to innumerable fish, corals, sharks and rays that, due to a quirk of ocean currents, aren’t found anywhere else in the country.  For someone with an aversion to cold water, the fact that the East Australia Current raises water temperatures by a few degrees wasn’t a bad thing either.  Still, having not dived outside tropical waters in a decade, I wasn’t exactly expecting to be warm…

Even the early morning drive down to Tutukaka was a scenic experience, through rolling hills, down gravel roads (thanks, Google Maps) and beside stunning beaches with barely another person in sight.  I’d never even heard of this stretch of coastline before going there, but was already adding it to the ever-growing list of “places I must come back to”.

Poor Knights Islands and yacht

I was spending the day with Kate and the team at Dive! Tutukaka, and after an easy few minutes of sorting out gear (and discovering that 11mm wetsuits do actually exist), I was on the boat and heading out to sea.  There were around 15 others on the boat, with experience ranging from none at all through to old timers who had been diving since before I was born.

The grey skies lifted as we approached the islands, leaving only a few white clouds dotted above the limestone.  Briefing completed, we quickly suited up and stepped off into the blue … where I had my first surprise of the day.  Warmth.  Other than my face and fingers, I was as warm as any dive I’ve ever done.  It’s amazing what over a centimetre of neoprene will do, apparently…

The water was calm and clear as we descended, an easy 15m+ visibility making the experience so much better.  Small fish flitted around us, unworried by our presence until we were almost touching.  I often feel a little nervous underwater after having not dived for a while, but not this time – slow breaths and gentle movements soon took over.

Stingrays zipped along the sandy sea bed, paying us little heed.  A large crayfish emerged from a hole in the rock, took one look at us and thought better of the idea.  Coral and kelp were everywhere, along with the colourful fish that live in them.  The sheer numbers and variety of sea life truly surprised me – there was more down there than in most of the tropical dive spots I’ve been to.

Crayfish - Poor Knights

Still, I had been kinda hoping to see something big.  Perhaps a shark might swim past, or a dolphin or two could pop in … maybe a turtle might even come and say hi.  When we emerged from the depths around 50 minutes later, there was a lot of noise and activity on the dive boat.  Clambering up the ladder and shrugging off my tank, the skipper turned to me and excitedly asked “did you see it?”

“See what?” I wondered.

“The manta ray that was cruising around the boat for ten minutes!”

Oh.  That.  Just one of the things I’ve wanted to see ever since I first donned a regulator, but never managed.  While I was playing with stingrays fifteen metres below, their far bigger cousin was taunting me up on the surface.  Some days you just can’t win…

After a tasty lunch, and debating the merits of various Maggi instant soup flavours (I’m sticking with the mushroom, although chicken noodle runs a close second), it was time for round two.  This time we were headed into Blue Maomao Arch where, as the name implies, schools of hundreds of the medium sized blue fish often gather.

And, indeed, they had.

Blue maomao - Poor Knights

This was easily one of the most enjoyable dives I’ve ever done.  The confines of the small cavern made me feel like I was diving in an aquarium, with thousands of maomao and other fish swarming all around me.  The vast schools would open up as I approached, re-forming after I passed through them in scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a nature documentary.

With only a short distance to cover from one end of the dive site to the other, we had much more time than usual to just stay still and let the sea life come to us.  Curious fish nibbled on my fingers, or scattered as our air bubbles briefly disturbed them.  Sunlight scattered through the water above us, reminiscent of stained glass windows in this underwater cathedral.  I kept checking my air gauge, silently willing it not to drop so that I could spend hours down in this wonderful place.

Eventually, though, we sadly had to head for the surface.  Not that the fun stopped once out of the water, mind you – we got to explore several sea caves, spot the bizarrely floppy dorsal fin of a giant sunfish and watch dolphins surfing our bow wave as the boat headed back to shore.


I’d had an incredible day, and couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I got back in the car and headed back north to Paihia.  As the copy of the Holstee Manifesto on the wall at Dive! Tutukaka says, “Life is short. Live your dream and share your passion.”

That day, I’d done both.


Underwater images via Dive! Tutukaka.

My Poor Knights Islands dives with Dive! Tutukaka were done as part of Tourism New Zealand‘s Explore media programme.  Thanks to both organisations for making it happen!

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