Poor Knights – Dive New Zealand

Copyright Simon Brown

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland


Diving in the Poor Knights Marine Reserve came with high expectations and great provenance but until I had seen it with my own eyes I wondered just how good a small, rocky outcrop of islands in temperate waters could be. After that first dive I could finally answer that question myself; the 24 hour flight crammed in economy was worth every bone-aching second.

Despite the spring sunshine I felt chilled to the bone. The coffee cup I held was suffering its own mini earthquake as my hands shivered and shook, slopping the contents over the deck while I clung to its heat desperate to warm up after the last dive. Just to add insult to injury the returning gannets were dropping stinky fish bird crap on the boat and spatter from a near miss was streaked up my back. Despite all this I was grinning like a chimp. Diving in the Poor Knights Marine Reserve came with high expectations and great provenance but until I had seen it with my own eyes I wondered just how good a small, rocky outcrop of islands in temperate waters could be. After that first dive I could finally answer that question myself; the 24 hour flight crammed in economy was worth every bone-aching second. The only regret was that I didn’t pack my drysuit!

From our holiday home we could see the Poor Knights. At least we could when the rain stopped hammering down. But as if by magic, for the two diving days the weather eased and the white horse tipped waves were replaced by absolute flat calm conditions. Mirror-like, the sea granted a dive anywhere around the rocky coast so skipper Noel recommended Tie Dye Arch. Situated on a pinnacle some eight kilometres south of the main islands the arch is only dived in flat calm. I can only guess the runoff from the gannet colony above kick starts the food chain and as I cast my torch over the wall the colours leapt off the rock, revealing where the arch took its name from. Like some mad acid-hippy tee-shirt the wall was covered with anemones, sponges, hard corals, fish and a million and one creatures I could only guess at. Keeping the wall on our left we finned into the arch. As the light levels dropped, life on the wall was replaced by schools of blue maomao and bigeye, swirling through the arched entrances leading to the open ocean. The chill started to bite through the wetsuit but an extended safety stop alongside the wall was not to be missed, watching two nudibranchs mating was too good to miss. And all this in my first dive in New Zealand waters.

Caves and arches are abundant features in the Poor Knights, hinting at the islands’ volcanic past. The entrance to Barron Caves formed the perfect frame for the classic image of ‘diver silhouette with torch at entrance’ but my buddy was not used to modelling for the camera. After just two frames he started to swim off. There is no sign for ‘come back! I haven’t finished with you! This subject deserves 10 frames not two’, so I gave up and found a small grey moray on the wall. Equally impatient, the moray refused to pose and disappeared into a crack. Moving outside the entrance I finally found a large starfish hiding under the kelp. Unable to swim away, photographing the starfish was easier than trying to cajole reluctant models – human or otherwise – into the frame.

To round off an almost perfect day diving in the Poor Knights a pod of common dolphin joined us on the bows of the boat as we crossed the channel back to Tutukaka harbour. With the sun setting on the islands I reflected on what fantastic dives the waters offered and crossed my fingers for the good weather to hold.

With hundreds of dive sites to choose from we let our skipper pick another winner. Flat calm conditions held and Cave Bay on the eastern side of the islands was a stunner. There is a small cave, but that’s not the real attraction. The highlight is a wall running perpendicular to the cliffs, starting in 15 metres and dropping straight to the seabed some 50 metres deep. I felt like we were inside a washing machine on the cotton cycle as the surge tugged us back and forth as we headed to the wall, the kelp swaying was like trees in a breeze. Going deeper the swell dropped and as I pushed through the kelp I began to wonder if I had gone the wrong way. The surge pushed us through a notch in the wall, the rock and kelp ended and we hung in blue water, the wall stretching to our left and the seabed far below. At 17 metres the kelp ended. Plastered with every colour under the sun, from warm reds and yellows to cool grey sponges, the rock wall was covered in life – not a square inch of space spare.

Another hour in the water left me shivering on the dive deck, wanting more but only after I had warmed the bones. Noel motored the boat to Northern Arch, anchoring a mere six metres from the wall. The depth sounder read ‘70m’. Seeing sand on this dive was not in the plan … dropping to 15 metres we slowly finned along until we entered the arch. A slight current was flowing though the narrow fissure as I moved slowly thorough the arch until I reached daylight on the other side and then turned, letting the current wash me throught the mao mao and bigeye. At a depth of 25 metres the inky black hid the seabed but sunlight penetrated the waters from above. Pure magic.

The Poor Knights Marine Reserve is a truly stunning place to dive and anyone who has but one dive logged here should consider themselves in a privileged club. The islands hold their own magnetic appeal and I feel compelled to visit again before my time on this planet is up. Next time I will pack the drysuit!

Recommended reading: Poor Knights Wonderland – Field Guide by Glenn Edney RRP NZ$19.95+p&p. Overview of the islands, geography, geology and history, native flora and fauna. Details habits, seasonal changes, diving conditions. Covers all commonly seen fish, invertebrates, seaweeds including the more rare. Soft cover, 200+colour pics, 64 pages. Order your copy at

http://66.70.225.22/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=CTGY&Store_Code=001&Category_Code=Back+Issues

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