As soon as I had dropped a few metres on my way down, I hit ‘record’ to begin filming the descent down the vertical western wall of the Sugarloaf, enjoying the clear turquoise water and flickering light rays.
At 25 metres I passed through a huge cloud of swirling Pink Maomao, their vivid colour contrasting with the many large, yellow finger sponges quivering in the current. A Short Tail Ray glided past along the wall like a passing plane, and on the wall itself I saw scorpionfish and morays leering out from their cracks and ledges.
At 35 metres I eased away from the wall into the blue, just as a vast school of Trevally came bustling in, thousands of fish taking up my whole view, extending from below as far upward as I could see, a solid wall of silver.
As I watched, with the camera rolling, a mob of Kingfish came bombing through the trevally sending them on their way, hundreds of speeding torpedo shaped bodies swirling in a whirlwind of activity.
If I hadn’t captured it all in one continuous sequence no one would believe this explosion of life was over in the space of a few minutes on a single descent – just another dive recording the amazing diversity and prolific life that is the Poor Knights Islands!
The Poor Knights are New Zealand’s most iconic dive location for good reason; they instil a real appreciation of the value of marine reserves in protecting our marine environment, and offer divers an intoxicating glimpse of what the marine environment can be like when left undisturbed.
I have dived all over the world on filming assignments and in many places considered among the ‘best on the planet’, but the Poor Knights remains one of my all-time favourite places, offering some of the best diving and most prolific marine life to be found anywhere on the planet. And after 2000 dives there I still get a sense of anticipation every time I jump in the water.
Highest marine diversity, accessible
Rising out of deep water 23km off the Northland coast the Poor Knights are as spectacular above the water as beneath, with towering volcanic cliffs, spectacular archways and sea caves. But for divers, they are an absolutely unique three-dimensional underwater world teeming with colourful and interesting life!
What makes them special? For one thing they are far enough offshore to lie in deep, clean, oceanic water yet close enough to the coast to be readily accessible.
Most significantly they have been a designated no-take marine reserve since 1998; the result is they are home to abundant and diverse arrays of fish and invertebrates. In fact the Poor Knights have the highest diversity of marine species of anywhere in New Zealand, and as a marine reserve they have literally proved their value 10 times over. The increase in snapper biomass alone since 1998 has been over 800%!
Distinct dive seasons
Being in temperate latitudes the Poor Knights have distinct ‘seasons’; the dive experience varies around the year, from green-tinted, nutrient-rich waters of spring, bringing surreal clouds of salps and jellyfish along with vast, concentrated fish schools feeding on tiny shrimp, to the warm blue-water currents of summer with 30 metre plus visibility, tropical visitors and fascinating pelagic wanderers: including Manta rays, Sunfish and even turtles.
Winter’s cooler waters are also special for the amazing visibility they can bring, along with seasonal visitors such as New Zealand fur seals, which often slip into the water to play with divers when not lazing on the rocks.
When sea conditions cause visibility to drop below 10metres the Poor Knights still present amazing diving, with the opportunity to focus in on the small and intricately detailed micro life on the walls, boulders and pinnacles ranging from colourful nudibranchs and cheeky triplefins to an incredible array of sessile and invertebrate life.
New species to northern waters are regularly documented here, from subtropical fish visitors to new species of nudibranchs. It’s a dynamic place!
Their volcanic origin means the Poor Knights are riddled with numerous caves and archways, where light and shadow create dramatic backdrops to huge fish schools, where shining a torch on a rock wall reveals brightly coloured sponges, jewel anemones and bryozoans. Outside the shadowy archways seaweed forests sway to the pulse of the ocean, giving movement and life to seascapes that make coral reefs seem static by comparison.
Top Five Poor Knights dive sites
The Poor Knights offer dive sites to suit all abilities, from shallow, sunny bays teeming with life for new divers, to challenging caves and deep reefs well beyond recreational limits the domain of experienced and technical divers.
There are around 80 recognised dive sites so choosing the ‘Top Five’ is extremely hard. But here are my top five I’m sure won’t disappoint:
- Northern Arch: THE classic Poor Knights dive, a spectacular 40metres deep, with a narrow archway home to large schools of Blue and Pink Maomao, Snapper, Kingfish and often stingrays.
- The Sugarloaf: A huge rock pinnacle rising out from 90 metres where you can regularly see huge schools of trevally and kingfish, as well as numerous stingrays and often Bronze Whaler Sharks.
- Tie Dye Arch: A spectacular twin archway at the Pinnacles usually packed with schools of fish and cruising stingrays and kingfish, and renowned for its colourful walls.
- Hope Point: On the eastern side of the islands this site has stunning air bubble caves, great fish life, and a deep wall/ pinnacle off the point.
- Middle Arch: One of the ‘Knights most consistent dive sites, home to stingrays, moray eels, all sorts of wrasse, large mixed fish schools, many species of nudibranch, colourful walls, and an impressive sea-cave right beside the arch with an air bubble to surface inside!