What makes the Poor Knights really unique

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A common sight are short-tailed stingrays gliding over the kelp

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

Many dive destinations claim to be world class but to warrant the claim they need something that makes them unique. So do the Poor Knights really fit their billing? Kiwis take a natural and justified pride in this pristine marine park. Are they biased? And in any case how do the islands compare to other fabled dive hot spots elsewhere? We asked Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose – world travellers, highly experienced divers and award winning photographers based in Australia. What do they think? Do the Poor Knights measure up internationally? – This is their report.


Photo: Gilbert Peterson

We have been lucky enough to dive around the world, visiting many of the top dive destinations and we can easily say the Poor Knights Islands ranks up there with the best of them.

Located in a temperate zone, the islands are washed by a warm tropical current that makes the area seem more subtropical with a wonderful blend of endemic subtropical and temperate species. Add to this spectacular underwater terrains, good visibility and a pleasant water temperature and you have the right ingredients for a unique and world class dive destination.

The sharpnosed puffer is a species that you would normally expect to see in subtropical waters

But you simply can’t compare the Poor Knights Islands to a tropical dive destination – they are so different. And it is the differences that makes them such a very special dive destination, one that all New Zealanders should be proud is fully protected for future generations to enjoy.

We recently spent a week diving there with Dive! Tutukaka, reacquainting ourselves with this wonderful dive destination after a 16 year absence. The diving has certainly got better in the interim.

A Spanish lobster found hiding at Jan’s Tunnel

For those that don’t know (which seems mainly our fellow Aussie divers judging by the complete lack of them) the Poor Knights Islands located north of Auckland are a marine reserve 24km offshore. Several dive operators based in Tutukaka take divers out to explore this, New Zealand’s most popular dive destination.

So let’s assess the factors that make the Poor Knights Islands world class.

Location, location, location

The first reason the Islands are so good is their location. The waters around them are nearly always clear with visibility typically around 15m. They are also washed by the warm blue waters of the East Australian Current, made famous in the film Finding Nemo. This brings not only clear warm water, often raising the visibility to 30m, but deposits unique subtropical species on their rocky reefs. Many of these visitors have become permanent residents, but the current brings summer visitors too like manta rays and turtles.

Clown nudibranchs are just one of the invertebrate species

Water temperatures around the islands are also more pleasant than most temperate dive destinations, from 22°C in summer to 16°C in winter. Not tropical but you simply wear a thicker wetsuit, and with so much to see the cooler water is quickly forgotten.

Colourful arches and caves

Since the islands are the remnant of a super volcano formed 10 million years ago, the Poor Knights rise dramatically from the seafloor featuring spectacular walls, pinnacles, arches and caves. These features continue underwater, forming some of the most interesting underwater dive terrain in the world. We have dived other destinations with caves and arches, but the Poor Knights Islands stand out for their sheer number. On our recent trip we dived Northern Arch, Middle Arch, Blue Maomao Arch, Jan’s Tunnel and Sharkfin Cave, and there are many more.

A long-finned boarfish we encountered at Middle Arch

These caves and arches are also much more colourful than those at many tropical destinations, decorated by sponges, anemones, algae, hydroids and bryozoans.

Unique marine life

For us the thing that most makes the Poor Knights Islands so special (and world class) is the unique marine life found there, a great mix of species you just don’t see in the tropics. The islands swarm with fishes, both pelagic and reef varieties. Seeing schools of maomao, snapper, demoiselle, koheru and kingfish at almost every dive site is a great treat, but the resident reef fishes are also wonderful and highly photogenic, a fascinating blend of subtropical species such as the Lord Howe coralfish, and temperate species like the leatherjackets, moki and wrasses.

Wall-to-wall pink maomao in Northern Arch

Added to them are the more unusual species like boarfish, conger eels, John dory, carpet sharks, eagle rays and bronze whaler sharks; you are guaranteed many wonderful fish encounters. And the islands are a great location to see unusual invertebrates such as nudibranchs too.

Rays and morays

Another factor elevating the Poor Knights Islands into a class of its own are the rays and morays. Stingrays are a feature; short-tailed stingrays are at most dive sites on the islands, and the only place where they’re seen en masse. Large numbers of them gather in the current washed arches over the summer months.

A new species recorded for the Poor Knights Islands is this y-patterned moray we found at Brady’s Corner

Even more unique are the moray eels, considering that moray eels are mainly found in tropical waters. Their number and variety is amazing. Six subtropical species are commonly found but during our visit we were lucky enough to encounter a seventh, the rare y-patterned moray.

You simply don’t see so many morays hiding in holes, or swimming across the bottom, or draped around the kelp, anywhere else.

Schools of blue maomao in Northern Arch

Here we have covered five factors: Water visibility; arches, caves and tunnels; colourful sponges, hydroids, anemones…; teeming variety of pelagic and reef fish species, and nudibranchs; rays and morays. Nowhere else in the world can you experience all this, all in the one location.

Visit https://www.diving.co.nz https://www.nigelmarshphotography.com

A wall of lovely jewel anemones

Photo: Gilbert Peterson

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