If you’re interested in diving and intend to dive in New Zealand, pretty much anyone you talk to will bring up scuba diving Poor Knights Islands. The islands are off the coast of Tutukaka, New Zealand in the northlands of the north island. They’re renown as a spectacular dive site and Jacques Cousteau has been quoted as saying they’re one of his top 10 favorite dive sites in the world.
Scuba Diving Poor Knights Islands
We met at the Tutukaka Harbor for our trip with Yukon Dive at 8:15am in front of the Whangarei Deep Sea Anglers Club near the boat we’d be taking to the islands. We were given all of our gear to try on first, and it was all top notch. The wet suits were very thick, thicker than I’ve worn as I’ve always dived in tropical waters, and we were given two to wear, plus hoods and gloves, as we went in winter and it wasn’t warm out. The dives weren’t cheap at $260NZD ($177USD at the time) but the gear was as good as any we’ve used and the price was for two dives and snacks.
Once we we had all of our gear sorted it was time to start our trip out to the islands. It was an hour trip in our boat from the harbor to the islands, and as we approached we got to see stunning rock formations and arches caused by centuries of erosion. The islands have an otherworldly look to them as in some places they jut straight up out of the water, and in others they have a wavy appearance to them, as if formed by years of waves rolling over them and then were thrust up out of the ocean to their present place.
We passed an opening in the rock shortly before anchoring, and could see that it opened into a large cave, but we didn’t have a chance to ask about it as we were told to start getting ready for our first dive. Our skipper described the dive and pointed out our entry would be in a cove full of small to medium size fish. From there we would swim along a rock ledge until we found an underwater rock arch to swim through. As we exited the rock arch we would come out in an area full of rock pinnacles and narrow schisms that a person couldn’t easily fit into, but fish cold easily swim through.
He told us that rays were common and larger fish may be hiding near the pinnacles, and after that we’d swim back to the starting point in the cove and explore the kelp bed, looking for fish under the cover of the gigantic sea weed. Seeing dolphins and seals in the area is common enough, and whales can be seen if you’re lucky, however the rock outcroppings and high density of fish was what we should expect. As we jumped off the boat and into the water, we entered the coldest water I’ve ever dived in by far. I fought back a small yelp as the freezing water entered my double layer of wet suits and let the air out of my BCD to descend.
The underwater world that we were met with as we descended was full of loads of fish and large kelp. We swam through the icy water and my body slowly adjusted to the temperature. I was excited to swim through the rock arch as I have a strong affinity for caves and this was a few meter long cave leading through to a land full of underwater crevasses and caverns. The area is known as The Labyrinth and for good reason, since given enough time (and air) you could spend days exploring the place.
We reluctantly swam on from The Labyrinth and as we followed the rock wall to our right toward where we came from, an enormous stingray swam off in front of us. The wingspan of the ray must have been two meters or so, and while we’ve swam with giant mantas before, this was really impressive as we hadn’t seen a stingray that size anywhere. Continuing on we saw tons of bright rainbow colored fish, some getting to be quite big, and tons of crazy looking rocks.
As we neared the cove where we began our dive I noticed what appeared to be the same big stingray hiding not too far below us. Sissy swam up to it to get a closer look and it swam off, passing within a meter or so of her as it went by. The ray was among the highlights of the dive, and we saw large schools of small fish in the cove before surfacing. The dive was relatively shallow at a max depth of 18 meters, but since we were with friends on their open water certs, that is likely part of the reason we chose that route. The rock arch, pinnacles, large rainbow fish, and the huge ray were all amazing and worth the very cold experience.
We warmed up on the boat, basking in the piercing New Zealand sun, and the skipper decided to take our boat for an unexpected detour. Before we knew it we were entering the cave we had seen earlier, Rikoriko Cave was the name he told us. Once we were inside we saw the cave was a massive chamber, and the skipper told us it is the largest sea cave by volume in the world.
The acoustics in the cave are something else, as the skipper demonstrated by smacking metal on metal, creating a thunderous crash and echo throughout the cave. Below the waves is a steep drop-off where free divers often practice their trade, diving for multiple minutes at a time with no breathing apparatus. Back outside of the cave we wound our way around to our next dive site, near more rock arches and a smaller nearby cave.
Our second dive was even colder than the first, and unfortunately while we saw tons of smaller fish and bright colorful fish, we weren’t met by any rays or larger sea life while underwater. We did get to see some very colorful nudibranchs, which looked like alien snails with neon highlights, among other very cool smaller sea life. A large squid passed by us, but unfortunately all of us minus our dive master looked right through it, despite her attempts to point it out multiple times. After surfacing from the dive we saw two seals laying nearby, just outside of the water on a rock.
After our second dive it was time to take a few pictures for the watch brand Daniel Wellington, the Swedish watchmaker that we recently did a collaboration with. Make sure to use our savings code, TRAVEL2LIVE if you want to make a purchase on their site to get 15% off until July 15th 2016.
We quickly changed back into dry clothes and warmed up while we enjoyed our hour long boat ride back to Tutukaka. After our dives we drove an hour north for a visit to Paihia and the Bay of Islands.
Paihia is a nice beach town just on the edge of the Bay of Islands in the northlands. There are loads of motels, hostels, and B&Bs, along with restaurants and bars all over the place. If you visit it’s worth noting that most hostels have free kayak and bike hire available, and we spent less for a dorm bed in our hostel than renting a kayak for two hours would have cost. If you get a kayak make sure to paddle over to Haruru Falls, which is a ways inland from the bay, where you can paddle right up to the falls.
Only a few kilometers away are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the treaty that founded New Zealand as a British colony was signed. If you want to get up early enough to catch the sunrise, Paihia is on the east coast of the country, which means you can get lucky with spectacular colors as the sun peaks over the bay, as we did from the main road in town.
Within an hour drive from Paihia, back in Whangarei, we visited a beautiful semi hidden waterfall, Paranui Falls. It was a bit of a scramble to get down to the falls from the car park, which left a few bumps and bruises on us, but once we got there it was definitely worth the scramble.
The falls are near Abbey Caves, which our friends Daniel and Jayde hadn’t seen before, so we dropped by to admire the glow worms and scramble through the large caves again. Whangarei Falls were another stop off that is definitely worthwhile and very close to Paranui Falls and Abbey Caves, and we scrambled behind the falls for my second time to admire the sheet of water from a different perspective.
We hope your time in the northlands is as amazing as ours was and we intend to explore quite a bit more as time goes on. If you have any suggestions on favorite things to see in the area feel free to comment or send us an email so we can check them out!