Being brought up around boats and the sea, I was always interested with what was happening underneath the water, and longed to check it out for myself by going SCUBA diving. In addition, New Zealand has a ton of amazing dive sites, with arguably the best being around the Poor Knights Islands off the east coast of Northland.
We finally learned to SCUBA dive in Koh Tao, Thailand a few years ago, and went underwater again in Cozumel, Mexico last year. Upon returning to New Zealand a few months ago, one of our main goals by the end of the summer was to dive at the Poor Knights Islands. Fortunately, we were able to head out for a day with Dive! Tutukaka – the biggest dive operator for the Poor Knights. Our friends Pia and Mike joined us for this trip (yay for having friends who want to join us on adventures!).
Diving at the Poor Knights Islands
The Poor Knights Islands are best accessed from the small town of Tutukaka, about 45 minutes north of Whangarei in Northland. Tutukaka is where all the dive companies are located, as well as their boats. We stayed in the Tutukaka Holiday Park the night before our day out diving, which has tent and campervan sites, cabins, and a big shared kitchen. It was comfortable enough, but remember to take insect repellent! It cost us $120 for a 4-person cabin (with a shared bathroom and kitchen).
Early the next morning, we headed to Dive! Tutukaka’s HQ beside the marina. After getting signed in and our kit sorted, we grabbed a coffee next door and headed down Calypso, our boat for the day. It was a busy day, with about 30 divers on our boat, and another couple of Dive! Tutukaka boats heading out too.
During the 45 minute trip out to the islands, we got into groups with one of the crew members who would be our guide for the two dives. Cam was super enthusiastic and made sure we were all comfortable. Finally, we pulled into the first site of the day, and the skipper Jack regaled us with tales from the Islands, their importance to New Zealand and the Maori of the region, and an overview of the dive sites.
The Poor Knights have a different marine ecosystem to that of inshore coastal marine environments, because the warm East Auckland Current (an extension of the East Australian Current – remember from Finding Nemo?) streams past the islands but doesn’t go further in towards the shore. As such, the marine life at the Poor Knights has more of a tropical feel, with corals and tropical fish present. Quite often, tropical species such as sunfish get washed down the current and call the Islands home! The Poor Knights Islands and the surrounding waters are fully protected as a reserve under New Zealand law, and you are not allowed to step foot on the islands or fish around them – if you do, you risk a huge fine or imprisonment!
Finally, we donned our SCUBA gear (including 7 mm wetsuits, much thicker than the thin ones we are used to from diving in the tropics!) and jumped off the boat into the clear blue water. Our first dive was at a site named Brady’s Corner. There were thousands of fish swimming around as we descended.
The dive was great, with a couple of swim-throughs and some caves. The caves were a bit scary to start off with, because aside from Cam’s torch you couldn’t see a thing! We swam through the kelp forests that line the sea bed, spotted scorpion fish, moray eels and nudibranchs, and held kina (sea urchins) upside down once they suctioned onto your hand. It was awesome seeing New Zealand fish species that we’ve pulled up over the sides of boats for many years – snapper, kingfish, and trevally, to name a few.
After the first dive we were given lunch bags with a delicious sandwich, fruit, and a chocolate bar. Yum! While we were having a break, Jack took the boat inside Riko Riko Cave, which is actually the world’s biggest surveyed sea cave. It was absolutely massive inside, and echoed fantastically when all 40-odd people on the boat let out a collective “whoop!”.
Following lunch, we anchored at the second dive site, Trevor’s Rocks. These are a couple of pinnacles that reach the surface, and they’re named after a guy called Trevor who crunched his boat into one of them (seriously!). Heading down again, the terrain was much the same as the first dive with heaps of kelp on the sea bed. The vertical walls of the pinnacles were cool though, with lots of encrusting life (corals, anemones, and so on) calling the walls home. It was colourful and beautiful, and you could suspend yourself there all day just staring at the wall! We saw a couple of huge snapper and a school of small kingfish swam right through the group.
Ascending after the second dive, we were excited by the underwater environment we had been a part of for a few hours. It is truly something else to be swimming and breathing in this place that is so inaccessible without an air tank! On the way back to Tutukaka, Jack took us for a tour around the islands, driving through the Southern Arch (the largest sea arch in the Southern Hemisphere). Back at Tutukaka, we had a beer and thanked the crew for an awesome day out on the water.
A day out with Dive! Tutukaka, including two dives and all SCUBA gear hire costs $269, and you’ll need to be a certified diver. Lunch is an additional $15.
Later that night, we excitedly checked our GoPro footage from the two dives. We were absolutely gutted to see that the vast majority of the footage was ruined. We had purchased a red filter that clips onto the front of the lens to make the colour in the photos and video seem more natural, but obviously the filter was far too red and too dark – it looked like we were swimming through blood! It had gone far beyond what any post-processing could do to bring it back, so we had to bin the lot. It was devastating as we knew that some of the footage was awesome. Unfortunately, the GoPro Hero 3+ that we own doesn’t have a live view screen, so you can’t see what you’re filming until later when you download the footage onto a computer. The new GoPro Hero 4 has a screen, so this whole issue can be avoided! Hopefully someday we can upgrade.
We thanked our lucky stars that Mike had taken his own video footage from the dives, without the nasty filter. So a huge thank you to Mike for letting us use his video footage for our Youtube video below, as well as stills from the video for photos throughout this post.
So, lesson learned. We hadn’t had the chance to try out the filter (we hadn’t been that far underwater with it!), and in hindsight we should have taken the filter off for some of the footage, just in case. We would love to try diving with a filter again sometime, but we’ll definitely be more cautious and do our research with the type of filter that we need to buy.
If you want to see some awesome photos from the Poor Knights, check out this post from Stoked For Saturday. They had a filter on their GoPro and didn’t muck it up like we did!
Thanks to Dive! Tutukaka for supporting our day diving at the Poor Knights Islands. As always, you’ll receive our honest opinion regardless of who foots the bill.
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