After Whangarei the Poor Knights Islands are waiting for us: New Zealand’s best diving spot.
Our choice to stopover in Whangarei might seem a bit odd for those who aren’t familiar with New Zealand. This small city, with only 60.000 inhabitants, isn’t as famous as Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown or Christchurch. Yet: the little city – or should I say the surrounding area – is definitely worth a visit. Simply because Whangarei is the gateway to the Poor Knight Islands; a rock formation which makes the hearts of lots of divers beat faster after Jacques Cousteau declared it one of the 10 best diving spots in the world.
Poor Knights Pudding
The islands – 23 kilometers from shore – got their name from captain James Cook, who sailed by on the 25th of November 1769. Two anecdotes go around why this great adventurer named the rocks the Poor Knights. The ‘though’ version is that Cook saw in the two biggest islands a knight laying down. In the sarcastic version – probably inspired by hunger – the islands reminded Cook of a big, toasted sandwich with jam. In those days this dish was a popular English and European breakfast with the name Poor Knight’s Pudding.
The red jam Cook was seeing on top of the islands was formed by the red flowers of the Pohutakawa tree, who blossoms in November and December. A lot of attention didn’t Cook give to the Islands in contrast to the Maori who lived on the rocks up until the beginning of the 19th century. A big battle between rivaling tribes killed almost all the Maoris on the islands. Those who survived buried the dead, declared the rocks a sacred place, left and never returned again.
Since 1967 nobody is allowed to set foot on land. The Poor Knights islands are a national park and the surrounding sea is a national marine reserve. Birds, rare insects and reptiles, as well as rare flowers and plants are living on the island now. Safe from human influences.
The real appeal is not the bird life on, but the sea life in front of the islands. Being a marine reserve for such a long time and having a warm current passing by from the Coral Sea you can find more kinds of fish than on any other dive spot in New Zealand. But that’s not all. Visibility is around 30 to 40 meters. Ingredients enough for Jacques Cousteau to declare it one of the 10 best diving spots in the world.
I prefer not to believe what people say when it comes down to travelling until I’ve seen it with my own eyes. A little flu is disturbing my plans. With it I can’t go under water. Jeroen Jongejans (another Dutchie in New Zealand) – owner of Dive! Tutukaka, the biggest dive company of New Zealand – comes up with a simple solution: I might not be able to dive, I still can snorkel.
Early next morning Mickey and I enjoy a big breakfast in front of Dive! Tutukaka. Inside it’s a big, organized chaos. Divers filling in their forms, crew packing all equipment and bringing it to the boats. Since our boat leaves last, we decide to take one more bite.
That’s something we maybe shouldn’t have. As soon as Perfect Day is on open sea we hit three meter high waves. A little left over from the cyclone that hit New Caledonia in the last few days. The waves make our breakfast rise and fall inside our stomach, but miracle by miracle it stays in.
When we reach the Poor Knights the boat hides behind the islands and finds calm waters. Loaded with expectations we jump overboard and find out quickly that Cousteau didn’t exaggerate. The rocky bottom is overgrown with a thick layer of seaweed, forming a feeding ground for hundreds of fishes in all colors and sizes. Close to the shore we take a deep breath of air and dive under, where we are surrounded by blue maomao. Happy to see so many beauty we return to the boat, exchange our snorkeling gear for a sea kayak and peddle towards Rikoriko, a big sea cave lightened by the reflection of the sun on the water. We stay in for a little while, swim a bit and return to the boat to get some lunch.
With our bellies full, the captain guides the boat one more time around the Poor Knights; who have been separated from the main land for more than 2 million years. When the boat starts to make its way back we walk on deck, find a nice deck chair and with the sun warming us we slowly rock back to harbor.
I wrote this story in 2008; now I'm finally taking the time to translate it into English.