Diving the Poor Knights Islands

Chart of the Poor Knights Islands showing the extent of the marine reserve
Clown nudibranchs at the Poor Knights Islands

This article is intended to provide the already qualified Scuba diver with information which will help to plan dives in the waters of the Poor Knights Islands, whether as a local resident or a visitor. Information is provided without prejudice, and is not guaranteed accurate or complete. Use it at your own risk.


View of the Poor Knights from the mainland
This natural arch passes through the islet Aorangaia from east to west. A small vessel can fit through easily.

The Poor Knights is a small group of islands off the north east coast of New Zealand's North Island, or Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud. The Islands have Maori names and were previously inhabited, but the group was given its popular name by Captain James Cook on 25 November 1769, after a pudding made from bread, milk and eggs, similar to French toast.

In about 1808 most of the inhabitants were massacred by a raiding party and the surviving chief abandoned the islands and declared them tapu - they have remained uninhabited since that time.

In 1981 the Poor Knights was established as New Zealand's second Marine Reserve, extending 800 metres out from all parts of the islands, associated islets, rocks and stacks, and in 1998 full protection was established over the entire protected area. The islands themselves are an offshore nature reserve, and access is restricted to scientific studies.

General topography

The islands are of volcanic origin, created by a series of eruptions some ten million years ago, and subsequently eroded to their present form. The islands have been ecologically separated from the mainland for about two million years, and are a haven for some of the most endangered terrestrial native wildlife. The Poor Knights comprises two larger islands, Tawhiti Rahi to the north, and Aorangi to the south, and a scattering of islets and rocks, the largest of which are Aorangaia and Archway island, to the south east of Aorangi. A group of smaller islets to the south west is called the Pinnacles, and the southernmost of these is the Sugarloaf.


From S35°26.646' to S35°29.518', and from E174°43.896' to E174°44.913', roughly 20km from the mainland

Climate, weather and sea conditions

Some sites are subject to strong currents, particularly at spring tides. These areas are mostly at archways, headlands and narrow gaps, and the currents may be too strong to swim against.

Water temperatures are moderate, ranging between 14°C in winter and 22°C in summer.

Visibility is generally between 15m and 40m for much of the year, and is usually best from late summer to the end of winter, during which time there is less plankton in the water. From September to November plankton blooms may reduce visibility to between 5 and 10 m.

Marine ecology

The marine ecology is diverse, and the abundance of steep walls, overhangs, arches and caves provide relatively shallow shaded environments suited to organisms that would otherwise be found considerably deeper.

There is a noticeable seasonal variation in the ecology, due at least partly to changes in temperature and lighting. The warming of the water and increased light in spring trigger plankton blooms, which provide food for the ecosystem and this triggers spawning and growth in many species.

Large aggregations of stingrays occur during summer, and visits from tropical pelagic species like mantas and sunfish become common.

The Poor Knights region is representative of the temperate location of North Island, but also supports tropical visitors, which find a home among the unfamiliar kelp forests. The islands are close to the edge of the continental shelf where there are upwellings of nutrient rich water, which provides a fairly constant supply of food to the extensive diversity of filter feeders. Density of organisms is generally greatest in places where the water flow is strongest, and benthic animals are most prevalent where the light levels are too low for lush growth of seaweeds, such as under the arches and along the walls.

The East Auckland current originates in the tropical waters off the east coast of Australia, and carries larval stages of tropical animals past Northland's east coast, where some of them settle on the reefs of the Poor Knights. Many of them do not survive the winter, but a few relatively hardy ones manage to make it through a few years. The waters are too cold for tropical reef-building corals, but provide ideal conditions for a range of seaweeds, which provide food and habitat for a variety of invertebrates and fish.

About 120 species of fish are known from this region, and many of them occur in large numbers.


Ordinary recreational scuba equipment is adequate for most dives in this region. A 5 mm wetsuit is sufficient in summer, but 7 mm wetsuit or drysuit is recommended in winter. Appropriate technical equipment and training is recommended for the deeper dives.

Dive sites

Tawhiti Rahi (East)

Position: S35°26.636', E174°44.212'
Position: S35°26.895', E174°44.483'
Position: S35°27.365', E174°44.477'
Position: S35°27.655', E174°44.720'

Tawhiti Rahi (West)

Position: S35°28.049', E174°44.305'
Position: S35°27.941', E174°44.187'
Position: S35°27.884', E174°44.156'
Position: S35°27.904', E174°44.060'
Position: S35°27.441', E174°43.993'
Position: S35°26.872', E174°43.911'

Aorangi (East)

Aorangi (West)

Middle channel

Aorangaia and Archway Island

Position: S35°29.252', E174°44.387'
Position: S35°29.308', E174°44.379'
Position: &mdash ;S35°29.520', E174°44.373'
Position: S35°29.375', E174°44.300'

The Pinnacles

View of the pinnacles with the sugarloaf to the left, from south of Aoranga
Position: S35°32.770', E174°43.480'
Position: S35°32.889', E174°43.486'
Position: S35°33.983', E174°42.336'


Get help

Emergency services

Get service

The Poor Knights are always accessed by boat, either from the mainland on a day trip, or on live-aboard boats. Service listings are therefore restricted to operators of boats providing dive trips to the islands, even though they are based elsewhere.

Get around

Access to all the dive sites is by boat, usually from the mainland. Tutukaka is a popular departure point for dive trips to the Poor Knights.



This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, February 21, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.