We chose to visit Tutukaka in the northern part of New Zealand’s north island because of its access to Poor Knights Marine Reserve. Our preference for nature, water sports, and diving, coupled with quieter, less touristy areas drove our choice.
What is Poor Knights?
Poor Knights Islands and Marine Reserve is 15 miles northeast from Tutukaka. On the boat ride to Poor Knights, the towering sheer cliffs of the islands appear, some rising over 600 feet above the ocean.
Two large islands, various pinnacles and rocks form a 500 acre sheltered ‘harbour’ area offshore. Once inhabited by Maori tribes who left in the 1820s, Poor Knights Islands are now a protected nature and marine reserve. These islands create an unusual underwater environment of giant sea caves, kelp forests, sand channels, and underwater caverns. The subtropical currents provide a habitat for more species of fish and invertebrates than anywhere else in New Zealand. With the warm current, marine life from tropical waters also visit Poor Knights. It is a delight to visit such a diverse underwater environment.
Why is Poor Knights touted as a top 10 dive site in the world by Jacques Cousteau? It boasts a sheltered harbour, marine reserve, subtropical currents, unusual diversity of fish varieties, and white sand beaches. Due to the location of Poor Knights close to the edge of the continental shelf, its waters are nutrient rich providing a constant food source for filter feeders, like various types of sponges, sea anemones, tubeworms, clams, and more.
The open ocean is always full of surprises. If season and conditions are right, it’s a treat to see a rare sighting. We spotted a Mola Mola or Ocean Sun Fish. The captain followed it; then he cut the engine so we could enjoy the rare moment, and capture it in photos. He also spotted a leopard seal feasting on fish during our trip back to the marina, so he stopped to let us watch.
While this area is often overlooked, National Geographic Traveler rated Poor Knights one of the top coastal destinations on the planet.
Poor Knights Caves and Harbour
We rode south in the harbour after diving through the Southern Arch and Blue Maomao Arch to Poor Knights harbour. It is amazing to find yourself on a boat in the protected ‘harbour’ of Poor Knights surrounded by the sheer cliffs and caves. In the sheltered harbour, it is a great opportunity to enjoy the spectacular scenery – the sea, rock formations, hillsides, and to learn the history.
Once in the harbour Captain Josh took us to Rico Rico Cave, the world’s largest sea cave, and large enough for our boat to enter. Captain Josh explained that the cave has the best acoustics. To experience this, and to view the sea life near the surface and life forms in the cave, Captain Josh maneuvered our boat into the Rico Rico Cave. Inside we hooted and shouted to hear the echos, and then we were treated to something very special. One of our fellow divers is an opera singer, and she proceeded to demonstrate the cave acoustics in a very extraordinary manner. Listen to her in this video…
Diving Poor Knights
The underwater environment differs from other diving we have done with the rock formations, which forced us to swim up and down over the formations (these pressure changes are tough on the ears). This and the added weights needed for thicker neoprene requires very good buoyancy skills.
Water temperatures on the day that we dove in early March were 70-71F. While warm for New Zealand, it is cold for us. Our dive operation, Dive! Tutukaka, made sure we had the right wetsuits for cold water diving.
Our weather was perfect – a cool morning that turned into sunny warm afternoon. We dove Sugarloaf, Pinnacles and Tie Dye Arch. These sites lie on the outside of the rock formations that form the protected harbour of Poor Knights Islands. Due to the great weather, calm seas, and having all advanced divers on our boat, our captain treated our 9 divers to his favorite dive spots. We had a perfect combination for our dive trip – best conditions; no swells and calm seas; enough advanced divers to run a separate boat for us.
Fish we saw:
Kingfish, Trevally, Jewel Anemone, Common Anemone, Finger sponge, Encrusting Sponge, Jason’s Nudibranch, Clown Nudibranch, yellow speckled and grey moray eels, scorpion fish, Half-banded Perch, Leatherjackets, Snapper, Mado, pink and blue Maomao, Lord Howe coral fish )look like butterfly fish), Black Angel fish, Red Moki, bigeyes, demoiselles, pigfish, porae, wrasse, perch, crested blenny, triple fins, Black rays.
Some of the creatures were different for us; Sophie, our divemaster, made sure we saw them all. Diving Poor Knights is a very different dive experience. So glad we did it!
This is the only dive operation in Tutukaka, and the closest place to access Poor Knights. Dive! Tutukaka may be the only dive operation in town, and despite no competition they do an outstanding job. The dive shop is extremely well run. They have great processes in getting people signed in, and outfitted for the dive day. They make it very easy for guests in an upbeat and friendly way.
It felt like the staff took care of our every need. From helping divers get into tight neoprene wetsuits, to having coffee and tea ready when divers re-boarded the boat after a dive. They even take your dive computer readings and make sure you have them at the end of the day. Dive! Tutukaka is a very customer-centric operation.
They have 7 boats in their fleet, for water activities like snorkeling, diving, or sea kayaking. We went out on a 38 foot boat. The shop staff transports all of the gear and equipment to the boat so divers just take themselves and personal belongings. Then they set up all of the gear, and help people get suited up.
Divemasters are also instructors and they make sure everyone is diving safely. There are 2 types of briefings prior to dives – 1) A profile of the dive; 2) History of the area – both geological and cultural history of Europeans and Maoris in the area. We were split into a group of 3 divers with one divemaster. Sophie, our divemaster, made sure we saw all the amazing underwater life; she took us into a cave where the giant stingrays hang out.
While diving seems expensive here compared to the US, Mexico and the Caribbean, it is competitive with diving in this part of the world. The price includes all equipment and wetsuits, which makes it lower priced than Australia diving. They will supply lunch for $10NZ. Diving Poor Knights is an all-day affair, between the ride to and from the islands, the history and the diving, our day started at 8:15 AM at the dive shop and the boat returned at 4 PM.
Dive! Tutukaka also offers a snorkel day trip to Poor Knights for those non-divers wanting to see the underwater environment and the marine reserve. They also have kayaks, paddle boats, and other water sports. Don’t forget a towel, as they are not supplied!
Dive! Tutukaka is a warm, friendly, well-oiled dive operation. We thoroughly enjoyed our dives at Poor Knights with Dive! Tutukaka! Thank you Kate, Sophie, and Captain Josh! Check out their website or contact them directly for more information.
While I was an invited guest and Tom was given a discount for diving, this is a totally independent and honest review based on our experience.
Towns to stay
Ngunguru, the town in which we stayed on the Whangaumu Bay where the Bay meets the river and ocean is only about 10 minutes from the dive shop. At low tide in Ngunguru, you can walk around the bay beach. Ngunguru is a tiny town where restaurants close early; the food store is quite small. It is a very beachy town with water sports, a surf school, lots of boating and fishing.
Tutukaka, like Ngunguru, is very small with only a few places to stay and to eat. It’s lovely and laid back.
Take the detour; visit Poor Knights!! Dive! Tutukaka will take great care of you whether you are a snorkeler, diver, or just along for the ride.
We thoroughly enjoyed the quiet towns, the diving, and beautiful ocean views from our apartment in Ngunguru, the drive to Tutukaka, and our time in Tutukaka. We wish we had planned to spend more time than the 2 nights and 1 day here.