The Perfect Day - Snorkelling at the Poor Knights Islands
February 07 2016
Well, they got the name of the trip right. It doesn’t get much more perfect than a beautiful cruise out to some stunning islands with the clearest water, loads of curious fish, snorkelling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, eating, sunbathing, and marvelling at the world’s largest sea cave…that would be why we have now done the same trip four times. And we can’t wait to go again!
Dive!Tutukaka run the Perfect Day ocean cruise over the summer months, and it departs from the marina at the pretty coastal village of Tutukaka, 25 minutes northeast of Whangarei. The vessel is spacious and comfortable – it is perfectly set up for your trip with indoor and outdoor seating areas, a great sunbathing spot up on the bow, hot showers in the bathrooms, a large rear deck, and swimmer’s platform for easy access in and out of the water. There is a galley area serving a delicious lunch (which is included) and plenty of toys including wetsuits and snorkelling gear, kayaks, stand up paddleboards, and even an underwater camera with big screen so you can see what is happening under the boat while you eat your lunch.
It takes about 40 minutes to get across to the islands, and there’s every chance you may spot dolphins, whales, and sharks. On one trip we were lucky enough to see a gigantic manta ray billowing by. You might get to see a ‘work up’ happening – bigger fish (eg kingfish) down below pushing smaller fish (eg kahawai and pilchards) up to the surface, with seabirds like shearwaters, petrels, and beautiful yellow headed gannets arrowing into the swarming sea to get their share of lunch. When you’re right in amongst it, the noise is something else – shrieking, squawking, splashing…and you feel hopeful for the health of the ocean seeing an eco-system at work so vividly. It’s a pretty cool thing to show your child. Watch their eyes widen as the common dolphins are attracted by the ruckus and come barrelling in by the squadron!
The closer you get to the islands themselves, the more you realise that you are in a very special place. The Poor Knights Islands and surrounds are a marine reserve, which means that you cannot land at all (you can’t even climb onto a rock), and there’s absolutely no fishing. You crane your neck to take in the soaring cliffs, dotted with clutches of the rare Poor Knights Lily and topped with windswept Pohutukawa forest. There are caves, tunnels, and keyholes everywhere you look – and it is just the same under the water. The architecture down there is mind blowing, and is one of the reasons why divers flock to the Poor Knights, with Jacques Cousteau naming the reserve as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. High praise, indeed.
Another reason that the Poor Knights is unique has to do with the water itself…you see, the very tail end of the East Auckland Current just licks past the island group. This current originates off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and often brings with it tropical visitors that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in New Zealand. I haven’t seen a turtle out there yet, but I know many people who have!
After the boat has been anchored in a sheltered spot, it’s time to get in the water! We first took Nate when he was 9 months old, and were blown away at how helpful the crew were getting us in. Nate was wearing an infant lifejacket and the crew were at hand on the swim platform with floaty pool ‘noodles’ and kickboards in case we wanted any extra buoyancy. Nate seemed most unfazed by it all and we gently kicked out and away from the boat, floating above a beautiful shadowy reef just visible 20 odd metres below. The rocky crags soared up above us. It was magic.
On our trip last month, Nate wanted to jump straight in off the back of the boat and could hardly wait to get his lifejacket sorted. We swam out together to the entrance of Blue Maomao Arch, and as we began to enter the gloom, Nate decided there could quite possibly be taniwhas (sea monsters) lurking in there, and he was pretty keen to get back to the boat and lunch. I distracted him, pointing out that we were floating along amongst bubbles from the scuba divers far below, and we stayed in for a little longer. There were a lot of families from all over the world on board that day, and it was quite astounding how the children went from apprehensive and scared, to brave and confident in the deep water with some gentle encouragement from the crew. We kayaked and SUP’d, and did bombs (big splashing jumps) off the back deck. Too much fun.
After a yummy, healthy lunch in the sunshine, we set off on a cruise around the remarkable rock formations. The skipper skilfully navigated us right through narrow chasms, and told us a little about the history of the islands. The Poor Knights were named by Captain Cook who sailed past and made an observation – some say that the Pohutukawa was in full red glorious bloom on the tops of the islands, and that Cook decided it looked the jam on top of his ‘Poor Knights Pudding’. Another theory is that he thought the island group looked like a fallen knight in repose, and that’s why he gave it the name. We’ll never know. And there is a dark side to the islands, too – at the time of Maori occupation in the early 1800s there was a massacre between two opposing tribes in one of the valleys. The remains are still there. I certainly feel a slightly eerie shiver looking up at the place where the people once lived and loved.
We round a rocky reef and ahead of us lies the gaping mouth of Rikoriko Cave. Slowly, the boat draws inside and turns 360 degrees so that we can all see the incredible colours of the lichen covered walls, and the dappled water reflecting it. The ship’s horn sounds, and the echo reverberates around for well over 10 seconds, vibrating right in your bones. The acoustics in this cave are close to perfect, and bands have even performed in here! ‘WOW,’ breathes Nate in wonder. ‘This is a-MAZING!’
We head back across the blue to Tutukaka and pause to watch a beautiful hammerhead shark lazily cruising along on the surface. What a great end to another perfect trip.
I can’t recommend highly enough that you take your kids out to the Poor Knights with Perfect Day. There are so many fantastic conversations you can have with the little ones to get them thinking about ecology, marine biology, history, and general environmental awareness. Of course, there’s doing big jumps off the back of the boat too – they’ll certainly never forget that, either!
Disclaimer: on our most recent trip we were guests of Perfect Day and Dive!Tutukaka. Thanks very much to Kate Malcolm and Jeroen Jongejans for the opportunity.