Poor Knights Islands

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Scuba diving at the Poor Knights Islands

© Chris Hamilton

The Poor Knights Islands off the Tutukaka Coast provide outstanding world class scuba and snorkel diving, kayaking, paddle boarding and an extraordinary history.

Local's Tips

Enjoy a cruise into the world’s largest sea cave, Rikoriko. Hear the amazing acoustics and wonder at the incredible palette of colours both above and below the water.

Truly world class diving & water activities

Global explorers and divers Jacques Cousteau and Ellis Emmett, although separated by decades, both rate the Poor Knights Marine Reserve as providing some of the best diving in the world - you won’t get a much better recommendation than that! Take the opportunity to learn to dive or improve your skills, training from Open Water through to Instructor rating is available at PADI accredited Dive Centres.

If you don't scuba dive, you will still enjoy this paradise, both above and beneath the water, with a snorkel, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or from the deck of a comfortable boat.

People of the sea

Maori people of the Ngatiwai (an ancient people who were known as Ngatiwai ki te Moana who lived along the east coast and offshore islands) tribe settled on the islands, however, after invasion and heavy fighting in the early 1800’s, the island’s were abandoned and declared tapu (sacred). 

Regenerating forest now covers the remains of Maori settlement however, the archaeological remnants, with pa sites, marae, and terraced gardens are some of the most pristine in New Zealand.

Spectacular water clarity and warm sub-tropical currents provide a rich, varied and abundant sea life.
Spectacular water clarity and warm sub-tropical currents provide a rich, varied and abundant sea life.

In the beginning

The Poor Knights Islands lie about 23 kilometres to the North-East of Whangarei and are the remnants of the eroded rims of a large volcano, part of the Pacific Rim of Fire, which erupted some 10 million years ago. Two large islands and a group of smaller islets make up the chain seen today.

These rugged beginnings have created a spectacular landscape, above and below water, with steep cliffs, caves, arches and fissures. There are sixteen known caves around the islands, with Rikoriko believed to be the largest sea cave in the world. It is large enough to accommodate several boats. The islands isolation from the mainland and lack of human habitation for over 140 years, has contributed to the incredible diversity of life. In 1981, the islands were declared a nature and marine reserve. They are also a listed Tentative World Heritage Site.

Tawhiti Rahi is the Maori name for the entire chain, as well as the largest island. The second largest island is Aorangi and the largest of the islets is called Motu Kapiti.

There is as much fun to have above the water, as there is below.
There is as much fun to have above the water, as there is below.

Above water

The Island’s unique flora and fauna, protected by the Department of Conservation, provide breathtaking beauty and amazing bird and insect life. Many native species, now extinct or extremely rare on the mainland, still find refuge on these islands. 

One of the world’s oldest living species, the tuatara, and many other native lizards, giant weta, flax snail and giant centipede roam the understory. This unique ecosystem provides a glimpse of ancient, untouched life in NZ. The Poor Knights Lily, unique to only three offshore islands in New Zealand, blooms a spectacular vivid red in October. Stands of ancient forest remain and one of NZ’s largest pohutukawa forests exists on the islands exploding in a vibrant sprinkling of red over the top of the island every year during November and December.


These islands are the only nesting place of the Buller’s Shearwater, which travels there from North America to breed and shares its burrows with tuatara (a native New Zealand reptile). Around 2.5 million Buller’s Shearwaters nest on the main islands every year. The islands are also home to gannet colonies, and native birds such as bellbirds, hawks, wood pigeon and kaka, parakeets and kingfishers all contribute to a symphony of birdsong.


Spectacular water clarity and warm sub-tropical currents provide a rich, varied and abundant sea life.  Divers, including snorkellers, can expect to see kelp forests, sponge gardens and coral fields inhabited by fish, eels, corals and many other plants and animals.

The complex underwater landscape is a unique environment. Subtropical and temperate marine life coexist with extraordinary diversity, beauty and density. Over 125 species of fish share this environment with soft corals, encrusting sponges, vibrant anemones, ecklonia kelp forests, mating sting rays, visiting pelagic manta rays, gorgonian fans and myriad other life forms. Throughout the year, visitors can include manta ray, humpback whales and turtles.

Having been a Marine Reserve for over 20 years the fish have little fear of humans and interact quite happily with snorkellers, divers and swimmers.

No pedestrian access, but...

The marine reserve extends 800 metres out from any part of the islands, islets, rocks and stacks. You are welcome to swim, dive, kayak within this area, enjoying the diversity of marine life, but you are not allowed to land. Dive charters and cruises are available from Tutukaka.

Really? A pudding?

The islands' English name is said to derive from their resemblance, perhaps aided by the ‘topping’ of red flowering summer pohutukawa blossoms, to Poor Knight's Pudding, a bread-based dish popular at the time of discovery by Captain Cook. Another suggestion is that the silhouette of the islands looks like a knight lying down.