Tawhiti Rahi, dubbed The Poor Knights Islands by colonial settlers, perhaps in reference to a British pudding that resembles the volcanic rocks, is a small archipelago off the East Coast of the Northland Region of Aotearoa – New Zealand’s North Island. The isles are located 50km (31 miles) northeast of the city of Whangarei, and are encompassed by a marine protected area (MPA) and as a reserve have become NZ’s most popular dive destination.
The bright colors of the benthic life and abundant nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs much appreciated in the dive community) make their rocky reefs world famous. The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve includes the major islands of Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi, along with several smaller islets, all eroded remnants of a four-million-year-old rhyolitic volcano. Large internal tides bring lots of movement to these waters, and one feels pushed about when diving here. It is a joy to enter the abundant caves of which Rikoriko Cave is the largest in the islands, and indeed, in the world by volume.
The islands were first inhabited by Māori of the Ngāti Wai tribe, who grew crops and fished the surrounding sea. They lived there in peace until a dark night in December of 1823, when the Hikutu, a rival tribe, attacked while the men were out at sea. The massacre that ensued was a brutal way to settle an old trading score between chiefs, and the islands were left uninhabited and decreed to be Tapu or forbidden territory. On a happier note, the resident chief, Tatua, found his wife and daughter who had escaped after being taken to the mainland and his five-year-old son, Wehiwehi, who had hidden in a cave during the attack. In modern times, livestock has been eradicated to protect crucial nesting colonies of birds, including parrots and sea birds, namely Buller’s shearwaters. I have visited twice and am most enamored by the pink cup-corals, the red scorpion fish, and the sponge Bob like sea sponges. To dive the beautiful Poor Knights marine reserve, visit Dive Tutukaka.