Sunday, November 22, 2009

Poor Knights Islands

Yesterday evening, while driving up the northern coast towards the Bay of Islands, we took a smaller coastal road to check out some of the beaches along the way. We passed by the tiny town of Tutukaka, and knew this is where many dive companies were based. We figured we'd just pop in and have a look around, ask them about the diving, and get the prices for the boat trips. We hadn't really planned to go diving, but we had heard about this location from several Kiwis as well as in the States before we left. We were persuaded by the good conditions and figured we should take advantage of the opportunity, and luckily they still had some openings available for the following day's dive.

My biggest hesitation about the dive trip was the water temperature. I learned to dive in Hawaii and the last place we dove in Key West had a water temperature of 88 degrees. Here, it's only around 62 degrees. This requires a cumbersome 7mm wet-suit farmer john sort of pant-suit as well as a jacket and hood over top of that. I had also requested a shark skin under-layer which helped add some warmth. When you have to wear this much neoprene, you are more buoyant and therefore have to wear much more weight to keep yourself submerged. It all sounded much less inviting that our usual tropical dives.

Aside from the cold water, the Poor Knights sounded like a diver's dream. They will tell you an endless amount of times that the infamous Jacques Cousteau rated these islands as one of his top 5 dive sites in the world. Even today they are still rated among the best of the best diving areas worldwide and were just on the cover of a top dives book. What makes them so famous are several things. First, they touch the tropical current coming down from Australia (think the turtles in that current from Finding Nemo) which adds a few degrees of warmth, but also brings in tropical fish that would not normally be here and are no where else in New Zealand waters. It is also where the Pacific and the Tasman Sea meet, which creates more nutrients in the water and allows more life to flourish there. It is also has been a marine reserve since the early 80s, which lets fish to survive longer and grow bigger. And lastly, there are sheer cliffs all around the islands that plummet 100s of feet down into the water and provide lots of nooks and surfaces for things to grow, hide and feed.

We started our boat trip out at around 9am, after checking in and getting all of our gear sorted out at 8:15. The conditions were great, as promised, mostly sunny skies and very light winds. The dive company, Perfect Day, was impeccably organized and OCD which was great since there is quite a bit of equipment and people to deal with on these dive boats. We each got our own waterproof bag for our gear, complete with a name tag and where you were from on each, and these were stored under the bench seats around the large boat. We also all got custom lunches (meat or veggie) in neat little brown paper bags with our names written on them. There were two levels on the boat, plus the bow, so it allowed plenty of room for people to spread out and take in the views as we motored out to the islands.

The first dive was at spot called Rikoriko Cave which was exciting since I have never gone diving in a cave before. The company gave you the option to have a dive guide in a small group, and having never dove in the cold water and in a cave, we figured we'd take them up on the offer. We were in a group of 6 people with our dive guide who looked exactly like Kate Bosworth, but without the different colored eyes. She made us all do a buoyancy test one-on-one with her to make sure our weights were okay (mine were 20 lbs instead of the 8 lbs I had on in Key West!) and we were ready to dive. I wish they had warmer booties (or even gloves) since the only part of me that became numb were my toes.

Once we went under, it was overwhelming how much there was to take in. The cliff and cave walls added a new plane to the usual top and bottom of diving, and within the water were thousands and thousands of these little clear, sort or rainbow--ish organisms floating all over the place. Some were bigger, maybe 7 inches long, while others were teeny tiny and they looked like something you would see under a high-tech microscope. The walls were a kaleidoscope of colors, with fluorescent moss-like growth on the walls, to technicolor nudibranches, to bright blue anemones and on and on. You could literally just stop and stare at this wall from about 1 foot away forever and see so many small and intricate things. If you turned your back to the wall, schools of fish danced along and rainbow colored fish came around to see who was in their territory. Once in the cave, the light dimmed and there were more fans growing on the wall and even bigger nudibranches to see. Since the dive was around 65 feet, our air only lasted about 40 minutes or so and then it was back to the boat. The one tricky thing about diving here is that everything is in metrics and your air gauge is in BAR not PSI. It took some time to get used to that.

After each dive, we were greeted on the back of the boat and someone would take your fins and mask for you and set them with the rest of your stuff. Then they would immediately ask if they could make you a hot beverage, like coffee, tea or cocoa, or if you would like some hot soup. Then while you peeled off your layers of wet-suit one of the crew would go in the kitchen area and make just what you wanted and have a steaming mug back to you when you were trying to warm up. It was pretty unbelievable for a dive operation to offer that level of service.

On the surface interval, the sun was shining brightly and it was nice and warm so we lazed on the bow of the boat and ate our lunches. Then they started up the boat and drove it into the world's largest sea-cave, which we had just dove into, and it was pretty amazing. It was massive inside, so much space that another few boats could have easily joined us in there.

The next dive was at the Maomao Arch, which was that actual spot that Jacques Cousteau had rated one of his favorite dives. You drop down off the boat in front of the arch and then have to pass through a swim through tunnel under a huge boulder to enter into the narrow corridor under the archway. Walls on either side of the rock arch drop down from the surface and create this neat passageway where the fish tend to relax from predators. We saw an enormous scorpion fish hanging out on the bottom, at least 4 feet long, and tons of those rainbow fish and cleaner fish and a school of fish with two white dots but I forget the name. The walls were also covered in millions of colors.

The captain of our boat, Sam, was a really nice guy and had helped us decipher the surf report the day before and give us some info on the local breaks. He was a great captain, always briefing us on the dives and sharing bits of history about the ancient Maori who used to live on the islands. Apparently, a chief on the other side of the North Island had it out for the chief on the Poor Knights. He waited until he was away, and then took his warriors over and slaughtered every single person on the island. When the other chief returned and saw what happened, they claimed the islands as Hapu, or sacred/cursed, and never came back. They left the entire village as-is and to this day it is a protected sanctuary and you are not allowed on land without a special permit.

Anyway, Sam had said that he heard the surf looked really fun over at a local break, so once the dive boat had cruised back into the marina around 4:30, we decided to drive the 10km up the road and paddle out. Some of the guys on the boat that we met had talked about renting a board and surfing too, so we ended up bringing over their 8" board in the van as well. There were so many nice people on the dive boat, and from all over the world. Two guys were local Kiwis, two from Australia, two from the US, one from England, a lady from Norway, a guy from France, a girl from Germany, a Dutch guy and on and on. The Kiwis were really fun, and the guys from the States were cool, although one was actually originally from South Africa. These two, Eric and Grant, were the ones that came surfing with us.

We pulled up to Sandy Bay with only a few guys out, and light off-shores. The waves were only about waist-to-chest, but you couldn't have asked for a better setting. Islands sat offshore, including the Poor Knights, and the long golden beach stretched the length of the bay. Green grassy rolling hills were visible from the water as far as you could see. We had a great time playing around and even the boat captain, Sam, came out a little later as well.

The guys were going out for pizza and beer in town, so we decided since we had already sorted out a place to freedom camp, we would join them. We got to the place and they were closing, as most local restaurants tend to do right at 8pm. We begged them to make just one more pizza, not knowing if the other guys had been there yet or not, and they agreed. We sat out on the deck overlooking the marina when the rest of the group showed up. Unable to coax the chef into making any more pizza that night, they had to go next door where we met up with them afterwards.

On the deck we heard another American couple prepping their two girls for a few weeks at sea on a sailboat they were taking out in just two days. The girls struggled to wrap their heads around what exactly they would be doing at sea for this period of time, and the parents tried to explain they would learn a lot about sailing and see lots of neat things. Erich was about ready to go over and ask if he could come along too it sounded so nice.

We met the guys at the bar after the pizza where they played 80s music on full blast (complete with videos) the entire time. The french guy was there too, from Toulouse, and happened to be an Army paratrooper in New Zealand just to learn english for one month. You'd think they would have sent him to England to accomplish this, but he lucked out and gets to go to school in Auckland and stay with a family there. The South African was a pilot for Southwest so Erich was interested in hearing about that.

After our big night out, we drove back to the beach where we had surfed and parked right up against the sand where we could listen to the waves all night. It's amazing to us there are so many places here where you are able to temporarily have ocean-front property for free.

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