Map of the Poor Knights Islands

The Poor Knights Islands have been my playground for the last half of this year and I am very lucky to be able to dive there as often as I do. The Poor Knights Islands are one of the many marine reserves in New Zealand.

In 1981, the area was established as New Zealand’s second marine reserve.  The marine reserve extends for 800m offshore around the islands and stacks.  The islands are now pending a World Heritage Site naming.


Landing is not allowed on the islands unless you have the permission of the Department of Conservation and even then, the islands are considered tapu. Tapu is a Maori word - in this case meaning forbidden or restricted.
The islands are made up of two main islands, Tawhiti Rahi to the north and Aorangi to the south.

There are 10 smaller islands and islets in the chain which stretches for 10 kilometers.  Tawhiti Rahi is also used as the name for the entire chain by Maori.

The islands have a rather bloody history which accounts for the tapu placed on them.  The information that I have collected below comes from various sources but without a written history, some of it could be considered hearsay.
The Ngati Wai tribe inhabited the islands at the beginning of the 19th century.  Tuaho was the chief of the subtribe that lived on Tawhiti Rahi.  The Ngati Toki lived on Aorangi and their chief was called Tabu.  Chief Tatua was the ruler over both islands.  They farmed the islands and fished in the surrounding seas.


Around 1808, a party of natives from the Hikutu tribe came to Aorangi and requested to be supplied with pigs.  The pigs had been obtained from Captain Cook and were used for bartering (mainly with the mainland tribes for timber).  They were not allowed to land and were sent off empty handed.  In the early 1820s, the chief of the tribe, Tatua, led his warriors to the Hauraki Gulf along with the Nga Puhi tribe and their leader Hongi Hika.  Whilst they were away fighting, a slave escaped the islands and went to the Hokianga where he told the chief of the Hikutu tribe, Waikato, that the islands were not protected by warriors and as Tatua had offended Waikato previously, Waikato took his warriors in three large canoes and set out to attack the islands.


The slave, Paha, showed them the best place to land.  Aorangi Island had several places to land canoes whilst Tawhiti Rahi, with its 90m high cliffs, had special ropes for canoes to be lifted out of the seas.  A wholesale massacre of the defenseless inhabitants ensued.  It took the first night of the landing and the whole of the next day to kill most of the islanders and many jumped from the high cliffs into the sea.


Collecting the pigs as their bounty, and taking Tatuas wife Oneho and her daughter.  They rested at Whangaroa where the local rangatira recognized Oneho and assisted the women in escaping that night.  They were then moved to Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands.
When Tatua returned home and discovered what had happened, he had been met by only 9 or 10 survivors, he completed what last rights he could over those who had been slain and declared the islands to be tapu.  He then went to Rawhiti.


The European name, the Poor Knights Islands, is supposed to have come from a resemblance to Poor Knights Pudding (something like bread and butter pudding).  If you examine the names of the islands around the group however, a more credible story is thought that as Abel Tasman named New Zealand’s most northern islands “Three Kings”, Cook followed by naming the next islands “Knights”.  The High Peak rocks known locally as the Sugarloaf and the Pinnacles are shown on maps of 1869 as the “Poor Squires”.


Today, the Poor Knights Islands are known for the phenomenal marine life concentrated around the underwater cliffs, caves and arches.  The islands are on an intersection of temperate and tropical waters.  The East Australian current comes down from the Coral Sea and turns into the East Auckland current (its still the EAC but who wants it named after Australia?).

The EAC brings 1-2 degree Celsius warmer sea temperatures (warmer than on the local shores) as well as marine life that is not really supposed to be in New Zealand waters - turtles, manta rays, whales and giant salps as well as brightly colored fish, spotted black grouper, mosaic morays and Lowe Howe coral-fish are just a few examples.


With well over 100 dive sites, we have a lot to explore and a lot to be grateful for.  Whether it is noticing that an entire bay turns bright blue when the blue mao mao are near the surface, seeing a wall covered in tiny nudibranchs and hundreds more of their egg rosettes, watching trevally herd the small shrimps whilst you are hanging at 5m completing a safety stop or marveling at the sight of the huge crayfish (who really do know that you cant touch them and mock you with their size), I know that the Poor Knights Islands are my playground and I think myself very lucky to be able to experience them.


I would love the opportunity to be able to explore the islands on foot.


We hear from the Department of Conservation that the islands are home to other species found no where on earth.  As there have never been any mammals on the islands - no cats, rats or possums - the giant insects and invertebrates are kings.  Giant flax snails, giant centipedes and the largest insect in the world, the Poor Knights weta.  It can weigh up to 50grams, grow to 8cm and can be likened to a chubby mouse.

The tuatara, the worlds only living dinosaur, live for over 150 years.  There are approximately 1000 of them on the islands and they share their burrows with the Bullers shearwater seabirds.  One enters the burrow whilst the other is leaving and they have been known to have some pretty major domestic disputes.  The tuatara eat the eggs of the Bullers shearwater - except those of the bird whose burrow they share.


The stone walls that Tatua and his tribes built remain.  As do the axes, tools and cooking utensils that were dropped as the peoples ran and were massacred.


The marine life is now left to its own devices and studies show that populations are increasing, as are the sizes of snapper for example.


The fauna of the islands are gigantic compared to that of the mainland.


Birds both nest and breed here.


The value of the Poor Knights Islands cannot be measured.  They can simply be treasured.



Written by Tara Sutherland, New Zealand.