Diving from a boat in Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve

Image: Vincent Zintzen | ©


Beneath the waves at the Poor Knights, the caves, arches, tunnels and sheer cliffs provide a great variety of habitats to explore.


The islands are renowned for their diving and snorkelling, and local tourist operators are often equipped to give non-divers an underwater experience. 

Jacques Cousteau rated the area as one of the top ten dives in the world!


Place overview


  • Boating
  • Diving and snorkelling
  • Protect our marine reserves
    • No fishing of any kind.
    • Don't take or kill marine life.
    • Don't remove or disturb any marine life or materials.
    • Don't feed fish - it disturbs their natural behaviour.
    • Take care when anchoring to avoid damaging the sea floor.

In this section

Find things to do and places to stay Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve

About this place

Nature and conservation

The Poor Knights Islands are the remains of a group of ancient volcanoes. Beneath the waves these volcanoes have been hollowed and shaped by the ocean into a web of caves, tunnels and cliffs which Jacques Cousteau rated as one of the top ten dives in the world.

Because of their incredible form and biodiversity, the sea surrounding the islands has been a marine reserve since 1981. It extends to 800 m around the islands. 

Beneath the waves the caves, arches, tunnels and sheer cliffs provide a great variety of habitats to explore. From turbulent sunlit waters and kelp forest on the upper reaches of the tumbling giant ‘staircase’ to the dark waters of the islands’ many caves, the Poor Knights offer an extraordinary variety of underwater experiences.

Sponge gardens and gorgonian fields are inhabited by a multitude of fish, shellfish, urchins and anemones, with black coral found in deeper waters. The steep cliffs that fringe the islands plunge up to 100 m below sea level before reaching a sandy sea floor. The arches are some of the most interesting places to explore. A rich nutrient soup washes through them, which feeds the countless animals competing for space on the walls. Squadrons of stingrays cruise the waters of the archways during warmer months.

Above the water, the islands are home to many rare birds. They 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.

History and culture


During the late 1960s and 70s, divers around Poor Knights discovered large numbers of marine plants and animalsthat had not been seen before in New Zealand. Because of the amazing diversity and abundance of marine life, part of the islands became New Zealand’s second marine reserve in 1981. In 1998, the islands became fully protected to 800 m from the shore.


Ngātiwai are an ancient people who were known as Ngātiwai ki te Moana (those who lived along the east coast and offshore islands) and Ngātiwai ki te tua Whenua (those who lived inland, eg Ngāti Hine).

Ngātiwai descend from Manaia, Tamatea and Tāhuhunui-o-te-rangi. The mana of Ngātiwai is water and this is remembered by Manaia saying to his descendants, "Although you stand on land, you stand also in the sea."

Ngātiwai occupies the shoreline from Rākau-mangamanga (Cape Brett) to Tawharanui (Cape Rodney) to Aotea (Great Barrier Island). They also occupied many islands including Tawhitirahi and Aorangi (Poor Knights).

They are the kaitiaki (guardians) of a sacred covenant placed on the islands by the ringa kaha Te Tātua (chief) in 1822. This tapu was placed following the massacre of his people while he and his warriors were absent.

Getting there

The Poor Knights Islands can be easily reached by boat from almost any port in Hauraki Gulf and Northland. Charter boats from Auckland, Leigh, Whangārei, Tutukaka, and Bay of Islands visit the islands.

Places to stay

Know before you go

To help protect marine life inside the reserve, remember:

  • no fishing of any kind, either from a boat or from shore
  • no taking or disturbing any marine life, including shellfish and seaweeds
  • no taking of any part of the sea floor, including rocks and shells
  • no feeding the fish as it disturbs their natural behaviour.

Penalties for failure to comply under the Marine Reserves Act 1971 include confiscation of equipment, vessels or vehicles, fines and imprisonment.

Be aware of the boating rules of marine reserves (see the Marine Reserves Regulations 1993):

  • The maximum speed permitted for all boats in New Zealand is 5 knots (about 9 km/h) within 200 m of shore or any boat with a dive flag, and within 50 m of any other boat or swimmer.
  • Waste, ballast and sewage must not be discharged within the reserve.
  • Drop your anchor responsibly to avoid damage to the reserve, and use the minimum amount of chain necessary.

In addition:

  • Vessels over 45 m long are banned from travelling through an area around the Poor Knights Islands. This area extends 9 km (5 nautical miles) from land between Bream Head and Cape Brett north of Whangārei.
  • You're not allowed to land on any part of the islands or rocks. Boats must not be tied to any part of the shoreline. These rules are to protect the islands from fire and the accidental introduction of pests such as rats, cats and invasive weeds.

Make sure you keep marine mammals safe in the Bay of Islands.


Whangarei Office
Phone:   +64 9 470 3300
Fax:   +64 4 471 1117
Email:   whangarei@doc.govt.nz
Address:   2 South End Ave
Whangarei 0110
Postal Address:   PO Box 842
Whangarei 0140
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