Tutukaka, NZ

Day 2

Dive day at the Poor Knights Islands! Well, not really “diving” for us. We wanted to do the tour company’s snorkeling tour, but now that we’re in the off-season they combine us snorkelers with the scuba divers on the same boat. So the dive office was a flurry of activity in the morning, getting the 18 paying passengers and 6 crew outfitted. We got 7mm wetsuits (the thickest we’ve had in our minimal experience, for the 65degF water), including hood pieces, booties, and for me, neoprene gloves. They had prescription eye masks available, so Rett wouldn’t need to put in her almost-never-worn contact lenses.

Since this was the one day we had for this excursion, we were again lucky to have good conditions. Mostly sunny, so we didn’t get too cold during the 50-minute boat ride out to the islands, and the seas were much calmer than they had been during our Donut Island kayaking adventure. We spent much of the voyage chatting with a most-recently-from-Washington couple, one of whom was pretty far along her early-retirement journey, even though she was more than 10 years younger than us. Not the first such person we’ve gotten to know on a boat trip!

Some other islands that aren’t Poor Knights.

The Poor Knights would be worthy of a boat-tour even if we never got in the water ourselves. The remnants of an ancient volcano, they rise sharply and are shot through with arches, tunnels, and caves. As our “entry” to the islands, we motored straight through the enormous front door of Archway Island, which brought us inside a semi-sheltered ring of islands.

Nearing the Poor Knights, Rett spots an arch cut through Archway Island.
Getting closer to the giant arch, which is some 13 stories tall.
And now we’re passing our entire boat right under the arch!
Now passed safely through to the other side, we’re sheltered in a partial ring of islands.
The arch we sailed through is far from the only arch carved through these islands.
Ok, we didn’t need to sail through the arch, we could have gone around.
Have I found a key that fits the lock?

Inside that ring is where we stopped to do our first snorkeling excursion. The actual scuba people were taking all the attention from the crew, so they gave the eight of us snorkelers some general limits but pretty much let us explore on our own for an hour or more.

Not that we needed an hour, because the wonders were immediate and plentiful. Rarely was there a moment when our view was not filled with fish, initially seeming to cycle through a handful of varieties, but then a school of a new species would glitter by whenever we thought we had seen everything.

Initially, the various planes of movement were deliriously disorienting. The kelp attached to the rocks below would flow with the current in one direction, fish above it would swim by in another, and our own movement would contribute a third layer to the mystery of relativity, allowing no grasp of fixed space (mostly it was that the kelp forest was far taller than expected, and had much freer movement in the apparently-strong currents down at its level, swooshing back and forth with unexpected amplitude).

And so as fun as it was to explore, perhaps my favorite moment was when the low-angle autumn sun emerged fully from the thin clouds, and shot beams flashing down into water from directly behind my half-submerged head, converging into a cone aligned with my point-of-view. It was precisely how the hyperspace/faster-than-light travel is depicted in an unknown sci-fi movie/TV show, though in this case it was so arresting that I stopped all movement and just floated face-down on the New Zealand sea.

And then in that shimmering light, a diaphanous comb jelly floated to within inches of my face. I had seen one on display when we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium a couple years ago while riding through California. In that post, I wrote “of course none of this stuff in the ocean would have the perfect lighting that it does in the aquarium tanks!” It turns out I was wrong about that! In the natural sunlight this jellyfish embedded with multi-color LED light strips was even more mesmerizing. It would flip its lights from an “off” state, to state with a couple of green LEDs flashing, to a chasing-rainbows sequence down its strips, to an “all strips are on and red” state, to any creative mix of all of those states. The colors were brighter and more-active than what I had seen in the aquarium, as if this one had a more fully-charged battery.

Eventually I broke my reverie in favor of further exploration, but I had several more encounters with other comb jellies, and always stopped to watch their lights. Unfortunately I don’t have a waterproof camera, so many of the day’s most-spectacular sights are memorialized only in prose.

My need to pee eventually became stronger than my need to explore further (“please don’t pee in our wetsuits, we’ll know!”), and we returned to the boat just at the same time everyone else was coming back aboard. The crew had hot drinks ready for us, which was definitely helpful, but the fact that it wasn’t being cold that brought me back meant the wetsuit was doing its job well.

We continued a boat tour of the islands, eventually approaching Rikoriko, which is not just a big sea-cave, but literally the world’s largest! And, just like the arch, the boat motored straight inside, with plenty of space for one four times its size. It was pretty obvious to me that we were repeating the Millennium Falcon’s mistake, and what we thought was a cave was actually the stomach of an enormous space (sea?) slug. Apparently I was the only one who noticed though, because while I was below taking photos, I heard the crew encouraging everyone to check the acoustics by shouting “Echo! Echo!” in unison at the top of their lungs. You fucking morons, you’re going to get us all killed! Luckily it must not have been hungry (it had probably just ingested a boatload of equally-idiotic morons yesterday), and we were able to escape back out its throat without it closing its jaws around us.

Complex interactions of stone and sea appear everywhere around the Poor Knights.
New Zealand’s Great Sphinx is looking even rougher than Egypt’s.
Approaching Rikoriko the world’s largest (measured!) sea cave.
Rett checking if the boat is going to fit inside the sea cave.
Entering the cave, there was a stark dividing line where half of the water seemed lit from below.
Either the walls of an enormous dome of rock we’ve sailed inside of, or the stomach-lining of a gargantuan beast.
Including some other people for perspective.
Looking back out the (hopefully inanimate!) mouth of the cavernous body we’ve entered.

Free from the dangers of the cave, we anchored for the day’s second excursion. This time rather than a gently-curving cliff to explore, we had an area that was more carved-up, with arches and (smaller) caves. And one of the crew members also led our snorkeling group on a guided tour, and since he had a GoPro camera, and the company shares the day’s photos freely on Facebook (unlike our Blackwater Rafting trip where you need to pay for them), I can at least share some photos of us in the water.

Me and Rett, second and third from the left.
Rett (face-down, where it should be), me (flippers down, where they shouldn’t be), and a mid-sized school of small fish.
Rett and I in front of a human-sized sea-cave.

There were still a ton of fish to see everywhere (including a fun encounter I had with a Sandager’s Wrasse who acted much more like a curious dog than a fish), but the awesome underwater topography stole the show this time. A swim through an arch brought us to a line of tall thin rock spires whose tips hid just below the surface, and there were deep slots and canyons cutting through the lower rocks down to the sandy bottom. It was also cool to observe some non-native wildlife (i.e., our fellow scuba divers) moving below us, and their air bubbles expanding into silver globes of mercury as they reached the surface were fun to play with.

This time though it was the cold that brought me back to the boat before my bladder (not that my bladder wasn’t a factor as well!), but once again that coincided with everyone else’s return. And then with the hot drinks, and being able to dry off and change into warm clothes and jackets, the long boat ride back was comfortable. The boat went to scout a dive site for their next day, which meant that we were out well past the 3pm estimated return, but with the weather fine, we were all happy to to have nearly a full sunrise-to-sunset day out on the sea!

Motoring away from the Poor Knights. One of the (unlikely, IMO) explanations for the name is that from this angle the islands look like the profile of a fallen knight, with his face rightmost, his shield-covered torso in the middle, and his legs to the left.
Returning to the mainland, the landforms aren’t too much less dramatic.
Nice views from up there!
A sunset wake.

The two guys who had been in the campground kitchen yesterday turned out to both be part of the crew (contributing more to the feeling that everything in Tutukaka right now revolves around the tour company!) Well, not quite “crew”. One of the guys back in camp related that he’s also a (paying) customer, spending several months “working” to get his Divemaster certification. He said that when he started, they were running two to three boats every day, with up to 75 people on the snorkeling trip we wanted to be on (and even higher in season were running 4 boats). Now we were 18 people going out on the day’s only boat (and no other boats were at the islands). So this off-season travel is paying off even more than expected!

Unrelated, but very interesting to me, the Divemaster-in-training is part of a group far more exclusive than his scuba certification: for the last two years he has been one of the 50 residents of Pitcairn Island, along with descendents of the mutineers on the Bounty! Pitcairn is a fascinating fantasy-turned-real, and one of the most-remote settlements on Earth, so meeting a resident was almost like meeting a celebrity to me. He was back in New Zealand to get his certification because he would be running the island’s new marine science base, and in fact had “missed” the supply ship that would return him to the island, so now had to wait another two months(!) for the next 14-day(!!) ocean crossing (he didn’t seem too sad about it). People think that we live a rare and unusual lifestyle, but we’re the most basic mainstream drones compared to Pitcairn Islanders!


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