Visiting the Poor Knights Islands is a rich experience, writes Elisabeth Easther
I'm not a Grinch but I'm no fan of Christmas either, especially the lead-up to it. The music makes my skin crawl. Snoopy's Christmas and Grandma Was Run Over By A Reindeer have the same effect on me as fingernails down a blackboard. Even wrapping paper makes me queasy. To go to all the effort of planting a tree and watching it grow, to just chop it down, make paper and print it with inane Christmas imagery, for it then to be ripped off a gift the recipient may not want or need, it drives me mad.
So one year, I came up with an alternative Yuletide tradition. My son and I headed north to Tutukaka. We booked a little Airbnb by the sea and explored the many beaches and coves - and it wasn't at all crowded, because the lunatics were all at the shops; but the highlight of that trip was an excursion to The Poor Knights, my Christmas present to both of us.
These extraordinary islands are found within a 1890ha marine reserve that was established in 1981, although it wasn't until 1998 that a full ban on fishing was introduced. Today it is recognised as one of the world's best dive sites, with Jacques Cousteau having listed it in his top 10.
Early one still December morning, with not a cloud in the sky, we joined our vessel at the Tutukaka marina, where Skipper Glen Edney welcomed us aboard. We were a small group, he said, because things wouldn't get busy until Boxing Day - then it would be frantic every day until the end of January.
Following the safety briefing, a bit of paperwork and the all-important information about the soups we could avail ourselves of, we motored out to sea. It takes about an hour to get to these pristine islands, which lie 23km offshore and the voyage itself was charming. The sun sparkled on the water and there were no other boats in sight – it felt heavenly, to be so far from the madding crowds.
The Poor Knights consist of two main islands, Tahiti Rahi (151ha) and Aorangi (101ha), as well as several other smaller land masses dotted about their skirts. An idiosyncratic archipelago, these islands were formed more than four million years ago by a rhyolitic volcano that originally stood more than 1000m tall and was 25km in diameter. Once attached to the mainland, thanks to significant sea-level rise following the last Ice Age the islands are now a far cry from shore.
Famous for botanical marvels including the rare Poor Knights lily, the islands are also an important site for seabirds, with colonies of gannets, an estimated 20,000 pairs of Buller's shearwaters and on land, a subspecies of korimako (bellbird) that is endemic to the islands. Because you can't land without a permit - and they're usually only granted for conservation purposes - the birds and bush are protected and the birdsong is deliciously deafening.
When we reached Tahiti Rahi, we anchored for our first snorkel under the watchful eyes of shags that perched on the rocks doing their laundry, their expansive wings spread out to dry.
But nothing could have prepared us for the wonders beneath the water. Such clear blue sea, such amazing visibility: we saw all manner of fish including a range of rays. Watching the busy creatures go about their business, it was like having a front-row seat at an underwater soap opera. Large schools of blue moki swirled continuously and giant kingfish buzzed by on the hunt. Rare sponges, corals and anemones also call this place home and we propelled ourselves through little caverns and gazed down deep drops, soaking it all up.
Theo, with his younger, sharper eyes, would spot all sorts of wonders, then point them out to me, including the largest crayfish I've ever seen. The rock lobster's extravagant antennae extended beyond a bed of the healthiest kelp and I was mesmerised.
We snorkelled at two sites, staying in the water till our teeth chattered and our lips turned blue. We also had time for a kayak and an enchanting flute recital given by Glenn in Rikoriko Cave, the world's largest sea cave.
The sea life was staggering, and it made us realise how wonderful the oceans closer to shore could be if there were significantly more marine protection areas. Now wouldn't that make for a very merry Christmas?
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