As good as the marine reserve is, it used to be better, writes Clarke Gayford.

There were different types of medieval knights, one group was of rich aristocratic heritage who entered the realm via birthright.

Others were honest, blue-collar knights who fought their way up through the ranks. Some, in post-service hardship, were rewarded with a military pension: they became known as The Poor Knights.

The Poor Knights Islands therefore are thought to be named as an homage to working-class veterans, bestowed by a visiting captain splashing names about as he did his coastline cartography. In situ it's a scraggly collection of weather-gnarled pillars, remnants of a 10 million-year-old volcanic cone standing 23km offshore from the Tutukākā coast. Today it's a marine sanctuary life raft that was considered by famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau as one of his top 10 dive sites in the world. Although if you ask our own famed marine biologist, Wade Doak, who was out studying the islands when Cousteau came to visit: "It was a shame he didn't come on a good day - he may have ranked it higher." Having spent more time out there than most, Doak understands how good it can get.

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It's hard to know where to begin explaining the diversity of life found here both above and below the water. The rock structure alone is a geologist's dream, it has sea tunnels so large on several islands you can drive a boat right through. It also has the world's largest sea cave by volume; it can house three large dive boats. Dive below and a lifetime of discoveries exist in just the sea sponges, soft corals and vibrant collection of marine plants that cling to the rock walls. The fish life here is extraordinary, with the islands far enough offshore to exist in an eastern current line not present on the coast. This brings in life not seen on the mainland, including tropical fish visitors. Tropical blue water flows in during the summer months providing up to 30m of visibility.

But, as good as it is, it used to be so much better, just ask Doak. All too often we are lulled into a false sense of having done the right thing with our marine reserves, but they represent just a fraction of our marine space, and unfortunately most fish don't recognise boundaries. This means that transiting species have disappeared as fish stocks fall all along this part of the coast.

So while it swarms with clouds of resident fish including snapper, pink and blue maomao, kahawai and reef fish like the charismatic Sandager's wrasse, Doak laments the missing schools of hāpuku he once swam with here in shallow waters. Nearly completely gone too are spiny red lobster and packhorse crayfish. Having been fished almost to collapse outside the reserve, they have all but disappeared from within. What we think of as good today, was a fraction of how things used to be. They call this shifting baselines and it's an important concept to remember as we manage fisheries going forward.

There was a lot of resistance when the reserve was first proposed, but as is so often the case, when locals began to see the benefits, perspectives soon changed. Now some of the early detractors are fierce protectors of its restrictions. Operators like Dive Tutukākā run multiple big boats on daily island trips. The throng of tourists, 14,000 a year, more than half of whom are foreign, bring an estimated $10 million of economic activity into the area each year. Just ask local restaurants like Schnappa Rock or Wahi how important the Poor Knights attraction is during the quieter winter months. It's an economic lifeline to the area, the reserve contributing a staggering $200 million directly to the local economy since its inception 20 years ago. All of this because people like Doak had the gumption and energy to push hard for a reserve at a time when people had little concept of what they could offer in return. Now it sits as a tangible glimpse of what an abundant fishery could look like.

You don't need to be a diver to enjoy an incredible day out at the islands; you don't even have to snorkel or to leave the boat to thoroughly enjoy a trip. It's a place that should be considered essential travel as a Kiwi right of passage. We have more coastline than mainland China and if you want to see some of the best of what we have, I can't encourage this trip enough. Rich and poor knights are all welcome.