Poor Knights Island, Aorangi

The waves are seething all around us as the bow of the boat smashes back down into the water. The sea is rough as guts to put it plainly. Everyone is holding on. To ladders, benches, each other, anything that won't move basically. People are green. The Australian/Swiss honeymooners are thrown up from their seat and land sprawled on the deck, everyone giggles nervously once we see they aren't hurt. They jump back up on the seat and grips tighten. I can see the captain on the upper deck furiously working the wheel as he is lashed with spray and hunkers down into his windbreaker.

He sees me watching and gives the thumbs up. He's bloody well enjoying this. A young German gets up and crawls slowly to the kitchen where the sick bags are kept and grabs a couple for his girlfriend who has turned the colour of broccoli. He crawls back even slower and hands them to her. She uses the first one almost immediately and everyone politely tries to ignore her indiscretion. The sea is heaving.

Everyone knows they aren't going to die as we are too close to shore to not be saved, but there certainly are some nervous faces. The waves are three quarters as tall as the boat.

James, one of the dive instructors from Malta has come out for a dive on his day off, he lies taking a nap in the middle of the deck, oblivious. Cups rattle in the galley and various items go skidding along the deck and bang against edges.

It's not exactly a white squall, but rough enough to want to be back on land. Rewind five hours or so. Soon after a pod of friendly dolphins scuttle through the wake of the boat to say gidday and quickly disappear again, we are cruising through a huge natural archway of rock where the sun brings out the blue brilliance of the water and gannets dip in and out of the miniscule wind currents. The weather is outstanding.

The Poor Knights Islands 24km off the Tutukaka Coast is ranked as one of the top thirty dive sites in the world so its no surprise that most of the passengers on board are foreigners with extensive diving experience.

In 1981 the ocean surrounding the islands was established as New Zealand's second marine reserve. Extending for 800 metres offshore around the Poor Knights, the richness of the underwater life is breathtaking and totally undisturbed by fishing boats.

Caves, arches, tunnels and sheer underwater cliffs provide an extensive variety of habitats for exploration. Sponge gardens and gorgonian fields are inhabited by a myriad of fish, shellfish, urchins and anemones, with black coral found in deeper waters. Being the only snorkeller amongst a group of divers feels like going down to the bike track with a set of training wheels on. I am the nerd of the group. I also forgot to bring my lunch and am too embarrassed to say anything, so I am an unorganized, scaredy cat nerd.

"You can have a Milo or something while we get these divers sorted out and then you can potter around by yourself in the snorkel," says one of the instructors. I feel like a bit of an idiot because of it, and I confirm that idiot status when I hit my head on the ladder as I jump in the water tripping on my flippers. "Nah, I'm fine, really. It was just a little bump. The wetsuit padded it."

The water temperature is 16 degrees Celsius. Chilly but the double layered wetsuit and booties soon warm up as I flutter about on the surface looking for octopi and electric eels. We are told specifically not to wee in our hire wetsuits. The captain emphasizes that when he hires a car he doesn't wee in the glove box or the interior so therefore we shouldn't wee in his wetsuits. If we do he will know and will write 'Swampy' on our foreheads in permanent marker.

Because the islands lie in the path of the warm East Auckland Current, which swings down from the north of Australia bringing warmer water, many strange and subtropical underwater visitors come to the Poor Knights. In twenty metre deep water I follow along the cliff face with eyes wide open for signs of life. It begins with tiny little sprat type creatures and seaweed.

As the water gets shallower and closer to the underwater caves and rocky formations the life begins coming at me from all angles. Big snapper, massive schools of blue maomao, gold ribbon grouper, moray eels. Other pink, brown, purple and orange fish I don't know the name of. Starfish, sunfish, crayfish, goldfish? Maybe not goldfish, but more tucker than you could poke a stick at. All within an arms length, and all pretty relaxed to see me as long as I make no sudden movements.

Fish are strange. They seem to just lurk about and not do anything. They don't stand still eating like a cow or a sheep does. They don't glide with purpose like a bird and they don't sit around comforted like a dog or a cat. They just float a little bit and move listlessly back and forth looking confused. It would be like you or I walking up the road forty metres, turning around, going back, turning around, and again, and again.

I panic as I swim above what looks to be a rapidly ascending school of jellyfish. But it is just the bubbles from some of the divers well below me.

Continuing on, and warming up sufficiently I swim over the top of a sandy bar eight or so metres below and spy a gynormous Short-tail stingray. At first I think it is a flat boulder. It looks dead. But a few subtle movements of tail and body suggest it is just resting.

Since the death of Steve Irwin, stingrays have been vilified, but they are pretty magnificent creature to witness in their own environment. It's one of two I spot during the day and don't feel in danger at any stage.

We dive (snorkel) at two separate locations on the East side of the Poor Knights. There are supposedly around sixty other excellent spots brimming with marine life, kelp forests, and tumbling underwater staircases of rock.

The steep cliffs, which fringe the islands, plunge 100 metres below sea level in places before reaching the sandy seafloor. It's a wonderland for someone who hasn't really snorkeled before, and I find the divers to be equally impressed by the Poor Knights and its delights, as we sit around chatting about the dives as they all eat their lunch.

The actual islands of the Poor Knights is uninhabited by human life. Maori history states that Aorangi (Poor Knights) was once occupied for a number of generations by members of the Ngatiwai tribe. The population was approximately 300-400 of the Ngatiwai who also occupy the shoreline from Motukokako (Cape Brett) to Tawharanui (Cape Rodney) to Aotea (Great Barrier Island). The island was proclaimed tapu by ringa kaha Te Tatua (chief) in 1822 after his people were massacred on the island by Maori of the Hikuto tribe from Hokianga while Tatua and his warriors were fighting alongside Chief Hongi Hika in the Hauraki Gulf.

It is said that the massacre occurred because in 1806, the Hikutu tribe were refused supplies of pigs that they had come to trade for at the Poor Knights.

Remembering this insult 15 years later, Chief Waikato of the Hikutu was given information by an escaped slave, that the Poor Knights people lay defenseless. With three large canoes, the Hikutu people set out to raid the islands, to secure pigs and steal slaves. All but ten of the Poor Knights Maori were massacred.

The Ngatiwai remain guardian of the tapu. Which also covers the surrounding waters because some of the occupants had jumped off the cliffs to avoid being taken prisoner by the invaders. This is one of the stories our captain gives us in his descriptive history of the island between dives.

Now that the Maori have gone, giant weta are the biggest land based inhabitants on the Poor Knights but we don't see any from the boat. Our day of diving/snorkeling has come to an end. We pull out of the bay and one of the instructors tell us the water has chopped up in a big way, so hold on. There won't be any stopping to look at dolphins on the ride home, and the sick bags are up near the bow. Thanks for coming.