I laid in darkness floating just below the surface of the water, as the cool water of the sub-tropical Pacific Ocean compressed my dry suit around my body. I did what I could to slow my heart rate and control my breathing, but it was no use. The excitement of my location and the chill of the water impeded my success.
Only days before, I was over 5,000 miles away going about my daily rituals. A last-minute issue prevented the planned guide from running this trip; and even though it meant being away from my family for Thanksgiving, I was quick to take on the task. Now here I sat at a location Jacque Cousteau rated as one of the best dives in the world. My day dreaming was interrupted by the splash of another diver entering the water. With a light inhale, the cold air from my scuba tank inflated my lungs and brought me back to the surface. As I opened my eyes I was greeted not by the bright sun, but instead a rock ceiling over 100’ above me. Laying on the surface of the ocean inside of the largest sea caves in the world, I could not help but feel as though I had finally found the perfect location to spend the rest of my life.
Riko Riko Cave, the largest sea cave in the world, is tucked away in the secluded Poor Knights Islands just off the Northeast coast of the North Island, near the small town of Tutukaka! Our group had arrived in New Zealand just after sunrise the morning before and much of our day was spent traveling to the town of Tutukaka. Even before we entered the water for our first dive in the Poor Knights Islands I knew the next two weeks would be an amazing experience I would never forget. We would be spending the next week exploring the Poor Knights with one of the best dive operations I have ever had the pleasure of diving with, Dive! Tutukaka. The shop manager knew of my passion for caves and was clearly making an effort to start our trip off on the right track.
Our trip to the Poor Knights Islands took only about 45 minutes on board the Calypso (a 55’ custom dive boat). The Calypso is just one of the operations five vessels and features two onboard heads, a kitchen, hot showers and everything a recreational diver could ever desire. As we approached Riko Riko Cave the boat slowed and slipped directly into the mouth of the massive cave. The cave could have easily engulfed another vessel or two, with a surface volume of over 7.8 million cubic feet, it is nearly twice as large as the next largest sea cave in the world.
As a dive site, Riko Riko Cave provides an amazing opportunity for divers. Divers can experience multiple marine environments all during a single dive, because of the nature of the cave. At the back of the cave divers encounter a stark and moon-like environment of boulders and rocky bottoms that light never reaches. Here you will encounter marine life that you would normally only find in the dark depths hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface. By the time you reach the entrance area of the cave, divers will find themselves in a massive kelp forest rich with life. As you travel through the cave you can witness a changing of aquatic life you would normal only be able to experience on TV or by venturing hundreds of feet down an ocean wall.
During my 75 minute dive at this amazing location I encountered countless species of nudibranch, eels, eagle rays, countless types of stunning fish, an amazing assortment of sea urchins and even a carpet shark. At the back of the cave the long forgotten bones of a whale who selected the cave as his final resting place can be seen. All of this in less than 60’ of water and over 100’ of visibility.
As I broke the surface of the water at the end of my dive I could not help but think there was no way to top this dive, but I would quickly be proven wrong. After getting back on the boat we enjoyed an onboard lunch the shop had packed for us of sandwiches, hot soups, fruit and hot drinks. With our stomachs full, the engines started back up and motored only a few tenths of a mile from the entrance to the cave to a dive site called Trevor’s Rocks. Even though we had traveled only a short distance outside of the cave when we entered the water, we encountered a kelp forest so dense that it made the forest outside of the Riko Riko Cave look like a barren waste land devoid of life. Sponges, anemones, nudibranchs, cucumbers, sea stars, and eels covered the rocky floor of the area. To top of the experience, hidden throughout the kelp jungle were countless eagle rays.
While the underwater world is absolutely stunning, the surface provides for many amazing opportunities as well. The beauty of islands were so tempting I even elected to skip a dive to take advantage of the kayaks onboard, so I could get a closer look at the amazing life found on the shores of the Poor Knights Islands. Even though I was not able to get on the shore of these amazing islands, the kayaks allowed you to get close enough to enjoy the coast. If that wasn’t enough to make the surface experience exciting, the Poor Knights islands are covered with sea arches large enough to drive boats through.
During our five days of diving the Poor Knights, not only did I get a chance to visit the largest sea cave in the world, pass through two large sea arches, but we also got a chance to visit a number of amazing dive sites including the world-famous Northern Arch featured in the BBC documentary “Planet Earth”. With the bottom of the arch sitting at around 160’, those qualified can proceed to the base of the arch and enjoy an amazing view of hundreds of rays stacked during the migration season.
The stories I could tell you about what you will encounter in the Poor Knights Islands, and for that matter New Zealand as a whole, are simply endless. No amount of reading stories or seeing pictures will ever prepare you for just how amazing this location is. Where ever your dive adventures have taken you in the past, the Poor Knights Islands and Dive! Tutukaka will surely be at the top of your experience list just as it was for me.
Avery Z. Chipka : @azchipka