diving in poor knights island

Travels: SCUBA with Dive Tutukaka at Poor Knights Islands

March 16, 2019

Our last three days in New Zealand and THIS was something Ethan and I were incredibly excited about. We scheduled an Introduction to SCUBA dive with Dive Tutukaka. I’m certified but Ethan isn’t. This allowed us to go with an instructor and get under the water at one of the most spectacular dive sites in the world.

Can you see those little bumps way out there on the horizon? Those are Poor Knights Islands. It’s just under a two hour cruise out to these isolated bits of paradise. The company gets you all suited up and fitted with wetsuits, fins, masks, everything. If I had known ahead of time that it was available, I would have asked for prescription lens masks because they have those too. I didn’t find that out until we were well out on the water.

The sky and the ocean were bright blue. The waves were – shall we say exciting? I am eternally grateful that I don’t get motion sick. In fact, I love the feeling of riding over the waves. And this was more of a bucking bronco ride than any I’ve ever experienced. About half an hour out I had the new experience of seeing someone actually, literally, turn green. I always thought it was a metaphor. It’s not.

On the way out our dive instructor and the four of us assigned to her were up top, above the cabin, clinging to the edge of a rolling vessel as we were instructed on a few of the basics of SCUBA. It was funny to watch everyone slide back and forth on the bench. Not so funny for all of our green friends.
Fortunately, once we reached the islands and anchored right up in the lee of this big beautiful piece of rock, the water calmed right down. We had very specific boundaries that would keep us out of the dangerous waves and currents while we were in the water. When we arrived the first thing I was was a school of fish – feeding right next to the boat on the water’s surface. Bright blue. About the size of …. hmmm… a kids nerf football? Smaller than the real ones. It was the first time I’ve seen anything like that.

While our instructor took her first pair of divers down Ethan and I snorkeled. Glad I did. It took a bit just to get used to that. My mask kept filling. I think it wasn’t quite under the wetsuit hood and the edge was leaking because of that. And I kept swallowing or choking on sea water. That meant my nose started running like crazy. I’m the first to admit that I’m a bumbling fool when it comes to water and breathing. But…. this was absolute magic. 

The water is clear – you can see 40′ down to the bottom. And I swear, it’s like jumping into the middle of Finding Nemo. It’s the only thing I can give you that equates to what we could see. It was SO full of sea life of all sizes and colors. I couldn’t bring myself to dive down in, and I couldn’t see that well – as in everything was just a blurry mass of color and movement. But it was amazing.

Now, the rest of my writing here is meant to encourage you, not to scare you off SCUBA.

This is all about DOING HARD THINGS.

Doing things that terrify you – but they are totally worth doing. I need some serious practice with SCUBA to not be a bumbling fool. Thank heavens I had certified so I knew what I was in for, but it’s been a few years and I’ve never dived in the open ocean. I knew all the ways it was going to be really, really hard for me, and I was determined to do it anyway.

I have yet to get my buoyancy control right. You are supposed to just float peacefully at just the right height, never touching the bottom. Your vest is connected to your tank so you can add in or let out air and you also have a belt full of weights. I add the tiniest bit of air and suddenly I’m uncontrollably rising. That’s not good. I let out the littlest bit and I’m bouncing along the bottom thinking “what creatures am I killing!?!?!?” with every movement. That’s not good either.

I think I need about a solid week of every day practice to figure any of this out. But look up there – that’s ME in the pink fins. Ethan is next to me. Of course this athletically graceful young man took to SCUBA like a fish. I knew he would. Yes, he is gifted that way, but he also puts in a lot of work with his body in so many different ways. He’s a lifeguard and has spent tons of time in the water. He’s done the work it takes to be comfortable in challenging physical environments. He works hard to keep his body strong. He has put in the time. If I had put in the time, I would be better too.

This is a scorpion fish, the only poisonous fish in the area. The one we saw was camouflaged on the bottom. Our instructor was pointing it out, along with nudibranchs and tiny gobi fish. I had to work to get down to where she was pointing but didn’t see anything until I was six inches away and then realized – WAIT – That’s the poison one!! – Don’t bump into it!!!! I was already moving down and I couldn’t put my hand anywhere to redirect myself with the all giant beautiful spiky blackish purple sea urchins and other sea life all over the place. It was a bit of a panic to change direction. I managed to do it but scared everything away with all my flailing. Nothing horrible happened. 

That’s me tangled up in the seaweed/kelp again. My mask also kept filling up. My nose also kept running. I was constantly clearing my mask. I was constantly trying to equalize my ears. My jaw hurt from biting the mouthpiece so hard. My lips weren’t tight enough so water kept coming in my mouth. I felt like I was drowning to the whole time. I tasted bile in the back of my throat the whole time – sure I was going to puke into the respirator. I could feel my heart pounding in panic the entire time I was down. About 45 minutes. I was a complete mess. And yet…..


There was absolute magic and beauty everywhere I looked. There might have been a lot of tears of joy mixed in with snot and seawater in my mask. I was in awe. I also knew I had an instructor, a guide, that would keep me alive. It was a kind of beauty and joy I’ve never experienced before. Every second was panic. Every second was elation. I knew I could stop if I felt my panic starting to overwhelm me and close my eyes, take three calm, slow breaths, and let soothing words of gratitude run through my mind instead of anything close to “I can’t do this.” I had to do that a lot. Then I opened my eyes and kept on going. It was worth it. It was really worth it.

Here is a link to beautiful video …. yes. It was JUST like this!

Moral of the story: YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS! As an artist, there are many things that might terrify you but it might be those very things that are most worth doing. Find a mentor. Jump into the deep water. Don’t give up if it’s a struggle and you aren’t good at it. 

Look. I survived. With a smile! You can too.

This is, by the way, the largest sea cave (by volume). Next time I come do this (and there will be a next time) I will have put in enough time and effort that I will be able to dive here too. I’m going to make it happen.

This was Jules (I think) our wonderful dive master. We are up top about 15′ above the water learning about the geology and history of the place. On the way back the sea was rough enough the skipper needed us all down on deck. Most people stayed in the cabin… green again. A couple of us enjoyed the fresh air and lots and lots of spray as we hung on for the wild ride back to the shelter of the harbor.

Thank you Dive Tutukaka!  I’ll be back.

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