The Natural Lab - Leigh and Poor Knights

person snorkeling

Here we study marine reserves and marine ecology.

Leigh - The Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve was the first marine reserve to be established in New Zealand, and probably the first in the world. It encompasses a five-kilometre stretch of coastline and protects 547 ha of the marine environment. Once decimated by over-fishing, the establishment of this reserve has helped in the regeneration of the reef ecosystem and the rebuilding of fish numbers, and allows hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to view them in their natural habitat. The reserve is particularly famous for the presence of large, old fish that would normally be fished out of shallow coastal areas. Students carry out snorkel surveys and learn about the community dynamics of rocky reef ecosystems. In addition, students learn about the ecological and political aspects of Marine Reserves and Marine Protected Areas.

Poor Knights - The Poor Knights Islands are 24 km north-east off the coast of Northland and are home to a number of species that are endemic to New Zealand. Landing on these islands is strictly prohibited, but the area around them islands is a marine reserve, established in 1981 and regarded as one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Although we do not SCUBA dive as part of our programs, students do spend time snorkelling at both Leigh and the Poor Knights. The Poor Knights are known for their dramatic scenery, both above and below water, the presence of large pelagic and deepwater fish, and the diverse species mix that includes both subtropical and temperate species.















group posing in water wearing wetsuits and snorkling gear.

“The marine biology, ecology and biodiversity week was one of the best weeks of my life. I felt such a strong sense of self and place throughout the week, and connected on a deeply personal level with the underwater landscapes, the organisms living there, and each guest speaker. It was a new experience to be so shallow, surrounded by mangrove roots with the sun shining down, reflecting and lighting up the Neptune’s necklace that was loosely floating around. My knowledge of fish species increased exponentially. I could connect with the fish – it felt as if I looked into their souls. This helped me to understand so much more, to care that much more, than I did before. After swimming at Goat Island and the Poor Knights, I have no doubt in the effectiveness and importance of marine reserves. There are so many pressures on the ocean today and these sanctuaries are imperative to the health of our oceans. They are a glimpse into the past; of what all of the water around New Zealand once looked like. I will always return to the land, but my heart remains in the depths of the turquoise and royal blue waterways of the world.”

Emily VanGulick, University of New Hampshire