When Captain James Cook sailed past the Poor Knights Islands and supposedly named their seaward slopes blanketed in pohutukawa bloom after a popular pudding back home, one might have thought the month was December.
It wasn't. It was November 1769 and a possible reason for the early annual bloom, the effect from the warmer water temperature, explained crew member Craig as we headed toward these internationally iconic islands last month.
We were lucky, there were still rouge patches of our native Christmas tree dotting the islands where one of the country's largest pohutukawa forests grows. But Captain Cook wasn't to know; the Poor Knights Pudding he named them after was an English version of French toast with jam.
It had been a rough trip to reach the islands this day – think the three Kawakawa road humps back in the '80s, times one hour – and all part of the exciting adventure to reach our destination.
Along with Craig, were fellow Dive! Tutukaka crew Brendan and Kevin, who took us past the second largest archway in the southern hemisphere, before we entered the world's largest sea cave – Rikoriko.
Brendan explained that the cave is 222,000 cubic metres and named after the dancing/shimmering light within. In here, peculiarly, ferns grow upside down from the roof, possibly watered from the rain filtering through from the hillside. Famous bands have played in this cave, such are the acoustics, and we all have to test them by cupping our mouths with our hands and bellowing "Rikoriko" toward the roof.
After marvelling at the endless echo and agreeing that Six60 really needed to add this epic venue to their bucket list, we head around to park up at the Middle Arch where we are going to spend several hours snorkelling, kayaking and paddle boarding.
Converging warm water currents, a micro-climate and thousands of years of separation from the mainland 24km away have resulted in a unique biodiversity above and below water, earning the Poor Knights designated nature and marine reserve status.
The constant current streaming south from the tropics brings with it tropical visitors, who either pass through, stay seasonally or make it their permanent home. While the warm waters support many tropical visitors who settle on the reef permanently - living in harmony with the resident temperate fish - the Islands are too cold for some varieties, like the manta ray, humpbacks and turtles, who carry on by.
The coexisting subtropical and temperate marine life include more than 125 species of fish sharing this environment. The shady recesses of archways and caves offer comfort to species usually only found at depth, and act as safe havens for juveniles.
While there is a no fishing boundary for 800m around the islands, it's a feast for the eyes without even leaving the boat; with iridescent swarms of blue Mau Mau swimming past, we couldn't don our wetsuits fast enough to get in among them.
The crew were on hand to help with the gear, which had been fitted out back at base and we slipped into the warm waters and swam toward the arch.
It is fascinating under there; along with the blue and pink Mau Mau are triplefins, leatherjackets, demoiselle, black angelfish ... a kingfish swims by, and loads of giant snapper, interspersed with bright sparkly jewels floating in the current (later discovered to be sparkly plankton).
It is like a magical underwater world of slow motion, amid amplified vibrant scenery. Even after surfacing for a debrief, we were amazed at what had swam into range below us during our brief absence.
So immersed were we, that, before we knew it, time was up and we were hailed back to the boat with the tooting of the horn. Warm showers were on offer, along with hot drinks – not that we were cold, followed by lunch.
Then it was off round the corner to collect half a dozen scientists perched precariously on the sloping rocks with a ton of gear, who had been nocturnally researching the wildlife on the islands for the week.
Scientists are a select few given exclusive access to the islands. A total marine and nature reserve of 40 years - and pending World Heritage Site - the islands are the remnants of ancient volcanoes that erupted in the Pacific 'Ring of Fire', isolating them from the mainland. As a result, species have evolved differently, with insects and plants growing larger, known as "island gigantism".
On the few ridges and valleys, a unique blend of, including rare and endangered, plants, animals and insects have evolved and thrived, safe from mainland predators. Iconic among them is the tuatara, recognised as the world's only surviving dinosaur.
The dramatic cliffs and breathtaking scenery hold the tragic historical Māori tale that is said to have taken place.
A hard place to navigate and with no fresh water source, the Islands were once home to 400 people and populated with bustling terraced gardens and fortified pa sites. Occupied by Māori for many generations until the early 19th century, both main islands - Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi - were inhabited, but each by a different hapū (family tribal group).
Tawhiti Rahi was occupied by members of the Ngātiwai tribe who lived on the island seasonally, using it as a base to collect seafood and birds at abundant times of the year. They also had extensive gardens that were tended on a regular basis. To make the best use of the available soil and water, the gardens were terraced by building stone walls, many of which are intact today.
Aorangi Island was home to the Ngāti Toki people who lived there on a more permanent basis. They were mostly self-sufficient, growing their own vegetables and harvesting the plentiful kaimoana (seafood) from the rich surrounding waters.
Oral history suggests that sometime around 1820, a warrior named Tatua, who was chief of the islands, left the islands with his warriors to join the notorious Hongi Hika on a fighting expedition to the Hauraki Gulf.
During his absence, an Aorangi slave named Paha escaped and made his way to Hokianga where he reported to Chief Waikato of the Hikutu tribe that the islands lay undefended.
Waikato, having been insulted by Tatua several years previously when he was refused pigs he had come to trade for, immediately gathered his warriors and set out in three large waka (canoes) on the 320km journey to the Poor Knights.
The invaders reached the Islands after nightfall and, with no warriors to defend them, the locals were soon overwhelmed. Few survived the invasion, many jumping to their deaths from the high cliffs, rather than being taken prisoner.
However, several islanders were captured, including Tatua's wife Oneho and her daughter. Making his way back to Hokianga, Chief Waikato and his men stopped off at Whangaroa to rest. While there, a local chief recognised Oneho as a distant relative and helped her escape with her daughter.
Tatua must have been horrified by the scene that greeted him on his return to the islands. Only a few people had survived the invasion, including his son Wehiwehi, who had hidden in a cave during the fighting.
Gathering the survivors, Tatua left the islands never to return. He made his way to Rawhiti, in the Bay of Islands, where he was unexpectedly reunited with his wife and daughter.
The Poor Knights were declared strictly tapu (sacred) and have remained uninhabited since.
In 1922 the islands were declared a 'scenic' reserve and, in 1929, became a sanctuary for nature and imported game. However, besides the pigs left over from Māori occupation, no other wildlife was ever introduced to the Islands.
During these years, several scientific and archaeological expeditions took place and efforts were made to exterminate the now 'wild' pigs that were causing extensive damage to the bush and threatening the survival of many of the native species.
In 1936, the pigs were finally eradicated and the islands were left to recover and flourish as they once did, including the Poor Knights Lily.
In 1975, reserve status was granted for the protection of native flora and fauna and, when the Reserves Act of 1977 came into force, the islands were automatically classified as a nature reserve, the highest form of protection in New Zealand.
In 1981, they were established as New Zealand's second Marine Reserve and, in 1998, the Poor Knights was granted full Marine Reserve status, extending 800 metres out from any part of the islands and associated islets, rocks and stacks.
They are now a completely pest-free environment, making them one of the most important offshore reserves in the country and providing a safe haven for many threatened native species, including both rare sea and land birds. In fact, between October and May, millions of sea birds flock to the islands to breed.
Heading back to mainland, and after identifying the fish we'd spotted underwater from a book produced by the crew, our gaze turned seaward toward the retreating Knights with a new and more insightful appreciation.
With the islands slipping into the distance, Kevin pointed out the silhouette of a horizontal knight becoming apparent – another theory behind the name.
We mulled over the two scenarios for a while, before deciding it was all part of the mystery and mystic of the islands.
Thanks to Dive! Tutukaka for the Perfect Day experience. Further information can be found at: www.diving.co.nz