The Waitematā Harbour (also known as Auckland Harbour) is a drowned river valley, stretching from Riverhead in the north-west to Tāmaki River in the east. It has tidal flats and mangroves in the upper reaches to the west, and sandy bays with sandstone cliffs along the eastern shores. The harbour’s deep navigable channels and sheltered bays helped to determine Lieutenant-Governor Hobson’s choice of a site for New Zealand's capital in 1840.
Naming the waters
Wai-te-matā means ‘obsidian waters’ – the glassy surface resembled volcanic obsidian rock. In Te Arawa tradition, the harbour was named by the ancestor Tamatekapua, when he placed a volcanic stone as a mauri (talisman) in its waters near Birkenhead. The Ngāpuhi people called it Te Wai-o-te-mate (the waters of death) – a reference to battles to control the Tāmaki isthmus.
Māori forts around Waitematā’s headlands were redeveloped for the Russian invasion scare in the 1880s and the Second World War.
Auckland’s chief port
Auckland’s port on the Waitematā was vital to the progress of the city and region. The first of a series of land reclamations to expand the port area began in 1859. By 1900, 132 acres (53 hectares) of land had been reclaimed from the harbour. By 1955 the total had reached 390 acres (157 hectares).
In 2015 the port handled 31% of New Zealand’s container trade. Each summer about 30 cruise liners berth at the nearby Princes Wharf. A law change in 2004 transferred 80% of the Ports of Auckland Ltd assets from private to Auckland City Council control.
Viaduct Basin to Westhaven
The Viaduct Basin, site of the old fishing harbour, was redeveloped in the mid-1990s as a site where the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron could host the America’s Cup in 1999 and 2003. Today restaurants and mega-yachts make it a lively hub of activity. Nearby is the Maritime Museum on Hobson’s Wharf. The Westhaven Marina, with 1,800 berths, is the largest managed marina in Australasia, and a symbol of Aucklanders’ love of sailing. Other marinas have been constructed around the harbour. On Auckland Anniversary Day each year the Auckland Regatta (the largest one-day regatta in the world) fills the harbour with sails.
Auckland Harbour Bridge
The Auckland Harbour Bridge (1,020 m long) was opened in 1959 to link the Auckland isthmus with the north. It spans the harbour from Point Erin to Stokes Point. Designed by Freeman Fox and Partners, with a cantilever-style single span, it was the last bridge in the world constructed with a steel lattice girder. In 1969 four outer lanes were added. Pre-fabricated in Japan, these sections became known as the ‘Nippon clip-ons’.
The Greenhithe Bridge was built in 1975 as an alternative harbour crossing, spanning the upper Waitematā from Hobsonville to Greenhithe on the North Shore.
On the rocks
In his autobiography, historian Keith Sinclair described playing on Meola reef: ‘[The reef] was treacherous, with crevices in the black basalt rock. But it was also alive, with mussels, oysters, crabs, pools of shrimps and tommy-cod … Once out on the reef we would often light a fire and bake potatoes, wrapped in mud, in the embers. … There were edible shell-fish, too, including scallops to be picked up during exceptionally low tides. The Swiss Family Robinson had nothing on us.’ 1
Natural features of the Waitematā include Meola reef (also known as Te Tokoroa, meaning ‘a long reef’), a rocky sub-marine promontory. It was formed by lava flowing from the Three Kings eruption 20,000 years ago. Pollen Island Marine Reserve (Motu Manawa) on the northern side of the north-west motorway is the best Auckland example of a mangrove saltmarsh.