New Zealand is a nation of islands. The mainland is flanked by more than 600 smaller islands that lie within about 50 kilometres of the coast. (There are also more distant groups, officially called offshore islands – the Kermadecs, the Chathams and the subantarctic islands.)
Most of New Zealand’s nearshore islands lie near the North Island, between North Cape and East Cape. They include:
Around the lower North Island there are few islands. The largest is Kāpiti Island, north-west of Wellington.
In the South Island there are three major clusters.
The topography and geology of islands vary enormously, from low islands barely above the high tide mark to rugged mountain blocks. All are made of hard rock, which is resistant to wave action – where the coastline has softer rock, there are no islands.
Many offshore islands – including those in the Bay of Islands, Marlborough Sounds and Fiordland – began as hilltops or ridges, flanking valleys that were eroded during the ice ages. As the ice sheets melted and the sea level rose, high areas were isolated and became islands.
There are a few island volcanoes. Rangitoto Island, near Auckland, is the youngest and largest of Auckland’s volcanic cones, and erupted around 1400 CE.
In 1886 the mineral taranakite was first discovered on the Sugar Loaf Islands (Ngā Motu), which are scattered near New Plymouth in Taranaki. Taranakite forms from a chemical reaction between bird droppings (guano) and old volcanic rock.
Nearby Browns Island (Motukorea) was a volcano that formed on land but became an island as the sea level rose. In the Bay of Plenty, Whakaari (White Island) is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and one of the few that is privately owned.
Many other islands are eroded remnants of volcanic rock – for example, the Poor Knights, Hen Island, Little Barrier and the Mercury and Alderman islands off the Coromandel coast, and the Sugar Loaf Islands (Ngā Motu) near New Plymouth.
New Zealand’s nearshore islands have always attracted people. As experienced seafarers from the Pacific Islands, Māori were at home on islands. Seafood was plentiful, and the ocean and cliffs formed natural defences.
Some islands were noted points of arrival for Māori waka (canoes). It is said that the chief Manaia landed the canoe Māhuhu-ki-te-rangi at Motu Kōkako, the famous hole in the rock at the entrance to the Bay of Islands in the north. His people then settled on the Poor Knights and Hen and Chickens islands. In the same area, the Ngātiwai tribe established themselves on Little Barrier and Great Barrier islands.
When the renowned chief Te Rauparaha led the Ngāti Toa people and their allies south to a new home in the Wellington region in the 1820s, he chose Kāpiti Island as his base. Much further south, his opponent, the Ngāi Tahu leader Tūhawaiki, had a home on Ruapuke Island, off present-day Bluff.
The islands around Stewart Island were an important harvesting ground for tītī (muttonbirds), and Māori still have harvesting rights there. Other islands also held valuable resources. Tūhua (Mayor Island) was an important source of obsidian, a volcanic glass used for cutting and scraping, while D’Urville Island provided adzite or baked argillite for making adzes.
The first European arrivals were also seafarers who found refuge on islands.
Two Marlborough Sounds islands featured prominently in Cook’s explorations. On 31 January 1770 he raised the British flag at the top of Motuara, claiming the South Island in the name of King George III. A plaque now marks the spot. Later, from a hill on Arapawa Island, Cook first saw the strait between the North and South islands that now bears his name.
Sealers explored the islands in search of their prey. The first Europeans to live in New Zealand were a sealing gang dropped by the Britannia on Anchor Island in Dusky Sound in 1792, with a year’s provisions. Over 10 months, they collected 4,500 sealskins, built the first European house in the country, and nearly completed New Zealand’s first European boat.
Later sealers were often left on islands to hunt. One unfortunate group was abandoned on bleak Solander Island for four and a half years before being rescued.
Te Awaiti, a shore whaling station, was set up on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds in the 1820s. From hilltop lookouts, whalers could spot whales migrating through Cook Strait. Boats were then sent out to harpoon them and tow the carcasses to the station for rendering.
In 1911 the Perano family founded a whaling industry at Arapawa that lasted until the end of New Zealand-based whaling in 1964. Kāpiti was also an active station.
Like Māori, Europeans found precious rocks and minerals on islands. In the 19th century both Kawau and Waiheke islands were mined for manganese and copper.
In 1885 mining for sulfur began on Whakaari (White Island), and the volcanic rock there was mined for fertiliser. The project was abandoned in 1933 because of the economic depression, and the difficulty of working on an active volcano.
Many attempts have been made to farm larger islands such as Waiheke and Great Barrier in the Hauraki Gulf, and Arapawa and D’Urville in the Marlborough Sounds. Farming has often been marginal economically, due to the high cost of bringing in materials and ferrying stock to mainland markets.
In 1897 Great Barrier Island was the site of the world’s first regular airmail service – by pigeon. Flying the 90-odd kilometres to Auckland, the birds carried up to five messages, which were often shopping lists. An aptly-named pigeon called Velocity once covered the distance in 50 minutes, an average speed of 125 kilometres per hour. The service ended in 1908.
In the 20th century, as yachting and boating became more popular, a number of islands became attractive holiday centres. In the 1920s the largest island in the Bay of Islands, Urupukapuka, was a favourite haunt of the American writer and deep-sea angler Zane Grey. Other islands in the bay attract yachties and are visited by tourists on the popular ‘cream trip’. A single launch once collected cream from island farms and delivered mail, but several tourist boats now sail its route.
Great Barrier Island and Waiheke are popular with holidaymakers, while Kawau draws many pleasure boats. Other islands in the Hauraki Gulf and the Marlborough Sounds attract boaties who enjoy isolated beaches.
Many people took up the challenge of island living, which calls for self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Children living on small islands had no access to schools, and even today are taught by their mothers, helped by the Correspondence School.
Landings on Stephens Island, in Cook Strait, were tricky: ‘There is no wharf, and during the lighthouse era people and stores had to be winched ashore in a metal box by derrick. Many are the tales of people being left swinging when the winch failed, taking sudden plunges toward the waves, or being dropped hard on to the boat when the winch operator misjudged the rise and fall of the vessel.’ 1
One of the loneliest jobs was that of lighthouse keeper, especially before radios became common. Steep cliffs made landing dangerous, and many islands received supplies only a few times a year. Eventually the lighthouses were automated. Some islands were turned into wildlife sanctuaries and a few lighthouse keepers, intrigued by island wildlife, retrained as conservation officers.
Even in the 2000s, many people are willing to pass up some comforts of modern living for the rewards of island life. On Great Barrier, there is no mains electricity or reticulated water – people use generators and bottled-gas stoves and refrigerators, and often heat their water with solar panels.
Islands near New Zealand’s main ports were useful for keeping people in isolation. Ships often carried people with contagious diseases, and crew and passengers would be interned at nearby islands until they were cleared. Livestock were also kept on islands until they could be declared disease-free. In wartime, the islands became jails for prisoners of war and ‘enemy aliens’.
In 1863 the ship Victory, carrying people ill with smallpox, arrived at Port Chalmers. Forbidden to dock, the passengers and crew were put ashore on an island in Otago Harbour – Quarantine Island. Over the years until the 1890s, it held people from more than 40 ships. Later, a few First World War soldiers who came home with venereal diseases were interned there. The island is now a recreation reserve and religious retreat, renamed St Martin Island.
As the Canterbury settlement grew, quarantine facilities for immigrant ships were built in Lyttelton Harbour, first on tiny Rīpapa Island in 1873, then on Ōtamahua (Quail Island).
Children with diphtheria from a Lyttelton orphanage were isolated there in 1879–80. The quarantine station was used at the end of the First World War for people recovering from the influenza pandemic.
In 1906 a Christchurch man with leprosy was sent to the island. He was eventually joined by eight other leprosy sufferers, all restricted to cottages in a ‘leper village’. Only one died of the disease – his grave lies near the former colony – and in 1925 the remaining residents were transferred to Western Samoa.
While the lepers were confined to one small area, the island was also being used to quarantine livestock. Several Antarctic expeditions used the island. Robert Falcon Scott quarantined huskies for his 1901–4 Discovery expedition, and trained Siberian ponies and huskies there for the 1910–13 Terra Nova expedition. Ernest Shackleton had 15 Manchurian ponies broken in for his 1907–8 expedition, and Yukon huskies were held there for Richard Byrd’s 1928–30 expedition.
For several months in 1903–4 a Chinese man, Kim Lee, lived alone on the tiny island of Mokopuna, in Wellington Harbour. A fruit shop owner, he was diagnosed with leprosy and sent to nearby Matiu (Somes Island), but after complaints from other residents he was exiled to Mokopuna. There he lived in a cave. On fine days the lighthouse keeper rowed out with supplies, and in rough weather rice and fruit arrived via a flying fox. Kim Lee died alone there in March 1904.
Ōtamahua finally became a recreation reserve in 1975. In summer harbour ferries call in several times a day, and thousands of people visit each year.
Matiu (Somes Island), in Wellington Harbour, was named by the Polynesian explorer Kupe. The remains of two fortified villages built by the Ngāti Ira tribe are found there.
As Wellington grew, Matiu was designated for human quarantine, and after the arrival of a ship carrying smallpox in 1872, a station was built. Forty people are buried on the island. Most were prospective settlers who died within sight of their new home between 1872 and 1876. There are six influenza victims from 1919.
From 1893 Matiu also became one of the country’s main animal quarantine areas, with human and animal facilities side by side. The accommodation blocks were used in both world wars to house interned ‘enemy aliens’ – German, Italian and Japanese nationals seen as a risk to the country’s security. The island is now run by the Department of Conservation as a scientific and historic reserve.
During the First World War, Motuihe Island near Auckland was a prisoner-of-war camp. One inmate was a German naval captain, Count Felix von Luckner. He and others escaped in a launch, seized a scow and sailed north. Hunted down, they were recaptured in the Kermadec Islands. Luckner was transferred to Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour, then back to Motuihe until the war ended. He made a voluntary return visit to New Zealand in the 1930s during a round-the-world cruise. Luckner charmed audiences with talks about his wartime exploits, but some saw him as an apologist for the Nazi regime.
Motuihe, 15 kilometres from Auckland, has a long history of Māori settlement and conquest. Europeans purchased the island in 1837 and it was farmed until 1872, when the Crown set it aside as a quarantine station for humans. Facilities for animals were added later.
In 1914, at the start of the First World War, the station was turned into a prisoner-of-war camp. In the Second World War the island became a naval training base. Today Motuihe is a recreational reserve and popular picnic spot.
During glacial periods, when the sea level was lower, most nearshore islands were connected to the mainland. When the sea rose to its present height about 6,000 years ago, isolated hills became islands. Today, their plants and animals generally resemble those of the nearby coast, but few remain in their original state. Māori brought the kiore or Polynesian rat – a deadly threat to many native creatures – to mainland New Zealand and some of these islands. Europeans cleared the land and brought new plants and a host of predators.
The more isolated islands still have some unique species. One of the world’s rarest trees grows on Great Island in the Three Kings group – a single specimen of Pennantia baylisiana. The Poor Knights Islands, with caves, sea arches and prolific marine life, were cited by marine explorer Jacques Cousteau as one of the world’s 10 best subtropical diving locations.
Stephens Island in the Marlborough Sounds was the last home of the tiny, nocturnal, flightless Stephens Island wren. Discovered in 1894, it became extinct in 1895. It was once thought that the wrens were all killed by Tibbles, the lighthouse keeper’s cat, but feral cats and tree clearance may have also played a part.
Some islands became refuges for animals that were once abundant on the mainland. For example, by 1910, there were only 500 surviving North Island saddlebacks, all on Hen Island, off the Whāngārei coast. By 1964 Big Cape Island, off Stewart Island, was the only home for the 36 South Island saddlebacks that remained. When rats invaded, the birds were taken to rat-free islands close by. At this time, Little Barrier Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, was the only place you could find stitchbirds.
Nearshore islands host all of New Zealand’s tuatara, with the largest population on Stephens Island. That island is also home to Hamilton’s frog, possibly the world’s rarest amphibian. Its habitat once consisted of a single boulder bank near the island’s summit. Maud Island has pakeka frogs, which are almost as rare.
As naturalists noted with alarm the disappearance of many native species, the government started purchasing islands as sanctuaries. The first nature reserve was Resolution Island in Fiordland, set aside in 1891. Richard Henry, the curator, was aware of the carnage that predators caused among flightless birds. He pioneered capture techniques and transferred more than 700 kākāpō and kiwi to the island. But stoats eventually swam to the island and killed the birds.
In 1893, four years before the government bought Kāpiti Island for a nature reserve, a few Australian brushtail possums were released there. They soon multiplied, despite early efforts at trapping. They preyed on native birds, and their huge appetite for leaves and fruit curbed regrowth of the forest. Eventually, between 1980 and 1986, the entire possum population of 21,000 was eradicated.
Soon after, Little Barrier and Kāpiti islands were purchased. The Department of Conservation now manages or has an interest in more than 220 islands larger than 5 hectares in area.
Some islands are being restored to something resembling their original ecology, with unwanted animals entirely eradicated. Larger browsing animals such as wild cattle and goats are the first to go, followed by smaller predators – cats and possums, stoats and weasels, and eventually rats. Existing patches of native vegetation are enlarged, often with the help of planting programmes.
Some sparse populations have become abundant once again. Other species were reintroduced to their former homes, while some islands became sanctuaries for animals never previously found there. Kākāpō were once plentiful, but when only a few remained in Fiordland and on Stewart Island, they were moved to Whenua Hou/Codfish, Maud and Little Barrier islands, and in 2003 to Fiordland’s Chalky Island.
Most conservation islands restrict access to prevent disturbance or the arrival of unwanted pests. But several are open to the public. Kāpiti Island near Wellington and Tiritiri Matangi near Auckland have similar histories. Once cleared for farming, they now have no animal pests, and native forest has been re-established – over 250,000 native trees were planted on Tiritiri Matangi. Both are refuges for saddlebacks, kōkako, stitchbirds, little spotted kiwi and takahē. Not far from Kāpiti is Mana Island, also a bird sanctuary, and noted for its ‘colony’ of concrete gannets, built to tempt real gannets to breed there.
In the 1970s the government decided to kill wild goats and sheep on Arapawa Island, in the Marlborough Sounds. Protesters claimed the animals were descendants of those left by James Cook. DNA tests showed some were genetically unique. Many were culled, but others were sent to farms and wildlife parks. Betty Rowe led the rescue campaign and established a sanctuary on Arapawa Island.
To create areas where people could not disturb the ocean, seabed and seashore, the Marine Reserves Act was passed in 1971. The first reserve was at Goat Island, north of Auckland (now Cape Rodney–Ōkakari Point Marine Reserve). The second was the ocean around the Poor Knights Islands, noted for subtropical fish. Others include islands off the Coromandel Peninsula, Tūhua (Mayor Island) in the Bay of Plenty, Kāpiti Island, Long Island in the Marlborough Sounds, Tonga Island in Abel Tasman National Park, Elizabeth Island in Fiordland and Ulva Island near Stewart Island.
Hall-Jones, John. Fiordland explored: an illustrated history. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1976.
McGeorge, Pamela. New Zealand’s islands. Auckland: David Bateman, 2004.
McGill, David. Island of secrets: Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. Wellington: Steele Roberts & Silver Owl, 2001.
Potton, Craig. The story of Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park. Blenheim: Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park Board, 1986.
Rowe, Betty. Arapawa: once upon an island. Auckland: Halcyon, 1988.
The story of Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park. Auckland: Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board, 1983.