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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


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Foveaux Strait is a seaway, 16 miles wide, separating Stewart Island from the South Island. The strait is mainly flat-floored, between 10 and 15 fathoms deep, but with scoured channels and hollows down to 25 fathoms. Near the centre the floor of the strait consists of sandy pebbles and, to each side, fine sand. To the east and west the sea bottom slopes gently away and is covered mainly with fine sand. A persistent tidal drift passes to the east through the strait at 3 knots, but greater velocities probably scour some of the more constricted parts of the bottom and give rise to the coarse composition of the bottom sediments. Several islands lie within or near the strait; the largest is Ruapuke Island. Dog Island, just off Bluff, has a lighthouse, as does Centre Island, near Riverton. The strait lies within the area of the continental shelf surrounding New Zealand and was probably dry land during the lowest sea-level stand of the Pleistocene ice ages.

Early in March 1770, in the course of circumnavigating the South Island, Captain Cook sighted the entrance to the strait. He was inclined to think, however, that Stewart Island was part of the mainland.

Foveaux Strait was discovered by an American, O. F. Smith, while searching for seals in 1804. In March 1806 he passed on the information to the Governor of New South Wales. Named after Major Joseph Foveaux, an aide of the Governor of New South Wales, it was renamed Tees Strait in 1824 by a Captain Kent. The old name, however, survived. Several whaling stations, belonging to Johnny Jones of Waikouaiti, existed along the shores of Foveaux Strait prior to 1834. In that year Captain John Howell established headquarters at the mouth of Jacobs River or Aparima, which later became the site of the town of Riverton. The main stations were at Preservation Inlet, Jacobs River, Oue (Sandy Point), Bluff (Awarua), Toitois (Mataura), and Waikawa.

The prevailing winds are westerly and the strait is often rough to stormy. The submarine conditions favour the natural growth of edible oysters, which are the basis of a thriving industry centred at Bluff. The so-called Bluff oysters are harvested by wooden fishing vessels of small to moderate size using dredges; they are renowned for their high quality and size throughout New Zealand. The strait also supports a considerable fishing industry, mainly for the domestic market of Southland, and occasionally small quantities of scallops have been obtained from the coastal waters off Stewart Island. In addition, a number of small islands between Ruapuke and Stewart Islands are visited each year by hunters of the young mutton bird – a seabird regarded as a delicacy which is preserved and sold throughout New Zealand.

The main tourist attraction of Foveaux Strait is associated with the coastal scenery of Stewart Island. A regular ferry service runs from Bluff to Half-moon Bay (Oban), a distance of 20 miles, and there is a regular amphibious air service from Invercargill. Hotel and other accommodation is available at Half-moon Bay. The only access to other parts of Stewart Island is by sea, and local boats are available for charter or hire.

Foveaux Strait was swum by a Dutch immigrant, John van Leeuwen, on 7 February 1963. The swim lasted nearly 14 hours. He left the beach near Bluff at 9.15 a.m. and reached Stewart Island at 10.55 p.m.

by Bryce Leslie Wood, M.SC., New Zealand Geological Survey, Dunedin.

  • Rakiura, Howard, B. (1940).


Bryce Leslie Wood, M.SC., New Zealand Geological Survey, Dunedin.