Palliser Bay is a broad embayment on the northern shore of Cook Strait. Its western end is marked by Cape Turakirae and its eastern end by Cape Palliser, the most southerly part of the North Island. The bay is the drowned and partly prograded valley of the Ruamahanga River. During the Pleistocene Ice Ages the sea was lowered perhaps as much as 350 ft, due to the storage of water as ice in the great continental glaciers. Consequently, all rivers flowed out the lower and more distant shore line. In the case of the Ruamahanga River, the shoreline was not far from the present coast and even though rivers were flowing at steeper gradients the Ruamahanga Valley was flooded for a distance of 19 miles from the present shore when the sea rose as the great glaciers melted. A gravel-bar beach was formed, behind which was a single large lake, later divided in two by the deltas of streams from the western part of the Aorangi Mountains. The two lakes now present are Onoke and Wairarapa. On the western side of the bay high terraces, built of debris washed down from the Rimutaka Range (3,000 ft) during the last and previous glaciations, slope down into Lake Onoke and terminate in the south with cliffs up to 150 ft high.
The large active West Wairarapa Fault lies at the east foot of the Rimutaka Range on the western side of Lakes Onoke and Wairarapa and Palliser Bay. The eastern half of Palliser Bay, to the east of Lake Onoke, is backed by Miocene Marine sediments forming cliffs of moderate height. The well-known Putangirua Pinnacles and Kupe's Sail occur in these sediments. The east side of Palliser Bay consists of cliffs cut in greywackes of the Aorangi Range (3,000 ft) of probable Jurassic age.
From the days of early settlement until the 1855 earthquake on the West Wairarapa Fault, a convenient route was either through the Wainuiomata Valley or round the coast from the Hutt Valley, thence along the coast across the gravel bar at Lake Onoke or, when the gravel bar was breached by floods, by way of a ferry based at the small beach resort of Lake Ferry. This early route initially was an easy one, but the 1855 earthquake brought down vast quantities of debris as scree and shingle fans. It consequently became more difficult and, with the development of the more direct inland routes to the north, was finally abandoned.
The beaches of Palliser Bay, from Cape Turakirae to Te Humenga Point 12 miles south-east of Lake Ferry, are all composed of shingle or boulders, except for a short stretch near Wharekauhau Stream 5 miles west of Lake Ferry, where sand and small pebbles make up the beach. From Te Humenga Point to the east for about 2½ miles there is a coastal plain of moderate width and the beaches are sandy. The gravel beach varies in height considerably, but in the more exposed parts is at least 20 ft high from low-water calm sea level to the top of the storm beach. The slope of the gravel beaches is very steep. Surf casting from the shore, particularly near Lake Ferry, is a popular pastime for many people. The very heavy storm seas tend to close the drainage from Lake Ferry and create a flood hazard around the shores of Lakes Onoke and Wairarapa. Because of this flood danger the Catchment Board now maintains an outlet through the gravel bar as part of its flood-control programme.
As Palliser Bay falls within a region notorious for its gales, it is not surprising that it has been the graveyard of many ships. Among these unfortunates were the Zuleika (1,092 tons), which went ashore in 1897 with the loss of 12 lives, and the Ripple (187 tons), lost off Palliser Bay in 1924 with all hands.
On 7 February 1770 Captain Cook gave the name “Palliser” to the south-easternmost promontory of the North Island in honour of his “worthy friend”, Captain, later Rear Admiral, Sir Hugh Palliser. The bay itself does not appear to have been named by Cook; presumably it took its name from the cape.
by Thomas Ludovic Grant-Taylor, M.SC., New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.