Story: Bay of Plenty places

Page 1. Inshore islands

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Mayor Island (Tūhua)

Volcano lying offshore 28 km north-east of Waihī Beach and 35 km north of Tauranga Harbour entrance. The highest peak, Opuahau, is 355 m. The crater contains two lakes, Aroarotamahine (green) and Te Paritu (almost black).

The island was last permanently inhabited by Te Whānau-a-Tauwhao, a sub-tribe of Ngāi Te Rangi. It is now a wildlife refuge administered by the Mayor Island Board of Trustees. A small number of holiday houses are located in Opo Bay on the south coast of the island. Regular fishing excursions are made from Tauranga. The waters around the island are popular for deep-sea fishing and diving.


Mayor Island has erupted on average at least once every 3,000 years in the last 130,000 years. The last major eruption was around 5,000 BCE. The island is best known for the lava flows and domes which contain large deposits of obsidian (volcanic glass). Known to Māori as tūhua, it was valued for cutting and scraping. Pieces were dispersed throughout both main islands and to the Kermadecs. The lava flows are likely to be recent, because there is no ash cover from mainland eruptions or any soil development. They may be no more than 500 years old.

Mōtītī Island (Flat Island)

Island in the Bay of Plenty 20 km east of Mt Maunganui and 13 km north of Maketū. Although volcanic, it is not mountainous. It is currently farmed and also a refuge for tuatara (lizard-like reptiles).

Authority over the island has been contested by Ngāi Te Rangi and Te Arawa tribes. Few people now live there permanently, although some Patuwai people fish there in summer. It is also known as Flat Island, the name given to it by James Cook in 1769.

Moutohorā Island (Whale Island)

Island in the Bay of Plenty 9.55 km north-west from Whakatāne. The Māori name means ‘captured whale’ – the island has a whale-like profile from some angles. Moutohorā is a remnant volcanic cone, where there is still geothermal activity.

Māori occupied the island until the early 19th century. Ngāti Awa and Tūhoe people continued to visit for food gathering and other purposes. Sulfur was extracted in the late 19th century and stone was quarried in the early 20th century.


Since 1965 Moutohorā has been a wildlife refuge. All introduced species, except wasps, have been removed. Tuatara were released on the island in 1996 and numbers of tīeke (North Island saddleback) were transferred from Rēpanga (Cuvier Island) off the Coromandel Peninsula in 1999. North Island brown kiwi have been transferred gradually since 2001. This is an important seabird island, with New Zealand's largest colony of grey-faced petrels – 95,000 breeding pairs.

Whakaari (White Island)

Volcano in the Bay of Plenty, 51 km offshore north of Ōpōtiki and north-east from Whakatāne. Its Māori name means ‘to uplift or expose to view’. The island is visible from almost all parts of the Bay. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and erupted periodically between 1976 and 1982, and between 1986 and 1993. The island is important to both Ngāti Awa and Te Whakatōhea tribes. It is now a privately owned scenic reserve, and until an eruption killed 22 people in 2019, up to 10,000 tourists visited the island by boat or helicopter each year. There were large gannet colonies on the outer slopes.

Sulfur mining

There were a number of unsuccessful attempts at sulfur extraction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1914 a landslide overwhelmed the workers’ camp and killed 10 men.

Claude Sarich, who worked as a sulfur miner on White Island in 1931–32, left a vivid description: ‘The worst hell on earth, a place where rocks exploded in the intense heat, where men had to wear wool instead of cotton because cotton just fell apart in just a couple of hours, where they had to clean their teeth at least three times a day because their teeth went black, and where the land shook violently and regularly sending rocks flying through the air’. A visiting English company manager commented, ‘You look remarkably well, Sarich. However, I prefer the mainland.’ 1

  1. Claude Sarich, ‘The worst hell on earth.’ Whakatane & District Historical Society Historical Review 21, no. 1 (May 1973): 44–46. › Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Bay of Plenty places - Inshore islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 5 Dec 2005, updated 1 Jul 2015