Principal centre and largest town of the eastern Bay. It lies at the junction of State Highways 2 and 30, 92 km north-east of Rotorua and 100 km south-east of Tauranga. In 2013 the population was 17,310.
The town developed gradually. In 1875 it had two stores, two hotels, a flax mill and a schoolhouse. Expansion dates back to the draining of the neighbouring Rangitāiki Plains in the early 20th century, which brought surrounding farmland into production. The borough first appeared in the census of 1921 with a European population of 1,707. By 1956 the combined Māori and Pākehā population had reached 5,445.
A paper mill was established in 1939 (known from 1947 as the Whakatāne Board Mills). This was the major employer until the 1980s. Today two of the largest employers are the Bay of Plenty regional council and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiarangi, a Ngāti Awa-sponsored centre of higher learning. Both have headquarters in Whakatāne. A Ngāi Tūhoe training institute, Anamata, also has a campus in the town.
In recent years, people have moved to Whakatāne for lifestyle reasons. This has prompted building and retail growth.
In 2004 Whakatāne and surrounding areas were extensively flooded after prolonged and intense rain. The Whakatāne River spilled into the central business district and the Awatapu area.
Site of a national walkway and one of the most dramatic locations in the Bay of Plenty, overlooking the outlet of the Whakatāne River. From various points on the headland the whole of the Bay of Plenty can be seen, from Mayor Island to the west, Whakaari (White Island) to the north, the coast past Ōpōtiki to the east and inland to the summits of Pūtauaki and Tarawera.
Described by historian James Cowan as the most historic mile of coastline in New Zealand, and often referred to in local waiata (songs), the headland is associated with the Mataatua canoe. The prominence a kilometre back is Kaputerangi, one of the oldest known pā sites in New Zealand, associated with the ancestor Toitehuatahi.