Story: Nearshore islands

New Zealand is surrounded by hundreds of islands, mainly remnants of a larger land mass now beneath the sea. Some are idyllic retreats; others have poignant histories of castaways, prisons and leper colonies. And some have become sanctuaries, safe from predators, for endangered species such as the kiwi, stitchbird and Hamilton’s frog.

Story by Eileen McSaveney
Main image: Three Kings Islands

Story Summary

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Where are New Zealand’s islands?

New Zealand has over 600 nearshore islands, which lie within about 50 kilometres of the coast. Most are near the North Island. The largest is Great Barrier, in the Hauraki Gulf.

Major islands include:

North Island

  • The Three Kings, north of Cape Rēinga
  • 150 islands in the Bay of Islands
  • Great Barrier and Rangitoto islands in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf
  • Kapiti Island, near Wellington.

South Island

  • Islands in the Marlborough Sounds, including D’Urville Island
  • Fiordland’s islands, including Resolution Island.

Early history

Māori lived on islands that had plenty of seafood and birds for harvesting. They also visited islands to get rocks and minerals. They used D’Urville Island’s hard argillite rock to make adzes.

European sealers and whalers hunted the seas around the islands. In 1792 some sealers lived on Anchor Island, in Dusky Sound, Fiordland. They built New Zealand’s first European house there. Whalers lived on Arapawa Island, Marlborough Sounds, from the 1820s.

Island life

In the past, island farmers and lighthouse keepers had a hard life. They received supplies only a few times a year, and children were schooled at home. On Great Barrier in the 1890s, the mail was carried by pigeons.

Today, you still need to be tough and independent to live on an island. Some people supply their own electricity, or heat water with solar panels.

Quarantine centres and prisons

Some islands were once quarantine centres: places to isolate people with infectious diseases such as leprosy and smallpox. Motuihe Island (Auckland), Matiu (Somes Island, Wellington) and Quail Island (Christchurch) were used this way.

In wartime, the government kept Germans, Japanese and other ‘enemy aliens’ in prison on these islands.

Recreation

Often peaceful and with beautiful beaches, islands attract yachties, fishermen and holidaymakers. Popular places include the Bay of Islands, Great Barrier and Waiheke near Auckland, and islands in the Marlborough Sounds.

Nature reserves

Where islands are far enough from the mainland, predators such as stoats and possums cannot reach them. This makes an island an ideal sanctuary, where endangered plants and animals are saved. For example:

  • Stephens Island, in Cook Strait, has tuatara and a rare frog.
  • Fiordland’s Chalky Island has kākāpō (parrots).
  • Tiritiri Matangi, near Auckland, has replanted native forest, and birds such as saddlebacks and kiwi.
How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Nearshore islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/nearshore-islands (accessed 23 October 2018)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 24 Sep 2007