Story: Wellington places

Page 7. Wellington Harbour

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Wellington’s magnificent harbour is a lake-like expanse of sheltered water surrounded by hills, with a narrow entrance to the sea.

A raised rock platform (a legacy of the great 1855 earthquake) surrounds the harbour’s edge. Today much of this is obscured by roads. In other places it is interspersed with sandy beaches.

Creation of the harbour

Wellington’s nearly circular harbour (about 10 kilometres in diameter) began as a shallow basin between two tilted blocks. Repeated uplifting along the Wellington Fault raised the block on the western side, creating a cliff from Thorndon to the Hutt Valley. The block to the east tilted down towards the fault, making a depression that later filled with water.

Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island) are the exposed peaks of a submerged ridge running parallel with the extensive ridges of Miramar Peninsula and Hataitai.


In Māori tradition the explorer Kupe was the first person to visit the harbour. He was followed by Tara and Tautoki, sons of the explorer Whātonga. They settled there and named it Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the great harbour of Tara). Later, a succession of tribes lived in the area.

In 1839, the New Zealand Company chose Port Nicholson as the site for its first settlement of British immigrants.

The waterfront: reclaiming the land

Since the 1850s the shape of the inner harbour has been changed by reclaiming land from the sea. This includes a massive 1960s reclamation to cater for container shipping. Containers had made much of the old port redundant.

Today Wellingtonians are resettling the waterfront with apartments, cafés, offices, boat moorings and parks.

The Heads

The narrow entrance to Wellington Harbour is guarded by Barrett Reef – according to Māori legend, the reef is debris left by the taniwha (water spirit) Ngake when he escaped to the sea. Entering the harbour can be a challenge for mariners, especially in strong southerly winds. Since 1859, they have been guided by a lighthouse on Pencarrow Head. But many vessels have foundered here, including the trans-Tasman (Sea) liner Wanganella in January 1947. It stayed fast on Barrett Reef for 18 days before being pulled free by tugboats and towed to safety.

Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island)

These islands were named by the explorer Kupe after his daughters, and were occupied by a succession of Māori tribes. After British settlement they were renamed Somes Island and Ward Island, after the deputy governor and secretary of the New Zealand Company.

Somes Island later became a quarantine station, then an internment camp for enemy aliens during both world wars. More recently, rats and other pests have been eradicated and the 25-hectare island has become part of the conservation estate. Volunteers from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society have planted more than 90,000 trees since 1981. Tuatara, wētā and native birds such as kākāriki (parrots) have recently been released. About 10,000 people visit the island each year.

The much smaller Mākaro (Ward Island) has been largely ignored. Steep-sided and clothed in impenetrable taupata, it is frequented only by seabirds.

Evans Bay

The bay bears the name of George Evans, a prominent early settler. At the southern end, land raised by the 1460 earthquake is now Wellington’s airport. Miramar Peninsula juts into the harbour, forming the east side of Evans Bay. Occasionally whales and dolphins come into the bay and other parts of the harbour.

How to cite this page:

Chris Maclean, 'Wellington places - Wellington Harbour', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Chris Maclean, published 9 Jul 2007, updated 1 Mar 2016