Queen Charlotte Sound is the easternmost of the main sounds of the Marlborough Sounds, in New Zealand’s South Island. It is, like the other sounds, a drowned river valley (or ria), and like the majority of its neighbours it runs southwest to northeast before joining Cook Strait.

The town of Picton, the northern terminus of the South Island’s railway and State Highway networks, lies near the head of the Sound. Other settlements by the sound are small and isolated – often simply individual properties. Due to the rugged nature of the coast, for many of these access is by boat only.

To the east of the sound lie Arapawa Island and Tory Channel. Interisland ferries use Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound on their journeys between Picton and Wellington in the North Island.

Parallel to Queen Charlotte Sound to the northwest lies Kenepuru Sound, an arm of Pelorus Sound, Marlborough‘s other main sound. Some of the small side arms of the two sounds are only hundreds of metres apart, but are separated by a steep serrated range of hills. Not surprisingly, one of the settlements on this stretch of coast is called Portage, named for the simplest method of passing between the two sounds.

The area was a base for whaling throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, notably at Perano Head on Arapawa Island.


Captain James Cook in Queen Charlotte Sound


Captain James Cook spent a total of 328 days exploring the New Zealand coastline during his three voyages. The initial purpose of Cook’s voyages was to observe the Transit of Venus in Tahiti and then search for a great southern continent which was believed to exist – Terra Australis. Cook was to return to Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, on five separate occasions. He spent over 100 days there, as it provided safe anchorage, food and fresh water and timber for repairs to his ship.

Cook’s First Voyage involved a six month long circumnavigation of Aotearoa/New Zealand. His ship, the Endeavour, sailed into Ship Cove, on 16 January, 1770. He described it as a “very snug cove” and recorded that: “The number of Inhabitants hardly exceeds 3 or 400 people, they leive (sic) dispers’d along the Shores in search of their daly (sic) bread, which is fish and firn (sic) roots for they cultivate no part of the lands”.  (Journals of Captain Cook, 6 February, 1770)

Cook’s Second Voyage involved two ships, the Resolution, commanded by Cook, and the Adventure commanded by Lieutenant Tobias Furneaux. They left from Plymouth in England on 13 July 1772 and met at Ship Cove in May 1773, but lost contact with each other after they left Queen Charlotte Sound and later both visited the Marlborough Sounds area separately.

Cook later learned that ten men from the Adventure had been attacked and killed at Wharehunga Bay, Arapawa Island. While it was expected that Cook would seek revenge for the killings on his return (third) voyage, he did not, and acted with commonsense and restraint.

Attempts were made by the Europeans to introduce various animals. Furneaux liberated a boar, and a sow and a pair of goats were released on Arapawa Island. Rats, chickens and more pigs were also introduced to New Zealand by Cook’s ships. Cook put a ewe and a ram ashore at Ship Cove and was disappointed with his failure to introduce sheep: “Last Night the Ewe and Ram I had with so much care and trouble brought to this place, died, we did suppose that they were poisoned by eating of some poisonous plant, thus all my fine hopes of stocking this Country with a breed of Sheep were blasted in a moment.” (Journals of Captain Cook, 23 May 1773)

The Europeans left potatoes, and turnips as well as other vegetables. They also brought serious diseases to Maori, including tuberculosis, and venereal diseases.

During this Second Voyage, Cook recorded that some Maori families were living near their ships and supplying them with fish. He acknowledged that their fishing methods and expertise were superior to those of his own countrymen. Cook left the Marlborough Sounds on 7 June 1773, but he returned to Ship Cove again in November, leaving on 25th November, to return in October 1774, still on his Second Voyage.

Cook’s Third Voyage commanding the Resolution and accompanied by the Discovery, included a stay at Ship Cove “in our old station” in February 1777 to refresh and refit the ships. Captain Cook was 47 years old and clearly weary with the demanding and dangerous voyages and dealing with the various peoples of the Pacific. He began to behave less tolerantly and on 14th February 1779, over-reacted to a theft in Hawaii, which resulted in a fight in which Cook was killed.

During his three voyages to New Zealand, James Cook mapped the outline of the country with considerable accuracy. His observations of Maori culture, and natural history, combined with the observations recorded by his men provide a rich source of information and his comments on the abundance of whales, seals, timber, and flax encouraged British interest.

This story is an edited version of an article written by Steve Austin, Chief Executive of the Marlborough Museum – http://www.marlboroughmuseum.org.nz/


Perano Whaling Station (1911)

Last gasp of the ‘robber economy’?

Whaling off the New Zealand coast did not die with the sacking of Kororāreka or the departure of the last Nantucket ship. In Cook Strait and around the East Coast the ‘robber economy’ lingered on well into the 20th century. Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds book-ended the era of New Zealand shore whaling.

At Te Awaiti, established by the legendary John Guard fleetingly in 1827 and permanently from 1830-31, you can still see trypots, the terraces of European huts and historic graves. But we are more interested here in an operation of a different sort. In 1911 at nearby Fisherman’s Bay the Perano family, Genoese-New Zealand fishermen who drifted into whaling just after the turn of the century, started killing humpbacks. In their peak years they built high-speed whale chasers and hunted with bomb lances, and they finished up with the big steam chaser Orca and a spotter aircraft. By the early 1960s, however, both economics and public sentiment were running against whaling. Four days before Christmas 1964, gunner Trevor Norton caught the last whale in New Zealand waters and brought to an end the working life of the country’s last big shore-whaling station.

You can still see an impressive wharf and the skeletal remains of the processing complex, complete with the slipway once used to haul up the whales for processing. The Department of Conservation completed restoration work in 2010. And as for the whalers? When the season is right a few of these ageing hunters still climb to the top of Arapawa Island to scan the sea for migrating humpbacks, but strictly to monitor and count them for conservation reasons.


















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