Cook Strait

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Cook Strait
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Cook Strait
Cook Strait separates the North and South islands of New Zealand. It can be dangerous and unpredictable.
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Cook Strait
Cook Strait (Oceania)
Coordinates 41°13′46″S174°28′59″E / 41.22944°S 174.48306°E / -41.22944; 174.48306 Coordinates: 41°13′46″S174°28′59″E / 41.22944°S 174.48306°E / -41.22944; 174.48306
Basin  countries New Zealand
Min. width22 km (14 mi)
Average depth128 m (420 ft)

Cook Strait (Māori : Te Moana-o-Raukawa) separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The strait connects the Tasman Sea on the northwest with the South Pacific Ocean on the southeast. It is 22 kilometres (14 mi) wide at its narrowest point, [1] and is considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world. [2] Regular ferry services run across the strait between Picton in the Marlborough Sounds and Wellington.


The strait is named after James Cook, the first European commander to sail through it, in 1770. [3] In Māori it is named Te Moana-o-Raukawa, which means The Sea of Raukawa. Raukawa is a type of woody shrub native to New Zealand. [4]


Approximately 18,000 years ago during the Last Glacial Maximum when sea levels were over 100 metres lower than present day levels, the Cook Strait was a deep harbour of the Pacific Ocean, disconnected from the Tasman Sea by the vast coastal plains which formed at the South Taranaki Bight which connected the North and South islands. Sea levels began to rise 7,000 years ago, eventually separating the islands and linking the Cook Strait to the Tasman Sea. [5]

In Māori legend, Cook Strait was discovered by Kupe the navigator. Kupe followed in his canoe a monstrous octopus called Te Wheke-a-Muturangi across Cook Strait and destroyed it in Tory Channel or at Pātea.

When Dutch explorer Abel Tasman first saw New Zealand in 1642, he thought Cook Strait was a bight closed to the east. He named it Zeehaen's Bight, after the Zeehaen, one of the two ships in his expedition. In 1769 James Cook established that it was a strait, which formed a navigable waterway.

Cook Strait attracted European settlers in the early 19th century. Because of its use as a whale migration route, whalers established bases in the Marlborough Sounds and in the Kapiti area. [6] [7] From the late 1820s until the mid-1960s Arapaoa Island was a base for whaling in the Sounds. Perano Head on the east coast of the island was the principal whaling station for the area. The houses built by the Perano family are now operated as tourist accommodation. [8]

During the 1820s Te Rauparaha led a Māori migration to, and the conquest and settlement of, the Cook Strait region.

From 1840 more permanent settlements sprang up, first at Wellington, then at Nelson and at Whanganui (Petre). At this period the settlers saw Cook Strait in a broader sense than today's ferry-oriented New Zealanders: for them the strait stretched from Taranaki to Cape Campbell, so these early towns all clustered around "Cook Strait" (or "Cook's Strait", in the pre-Geographic Board usage of the times) as the central feature and central waterway of the new colony.

In 1866, the first telegraph cable was lain in the Cook Strait, connecting the South Island telegraph system to Wellington. [9]

Pelorus Jack Pelorus Jack.jpg
Pelorus Jack

Between 1888 and 1912 a Risso's dolphin named Pelorus Jack became famous for meeting and escorting ships around the Cook Strait. Pelorus Jack was usually spotted in Admiralty Bay between Cape Francis and Collinet Point, near French Pass, a channel used by ships travelling between Wellington and Nelson. Pelorus Jack is also remembered after he was the subject of a failed assassination attempt. He was later protected by a 1904 New Zealand law.

At times when New Zealand feared invasion, various coastal fortifications were constructed to defend Cook Strait. During the Second World War, two 23 cm (9.1 in) gun installations were constructed on Wrights Hill behind Wellington. These gun could range 28 kilometres (17 mi) across Cook Strait. In addition thirteen 15 cm (6 in) gun installations were constructed around Wellington, along the Mākara coast, and at entrances to the Marlborough Sounds. The remains of most of these fortifications can still be seen.

The Pencarrow Head Lighthouse was the first permanent lighthouse built in New Zealand. Its first keeper, Mary Jane Bennett, was the only female lighthouse keeper in New Zealand's history. The light was decommissioned in 1935 when it was replaced by the Baring Head Lighthouse.

A number of ships have been wrecked with significant loss of life, such as the Maria in 1851, [10] the City of Dunedin in 1865, [11] the St Vincent in 1869, [10] the Lastingham in 1884, [12] SS Penguin in 1909 and TEV Wahine in 1968.


A view from the summit of Mount Kaukau across Cook Strait to the Marlborough Sounds in the distance. Cook Strait and Marlborough Sounds from Mount Kaukau.jpg
A view from the summit of Mount Kaukau across Cook Strait to the Marlborough Sounds in the distance.

The strait runs in a general NW-SE direction, with the South Island on the west side and North Island on the east. At its narrowest point, 22 kilometres (14 mi) separate Cape Terawhiti in the North Island from Perano Head on Arapaoa Island in the Marlborough Sounds. [1] Perano Head is actually further north than Cape Terawhiti. In good weather one can see clearly across the strait.

The west (South Island) coast runs 30 kilometres (19 mi) along Cloudy Bay and past the islands and entrances to the Marlborough Sounds. The east (North Island) coast runs 40 kilometres (25 mi) along Palliser Bay, crosses the entrance to Wellington harbour, past some Wellington suburbs and continues another 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) to Mākara Beach.

The Brothers is a group of tiny islands in Cook Strait off the east coast of Arapaoa Island. North Brother island in this small chain is a sanctuary for the rare Brothers Island tuatara, while the largest of the islands is the site of the Brothers Island Lighthouse.

The shores of Cook Strait on both sides are mostly composed of steep cliffs. The beaches of Cloudy Bay, Clifford Bay, and Palliser Bay shoal gently down to 140 metres (460 ft), where there is a more or less extensive submarine plateau. The rest of the bottom topography is complex. To the east is the Cook Strait Canyon with steep walls descending eastwards into the bathyal depths of the Hikurangi Trench. To the north-west lies the Narrows Basin, where water is 300 and 400 metres (980 and 1,310 ft) deep. Fisherman's Rock in the north end of the Narrows Basin rises to within a few metres of low tide, and is marked by waves breaking in rough weather. A relatively shallow submarine valley lies across the northern end of the Marlborough Sounds. The bottom topography is particularly irregular around the coast of the South Island where the presence of islands, underwater rocks, and the entrances to the sounds, create violent eddies. [1] The strait has an average depth of 128 metres (420 ft).

The South and North Islands were joined during the last ice age.


Historical ocean sampling locations within Cook Strait, New Zealand. Cook Sampling.png
Historical ocean sampling locations within Cook Strait, New Zealand.

The waters of Cook Strait are dominated by strong tidal flows. The tidal flow through Cook Strait is unusual in that the tidal elevation at the ends of the strait are almost exactly out of phase with one another, so high water on one side meets low water on the other. [13] This is because the main M2 lunar tide component that happens about twice per day (actually 12.42 hours) [14] circulates anti-clockwise around New Zealand, and is out of phase at each end of the strait (see animation on the right). On the Pacific Ocean side the high tide occurs five hours before it occurs at the Tasman Sea side. On one side is high tide and on the other is low tide. The difference in sea level can drive tidal currents up to 2.5 metres per second (5 knots) across Cook Strait. [15] [16]

There are numerous computer models of the tidal flow through Cook Strait. While the tidal components are readily realizable, [17] the residual flow is more difficult to model. [18] Probably the most prolific oceanographer to research the strait was Ron Heath based at the N.Z. Oceanographic Institute. He produced a number of studies including analysis of tides [19] which identified the presence of a "virtual amphidrome" in the region. Heat also quantified a best estimate for the time of the "residual current" (i.e. net current after averaging out the tidal influence) in the strait. [20] This continues to be a topic of research with computer simulations combining with large datasets to refine the estimate. [21]

Despite the strong currents, there is almost zero tidal height change in the centre of the strait. Instead of the tidal surge flowing in one direction for six hours and then in the reverse direction for six hours, a particular surge might last eight or ten hours with the reverse surge enfeebled. In especially boisterous weather conditions the reverse surge can be negated, and the flow can remain in the same direction through three surge periods and longer. This is indicated on marine charts for the region. [22] Furthermore, the submarine ridges running off from the coast complicate the ocean flow and turbulence. [23] The substantial levels of turbulence have been compared to that observed in the Straits of Gibraltar and Seymour Narrows in British Columbia. [24]

Tidal power

External images
Searchtool.svg Animation of the tides in Cook StraitNIWA
Searchtool.svg Animation of the lunar (M2) tide component around NZ
Searchtool.svg Cook Strait currents before and after high tide at WellingtonTe Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Searchtool.svg Underwater topography of Cook StraitNational Library of New Zealand
Global surface elevation of the M2 ocean tide (NASA) [14]
This computer animation shows the peaks and troughs of the M2 tides sweeping anticlockwise around New Zealand. When it is high tide on one side of Cook Strait it is low tide on the other side. For this reason, the strait can experience exceptionally fast tidal flows.

The electrical power generated by tidal marine turbines varies as the cube of the tidal speed. Because the tidal speed doubles, eight times more tidal power is produced during spring tides than at neaps. [16] Cook Strait has been identified as a potentially excellent source of tidal energy. [25]

In April 2008, Neptune Power was granted a resource consent to install a $10 million experimental underwater tidal stream turbine capable of producing one megawatt. The turbine was designed in Britain, and was to be built in New Zealand and placed in 80 metres (260 ft) of water, 4.5 kilometres (2.8 mi) due south of Sinclair Head, in waters known as the "Karori rip". The company claimed there is enough tidal movement in Cook Strait to generate 12 GW of power, more than one-and-a-half times New Zealand's current requirements. [26] [27] [28] [16] In practice, only some of this energy could be harnessed. [29] As of October 2016, this turbine had not been built and the Neptune Power website is a placeholder with no further announcements.

On the other side of the strait, Energy Pacifica applied for resource consent to install up to 10 marine turbines, each able to produce up to 1.2 MW, near the Cook Strait entrance to Tory Channel. The company claimed that Tory Channel was an optimal site with a tidal current speed of 3.6 metres per second (12 ft/s) and the best combination of bathymetry and accessibility to the electricity network. [16] However, despite being validated by computer modelling, [30] no project was forthcoming.


Electric power and communication cables link the North and South Islands across Cook Strait, operated by Transpower. [31]

Three submarine power cables cross Cook Strait between Oteranga Bay in the North Island and Fighting Bay in the South Island as part of the HVDC Inter-Island, which provides an electricity link between Benmore in the South island and Haywards in the North Island. Each cable operates at 350 kV, and can carry up to 500 MW, with Pole 2 of the link using one cable and Pole 3 using two cables. The link's total capacity is 1200 MW (500MW for Pole 2 and 700MW for Pole 3). The cables are laid on the seabed within a legally defined zone called the cable protection zone (CPZ). The CPZ is about 7 kilometres (4 mi) wide for most of its length, narrowing where it nears the terminals on each shore. Fishing activities and anchoring boats are prohibited within the CPZ. [31]

Fibre optic cables carry telecommunications across Cook Strait, used by New Zealand's main telecommunication companies for domestic and commercial traffic and by Transpower for control of the HVDC link.

Marine life

Cook Strait is an important habitat for many cetacean species. Several dolphins (bottlenose, common, dusky) frequent the area along with killer whales and the endemic Hector's dolphins. Long-finned pilot whales often strand en masse at Golden Bay. The famous Pelorus Jack was a Risso's dolphin being observed escorting the ships between 1888 and 1912, though this species is not a common visitor to the New Zealand's waters. Large migratory whales attracted many whalers to the area in the winter. Currently, an annual survey of counting humpback whales is taken by Department of Conservation and former whalers help DOC to spot animals by using several vantage points along the strait such as on Stephens Island. Other occasional visitors include southern right whales, blue whales, sei whales and sperm whales. Giant squid specimens have been washed ashore around Cook Strait or found in the stomachs of sperm whales off Kaikoura.

A colony of male fur seals has long been established near Red Rocks on the south Wellington coast. [32] Cook Strait offers good game fishing. Albacore tuna can be caught from January to May. Broadbill swordfish, bluenose, mako sharks and the occasional marlin and white shark can also be caught. [33]


Cook Strait ferries in Wellington Harbour Ferries 2016.jpg
Cook Strait ferries in Wellington Harbour

Regular ferry services run between Picton in the Marlborough Sounds and Wellington, operated by KiwiRail (the Interislander) and Strait Shipping (Bluebridge). Both companies run services several times a day. Roughly half the crossing is in the strait, and the remainder within the Sounds. The journey covers 70 kilometres (43 mi) and takes about three hours. The strait often experiences rough water and heavy swells from strong winds, especially from the south. New Zealand's position directly athwart the roaring forties means that the strait funnels westerly winds and deflects them into northerlies. As a result, ferry sailings are often disrupted and Cook Strait is regarded as one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world.

In 1968, the TEV Wahine, a Wellington–Lyttelton ferry of the Union Company, foundered at the entrance to Wellington Harbour and capsized. Of the 610 passengers and 123 crew on board, 53 died. [34]

In 2006, 14-metre waves resulted in the Interislander ferry DEV Aratere slewing violently and heeling to 50 degrees. Three passengers and a crew member were injured, five rail wagons were toppled and many trucks and cars were heavily damaged. Maritime NZ's expert witness Gordon Wood claimed that if the ferry had capsized most passengers and crew would have been trapped inside and would have had no warning or time to put on lifejackets. [35] [36]

Air lines which operate or have operated flights across Cook Strait include Straits Air Freight Express, Air2there, CityJet and Sounds Air.


Track of a swimmer's path crossing Cook Strait in 1972 Cook Strait Swim Track (1972).jpg
Track of a swimmer's path crossing Cook Strait in 1972

According to oral tradition, the first woman to swim Cook Strait was Hine Poupou. She swam from Kapiti Island to d'Urville Island with the help of a dolphin. [37] Other Māori accounts tell of at least one swimmer who crossed the strait in 1831. In modern times, the strait was swum by Barrie Devenport in 1962. Lynne Cox was the first woman to swim it, in 1975. The most prolific swimmer of the strait is Philip Rush, who has crossed eight times, including two double crossings. Aditya Raut was the youngest swimmer at 11 years. Caitlin O'Reilly was the youngest female swimmer and youngest New Zealander at 12 years. Pam Dickson was the oldest swimmer at 55 years. [38] John Coutts was the first person to swim the strait in both directions. [39] By 2010, 74 single crossings had been made by 65 individuals, and three double crossings had been made by two individuals (Philip Rush and Meda McKenzie). In March 2016, Marilyn Korzekwa became the first Canadian and oldest woman, at 58 years old, to swim the strait. [40]

Crossing times by swimmers are largely determined by the strong and sometimes unpredictable currents that operate in the strait. [38] In 1980 the oceanographer Ron Heath published an analysis of currents in Cook Strait using the tracks of swimmers. This was from a time when detailed measurement of ocean currents was technologically difficult. [41]


See also


  1. 1 2 3 McLintock, A H, Ed. (1966) Cook Strait from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Sep-2007. Note: This is the distance between the North Island and Arapaoa Island; some sources give a slightly larger reading of around 24.5 kilometres (15.2 mi), that between the North Island and the South Island.
  2. McLauchlan, Gordon (Ed.) (1987) New Zealand encyclopedia, Bateman, P. 121. ISBN   978-0-908610-21-1.
  3. Reed, A.W. (2002) The Reed dictionary of New Zealand place names. Auckland: Reed Books. ISBN   0-790-00761-4 . p 99.
  4. "TE MOANA-O-RAUKAWA". Wellington City Libraries. Retrieved 27 May 2017.
  5. "Estuary origins". National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research . Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  6. McNab, Robert (1913) A History of Southern New Zealand from 1830 to 1840 Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. ASIN B000881KT4.
  7. Martin, Stephen (2001) The Whales' Journey: Chapter 4: The northerly migration Allen & Unwin. ISBN   978-1-86508-232-5
  8. Perano Homestead
  9. Mander, Neil (2011). "COMPAC Submarine Telephone Cable System". In La Roche, John (ed.). Evolving Auckland: The City's Engineering Heritage. Wily Publications. pp. 195–202. ISBN   9781927167038.
  10. 1 2 Disasters and Mishaps – Shipwrecks, from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand , edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966, updated 2007-09-18.
  11. Steamer 'City of Dunedin'- Mysterious Sinking
  12. "Dive Lastingham Wreck". Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 3 October 2008.
  13. Lunar Semidiurnal Tide (M2) NIWA. Accessed 21 November 2020.
  14. 1 2 Ocean Tides and Magnetic Fields NASA Visualization Studio, 30 December 2016. PD-icon.svgThis article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain .
  15. Stevens, Craig and Chiswell, Stephen. Ocean currents and tides: Tides Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 21 September 2007
  16. 1 2 3 4 Benign tides Archived 1 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine Energy NZ No.6, Spring 2008. Contrafed Publishing. Accessed 1 March 2009.
  17. Lunar tides in Cook Strait, New Zealand
  18. Bowman, M.J., A.C. Kibblewhite, R. Murtagh, S.M. Chiswell and B.G. Sanderson (1983) Circulation and mixing in greater Cook Strait, New Zealand. Oceanologica Acta 6(4): 383–391
  19. Heath, R.A., 1978. Semi‐diurnal tides in Cook Strait. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 12(2), pp.87-97.
  20. Heath, R.A., 1986. In which direction is the mean flow through Cook Strait, New Zealand—evidence of 1 to 4 week variability?. New Zealand journal of marine and freshwater research, 20(1), pp.119-137.
  21. Hadfield, M.G. and Stevens, C.L., 2021. A modelling synthesis of the volume flux through Cook Strait. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 55(1), pp.65-93.
  22. "Chart of Cook Strait". Archived from the original on 12 February 2013. Retrieved 28 February 2009.
  23. Stevens, CL, M.J. Smith, B. Grant, C.L. Stewart,T. Divett, 2012, Tidal Stream Energy Extraction in a Large Deep Strait: the Karori Rip, Cook Strait, Continental Shelf Research, 33: 100–109. , DOI: 10.1016/j.csr.2011.11.012.
  24. Stevens, C.L., 2018. Turbulent length scales in a fast-flowing, weakly stratified, strait: Cook Strait, New Zealand. Ocean Science, 14(4), pp.801-812.
  25. Vennell, R., Major, R., Zyngfogel, R., Beamsley, B., Smeaton, M., Scheel, M. and Unwin, H., 2020. Rapid initial assessment of the number of turbines required for large-scale power generation by tidal currents. Renewable Energy, 162, pp.1890-1905.
  26. Doesburg, Anthony (15 April 2008). "Green light for Cook Strait energy generator trial". The New Zealand Herald . Retrieved 26 September 2011.
  27. Renewable energy development: Tidal Energy: Cook Strait Archived 14 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  28. Harnessing the power of the sea Energy NZ, Vol 1, No 1, Winter 2007 Archived 14 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  29. Radio New Zealand
  30. Plew, D.R. and Stevens, C.L., 2013. Numerical modelling of the effect of turbines on currents in a tidal channel–Tory Channel, New Zealand. Renewable Energy, 57, pp.269-282.
  31. 1 2 "Cook Strait submarine cable protection zone" (PDF). Transpower. 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 March 2012. Retrieved 23 September 2008.
  32. Cook Strait seal colonies
  33. The Marlborough Sounds Marlborough online. Retrieved 3 October 2008.
  34. Initially the official toll was 51, but two names were added 22 and 40 years later respectively. Williamson, Kerry (9 April 2008). "Recognition 53rd Wahine victim". The Dominion Post . Retrieved 10 April 2008.
  35. Cook Strait ferry Aratere 'nearly capsized' NZ Herald, 22 June 2006
  36. New rules for ferries after horror crossing Stuff, 31 January 2009.
  37. Polynesian History Archived 14 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  38. 1 2 "Cook Strait Swim". Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  39. "Swimming: Coutts thrived outside comfort zone". Hawke's Bay Today . 13 April 2012. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
  40. Joel Maxwell (19 March 2016). "Canadian psychiatrist becomes oldest female swimmer to cross Cook Strait". The Dominion Post.
  41. Heath, R.A., 1980. Current measurements derived from trajectories of Cook Strait swimmers. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 14(2), pp.183-188.
  42. "Historic strait crossing was balloon enthusiast's last trip". Stuff. 8 January 2010. Retrieved 6 March 2022.
  43. . Retrieved 5 March 2022.{{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  44. "Paraglider first to cross Cook Strait". RNZ. 3 March 2013. Retrieved 6 March 2022.
  45. Perry, Nick (1 November 2021). "Electric plane crosses NZ's Cook Strait". Canberra Times. Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  46. "Electric powered plane makes history in Cook Strait flight". 1News. 1 November 2021. Retrieved 3 November 2021.

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