Marlborough Sounds

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Topographic map of the Marlborough Sounds Marlborough Sounds topographic map-en.svg
Topographic map of the Marlborough Sounds
Tory Channel, a major arm of Queen Charlotte Sound. Tory Channel Marlborough Sounds.jpg
Tory Channel, a major arm of Queen Charlotte Sound.
The Sounds visible to the left of the Space Shuttle, image taken from the International Space Station Marlborough Sounds From Space.jpg
The Sounds visible to the left of the Space Shuttle, image taken from the International Space Station

The Marlborough Sounds are an extensive network of sea-drowned valleys at the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand. The Marlborough Sounds were created by a combination of land subsidence and rising sea levels. [1] According to Māori mythology, the sounds are the prows of the many sunken waka of Aoraki. [2]



Covering some 4,000 km2 (1,500 sq mi) of sounds, islands, and peninsulas, the Marlborough Sounds lie at the South Island's north-easternmost point, between Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere in the west and Cloudy Bay in the south-east. The almost fractal coastline has 1/10 of the length of New Zealand's coasts. [3]

The steep, wooded hills and small quiet bays of the sounds are sparsely populated, as access is difficult. Many of the small settlements and isolated houses are only accessible by boat. The main large port is Picton on the mainland, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound. It is at the northern terminus of the South Island's main railway and state highway networks. The main small-boat port, Waikawa, is one of New Zealand's largest and provides a base for leisure sailors and vacationers.

The main sounds, other than Queen Charlotte Sound, are Pelorus Sound and Kenepuru Sound. Tory Channel is a major arm of Queen Charlotte Sound, and between them, the Channel and the Sound isolate the hills of Arapaoa Island from the mainland. Other major islands in the sounds include D'Urville Island.

The Sounds are home to the entire breeding population of the rare and vulnerable rough-faced shag (also known as the New Zealand king cormorant) which nests on a small number of rocky islets there. [4] The Department of Conservation manages a total of over 50 reserves in the area. [2]


Pre-modern era

The sounds were extensively travelled and partly inhabited by Māori groups before the coming of the Europeans, using the sounds as shelter from bad weather and partaking of the rich food sources. Māori were also known to carry their canoes over some stretches of land on portage paths. [2] However, as in most areas of the South Island, populations were smaller than in the North Island.

European history of the area is considered to start with Captain Cook's visit to the sounds in the 1770s, discovering a plant (Cook's scurvy grass) high in vitamin C which helped to cure scurvy amongst his crew. On Motuara Island, Cook also proclaimed British sovereignty over the South Island. [2] Some parts of the sounds also later developed a significant whaling history, [2] and much of the sounds was (thinly) settled by European farmers in the late 19th and early 20th century.[ citation needed ]

Ferries and marine farms

The Marlborough Sounds as seen from the Wellington-Picton ferry. Marlborough Sounds From Ferry.jpg
The Marlborough Sounds as seen from the Wellington-Picton ferry.

The Marlborough Sounds are connected to Cook Strait at the north-east extreme. At this point, the North Island is at its closest to the South Island, and the inter-island road, rail, and passenger ferry service between Picton and Wellington travels through the sounds.

Marine farming, especially of salmon and mussels, is increasingly common, having started in the 1960s. [5] However, the wakes caused by fast catamaran vehicular ferry services to the North Island have allegedly damaged farms and destroyed crab grounds. They were also blamed for stripping the local beaches bare of sand, and damaging landings and other facilities built close to the water's edge. This resulted in a dispute heard in the New Zealand Environment Court in the early 1990s, brought forward by the 'Guardians of the Sounds' group. The court, however, not only refused to restrict the fast ferries but also awarded NZ$300,000 in court costs against the citizen group which had brought the case. This was seen as a strong blow against civic action, and a curtailing of the powers of the Resource Management Act.

However, as damage increasingly became visible, and protests continued, the fast ferries (which only operated for the summer season) were eventually restricted to a lower speed of 18 knots in the sounds (officially for safety reasons), reducing their time advantage over the conventional ferries. [6] They have since been discontinued.

In July/August 2007, the 'Guardians of the Sounds' environmentalist group planned a 100-ship flotilla protest against scallop dredging in the sounds, which they consider damages the ecosystem of the sounds similar to bottom trawling in the open sea. The protest was intended to call attention to what they allege is the Ministry of Fisheries ignoring the detrimental effect of the practice. Commercial scallops harvesting companies have warned that protests could endanger lives if the protesters engaged in dangerous manoeuvres, while the Ministry of Fisheries has also noted that only 6% of the sounds are set aside for the dredging, though this had been much more extensive in the past. [7]

Dangerous waters

The main channels of the Marlborough Sounds have calm water and are popular for sailing. Cook Strait, however, is infamous for its strong currents and rough waters, especially when the wind is from the south or north. Because of this, some of the narrow channels closer to the Strait are dangerous to navigate. Notable amongst these is French Pass at the southern end of D'Urville Island, which has several vortices.

The most notable shipwreck in the sounds is that of the Russian cruise liner MS Mikhail Lermontov, which sank in 1986 in Port Gore, close to the mouth of Queen Charlotte Sound, after colliding with rocks. One crew member was killed in the disaster. The ship herself is now a popular dive wreck.

Related Research Articles

Arapaoa Island

Arapaoa Island, formerly known as Arapawa Island, is an island located in the Marlborough Sounds, at the north east tip of the South Island of New Zealand. The island has a land area of 75 km2. Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui defines its western side, while to the south lies Tory Channel / Kura Te Au, which is on the sea route from Wellington in the North Island to Picton. Cook Strait's narrowest point is between Arapaoa Island's Perano Head and Cape Terawhiti in the North Island.

Cook Strait 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, and runs next to the capital city, Wellington. It is 22 kilometres (14 mi) wide at its narrowest point, and is considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world. Regular ferry services run between Picton in the Marlborough Sounds and Wellington.

Marlborough Region District and unitary authority of New Zealand

Marlborough District or the Marlborough Region, commonly known simply as Marlborough, is one of the 16 regions of New Zealand, located on the northeast of the South Island. Marlborough is a unitary authority, both a district and a region. Marlborough District Council is based at Blenheim, the largest town. The unitary region has a population of 51,500.

Picton, New Zealand Town in Marlborough, New Zealand

Picton is a town in the Marlborough Region of New Zealand's South Island. The town is located near the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui, 25 km (16 mi) north of Blenheim and 65 km (40 mi) west of Wellington. Waikawa lies just north-east of Picton and is considered to be a contiguous part of the Picton urban area.

MS <i>Mikhail Lermontov</i> Soviet cruise liner wrecked in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

MS Mikhail Lermontov was an ocean liner owned by the Soviet Union's Baltic Shipping Company, built in 1972 by V.E.B. Mathias-Thesen Werft, Wismar, East Germany. It was later converted into a cruise ship. On 16 February 1986 she collided with rocks near Port Gore in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand, and sank, claiming the life of one of her crew members.

Tory Channel

Tory Channel / Kura Te Au is one of the drowned valleys that form the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand. Inter-island ferries normally use it as the principal channel between Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds.

Stephens Island (New Zealand)

Stephens Island is at the northernmost tip of the Marlborough Sounds in the South Island of New Zealand. It lies two kilometres to the northeast of Cape Stephens, the northernmost point of D'Urville Island. The island is 1.5 square kilometres in size, and rises 283 metres (928 ft) high from the sea.

Pelorus Sound

Pelorus Sound / Te Hoiere is the largest of the sounds which make up the Marlborough Sounds at the north of the South Island, New Zealand. The Marlborough Sounds is a system of drowned river valleys, which were formed after the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. Pelorus Sound has a main channel which winds south from Cook Strait for about 55 kilometres (34 mi), between steeply sloped wooded hills, until it reached its head close to Havelock town. Pelorus has several major arms, notably Tennyson Inlet, Tawhitinui Reach, Kenepuru Sound and the Crail/Clova/Beatrix Bay complex. Its shoreline runs for 380 kilometres (240 mi).

Port Gore is a bay and natural harbour at the northern end of the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand. It is close to the northern tip of the South Island, at the western end of Cook Strait. It is directly west of the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound.

Kenepuru Sound

Kenepuru Sound is one of the larger of the Marlborough Sounds in the South Island of New Zealand. The drowned valley is an arm of Pelorus Sound / Te Hoiere, it runs for 25 kilometres (16 mi) from the northeast to southwest, joining Pelorus Sound a quarter of the way down the latter's path to the Cook Strait.

Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui

Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui is the easternmost of the main sounds of the Marlborough Sounds, in New Zealand's South Island.

Clifford Bay is a bay in the northeast of the South Island of New Zealand, in the Marlborough Region. It lies between Cloudy Bay to the northwest, and Cape Campbell. The bay's most notable feature is the solar salt extraction works at Lake Grassmere, close to the southern end of the bay.

The cluster of rocks that is Barrett Reef is one of the most hazardous reefs in New Zealand.

Cape Terawhiti

Cape Terawhiti is the southwesternmost point of the North Island of New Zealand.

DEV <i>Arahura</i> Former train ferry of New Zealand

DEV Arahura was a roll-on/roll-off train ferry that operated on the Interislander service between Wellington and Picton in New Zealand from 1983 until 2015.

Interislander Ferry service across the Cook Strait

Interislander is a road and rail ferry service across New Zealand's Cook Strait, between Wellington in the North Island and Picton in the South Island. It is owned and operated by state-owned rail operator KiwiRail. Three roll-on roll-off (RORO) vessels operate the 50-nautical-mile route, taking about three hours to complete the crossing.

French Pass

French Pass is a narrow and treacherous stretch of water that separates D'Urville Island, at the north end of the South Island of New Zealand, from the mainland coast. At one end is Tasman Bay, and at the other end the outer Pelorus Sound leads out to Cook Strait.

Blumine Island

Blumine Island / Ōruawairua is an island in the outer reaches of Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui, in the Marlborough Sounds at the northern end of New Zealand's South Island.

The history of the Nelson Region of New Zealand dates back to settlement by the Māori people in about the 12th century. The Nelson and Marlborough Region were known to the Māori as Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui which means "The Prow of the Canoe of Maui".

Matapara / Pickersgill Island

Matapara / Pickersgill Island is an island in New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds, in the outer reaches of Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui. The island is separated from Cook Strait by nearby Arapaoa Island, however this offers little protection for Matapara from the prevailing northerly wind.


  1. Rocky coasts (from the Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Marlborough Sounds Archived 2008-10-15 at the Wayback Machine (from the Department of Conservation website. Accessed 2008-05-16.)
  3. A Nicol (2011). Landscape history of the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics, 54:2, 195-208, DOI: 10.1080/00288306.2010.523079
  4. BirdLife International. (2012). Important Bird Areas factsheets: Duffers Reef. Sentinel Rock. Trio Islands. White Rocks. Downloaded from on 2012-02-03.
  5. History of the NZMFA New Zealand Seafood Industry Council
  6. Fast Ferries Archived 2007-07-18 at the Wayback Machine (from the Guardians of the Sounds action group website)
  7. Booker, Jarrod (7 July 2007). "100-strong flotilla to stage protest on scallop fishing". The New Zealand Herald . Retrieved 20 October 2011.

Coordinates: 41°08′30″S174°05′22″E / 41.14167°S 174.08944°E / -41.14167; 174.08944