Shipwrecks of Aotearoa

Paora Sweeney looks through the archives and finds that as an island nation, Aotearoa New Zealand has had a large number of maritime disasters.

I have always been fascinated with empty spaces and abandoned buildings. Buildings that once had their walls filled with energy, packed with human activity, rich in history; that are now deserted and empty. As I was going through the archives and learning about the many ships that have wrecked on the shores of New Zealand, the same fascination came across me, and I wondered, what happened to this vessel? What led to it being wrecked?

As an island nation, Aotearoa has unfortunately had a large number of shipwrecks over the years, and our archives contain plenty of records that show and describe these tragic events.

The HMS Orpheus, 1863

The 1706-ton British corvette war ship HMS Orpheus was built in 1860. It was 69 metres in length, owned by the Royal Navy with a crew of 259. On 7 February 1863 traveling back to New Zealand from Sydney at 1.15pm, the Orpheus struck the bar at the entrance to Manukau Harbour and sank. The disaster is said to have been caused by error and bad luck. 189 of its crew members died and in terms of lives lost, it remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.

The Orpheus is discussed in this 1972 episode of Spectrum.

Illustrated London news (Newspaper): The wreck of H. M. S. Orpheus on Manukau Bar, New Zealand. [London, 1863]. Ref: PUBL-0033-1863-437. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Akbar, 1879

The Akbar was an American brigantine, built in 1873. Around 2am on 29 June 1879 while traveling from Newcastle carrying a load of coal, strong winds and rough seas came up off the coast of Waitarakao Lagoon, near Timaru. Attempts to anchor failed and the Akbar drifted towards the shore. Captain Watts was washed overboard about a mile offshore. Other crew members and passengers held on to the vessel until it capsized and wrecked at approximately 4am. Four of its crew members drowned including the captain’s wife Mrs Watts. Five crew and passengers survived the disaster and made it to shore safely.

This Mobile Unit recording from 1946 speaks with shipwreck historian Arthur Haylock.

From The Press, Volume XXXI, Issue 4342, 30 June 1879, pg 3. Courtesy Papers Past.

The SS Wairarapa, 1894

The SS Wairarapa was a well-known steamer ship, built in 1882, that regularly travelled between Auckland and Sydney. It carried 65 crew and more than 170 passengers. Just after midnight on 29 October 1894 while returning to Auckland, the Wairarapa sped through the foggy Hauraki Gulf, but slammed into a cliff northwest of Great Barrier Island. Many on board slid off the deck and were swept away by heavy seas. Unfortunately, 121 people lost their lives, and the Wairarapa remains the third deadliest shipwreck in New Zealand waters.

The Wairarapa is discussed in this 1972 episode of Spectrum.

Wreck of the SS Wairarapa, Great Barrier Island. Ref: 1/4-002927. Alexander Turnbull Library.


The SS Penguin, 1909

The SS Penguin was built in 1864 and was an interisland ferry, carrying passengers across the Cook Strait. On the night of the 12 February 1909, the Penguin departed Picton for Wellington, carrying over 100 passengers and crew. Though the weather was pleasant at departure, it quickly worsened. Due to poor visibility and heavy rains the Penguin drifted off course and at 10pm she struck the Thom Rock near Cape Terawhiti off the southwest coast of Wellington. Captain Naylor ordered the passengers to evacuate, but because of the rough seas several life rafts overturned, spilling passengers into the ice-cold water. 75 people lost their lives in this disastrous event.

50 years after the wreck, this 1959 recording speaks to survivors.

Steamship Penguin, Wellington Harbour. Ref: 1/1-002361-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.


The Star of Canada, 1912

The Star of Canada was a general cargo twin steamer built in 1909. This ship was one of the first refrigerated vessels. On 23 October 1912, while anchored in the Gisborne Harbour, the Star of Canada was struck by a sudden gust of wind that broke the bow anchor cable, and within minutes the vessel smashed up against the rocks and began taking on water. In the weeks that followed many people went to Kaitī Hill to see the wreck. The stern started high in the water but settled lower over time. A local mechanic oversaw the dismantling of the vessel, and a local jeweller bought the wheelhouse and had it dragged back to an empty section next to his house. In 1983 a public appeal had the ship shifted to the Taruheru River, where the vessel currently resides and is part of the Tairāwhiti Museum. Visitors can see the two-storied wheel house, the captain’s cabin, and learn about Gisborne’s maritime history.

The Wreck of The Star of Canada, F38455.

The Turakina, 1940

The Turakina was a steel single screw (aka propeller) steamer built in 1923 in Glasgow. It was 140 metres in length, with a depth of 10.5m, and was owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company. On 20 August 1940, en route back to New Zealand from Britain via Australia, the Turakina was attacked by a German raider ship, the Orion. After a brief gun battle nearly 500km off the Taranaki coast, the Turakina was sunk. 36 crew-members were killed including its commander Captain J. B. Laird.

This 1987 episode of Spectrum discussed ships’ encounters with German raiders.

The ship Turakina. Dickie, John, 1869-1942. Ref: 1/1-002456-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Wahine, 1968

The sinking of the Wahine in 1968 is by far New Zealand’s most well-known shipping disaster. The Wahine was built in 1964 and began transporting passengers on New Zealand’s inter-island route between Wellington and Lyttelton in 1966. The Wahine could carry up to a thousand passengers with 380 cabins spread over seven decks. On the night of 10 April 1968, near the end of the route from Lyttelton with 734 people on board, the Wahine was caught in severe weather caused by tropical cyclone Giselle. The rough sea and the heavy winds pushed the Wahine onto Barrett Reef in shallow waters near the mouth of Wellington Harbour. 53 people lost their lives due to drowning, exposure to the elements and injuries sustained while evacuating the sinking vessel. The Wahine is one of New Zealand’s most well-documented tragedies, and it gained worldwide media coverage.


Personal Record. Thomson, Spensley. [Wahine Wreck], F18974.


There are more than 2,500 shipwrecks recorded in Aotearoa New Zealand’s marine and fresh waterways, each with their own story to be told. I felt very emotional going through the archives and learning about these ships and what has become of them. Each ship served a purpose and was once an important part of society.

While exploring each record and learning about these shipwrecks, I could only imagine the fear and horror those onboard experienced – fighting for survival at the mercy of Tangaroa, scared and cold. I would like to pay respect to those who lost their lives in these disasters. Kei ngā mate huahua i riro tītapu, rere ki uta, rere ki tai.

If you are wanting to uncover more of these historic stories, I encourage you to explore the Ngā Taonga archives.

Kāre he kore ka rongo, ka kite koe i ngā hua, ka mutu he akoranga hou ka puta, e tau ana.

Na Paora Sweeney


Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website.

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