Wairau Lagoon

Te Parinui o Whiti the place of New Zealand's earliest human history

“If you want a relaxed, personal experience on the waters of Marlborough, this is a gem!” Jamie H, Adelaide, Australia

The history of the Wairau Lagoon

The Wairau Bar is notable for its rich heritage. It is the earliest known site of human occupation in New Zealand; home to the first generation of Polynesian migrants, who became known as the Moa Hunter. They were thought to have landed their waka (canoe) more than 800 years ago, settling in a land where birds flourished unchallenged by predators. The lagoon also provided bountiful kōnae (food basket) of water fowl, seafood and tuna (eel) for these early settlers.

The giant flightless bird, the moa, became the Moa Hunters’ primary food source. It is thought to have become extinct around 500 years ago, well before the arrival of European settlers.

The Moa Hunter culture was later joined by the fleet Maori in around 1350, who in turn were joined by European whalers and sealers from around the world in the 1800s.

The shallow tidal waters of the Wairau Lagoon with its channels, sand spits and islands, covers approximately 2,400 hectares. Early Polynesians dug long channels to capture fish on the incoming tide and remains of these fish traps are still visible today, evidence of man's early history.  The islands are low and flat, ideal for nesting birds such as black swan, black-backed gull and the royal spoonbill.

The Wairau Lagoon is separated from Cloudy Bay and the Pacific Ocean by a boulder bank known as Pokohiwi, an 11 kilometre spit of saucer shaped rocks formed by the isodiametric action of pounding tides and currents. To the south, the White Bluffs soar to a height of 268 metres and at the northern end of the spit lies the tapu (sacred) Moa Hunter burial site. Driftwood Eco Tours treat all taonga (treasures of the past) with the deepest respect observing the protocols of the Rangitane iwi (local tribe), and of Maori culture.

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Stories you may hear on tour

  • The adventures of the early whaling families of Port Underwood.
  • The incredible Haast eagle, now extinct, that had a wingspan of 2.6 metres and could lift moa into the sky.
  • How bullock wagons navigated the beach below the White Bluffs, the only 'highway' at that time to the Awatere Valley.
  • How a curious boy called Jim Eyles made history by uncovering the camp site of the Moa Hunter, now acknowledged as a tapu (sacred) area of great archaeological significance.
  • How the Echo dubbed "the breakfast ship" transported cargo including bacon and eggs from Blenheim to Wellington. It steamed backward and forward over the shallows of the Wairau bar to the inland township of Blenheim.

 Hear these stories and more on one of our history tours by kayak or on foot. Find out more by clicking the links below.

A necklace crafted from moa bone. Photo source the Marlborough Museum.
Archaeological remains of a Maori fish trap.
The hulk of the SS Waverley.
Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Image 2006-0010-1/37 from the series 'Extinct birds of New Zealand'. Masterton. Image © Purchased 2006. © Te Papa by Paul Martinson. http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/objectdetails.aspx?irn=710939&term=haast%27s+eagle
The Echo steaming up the Opawa River. Photo source the Marlborough Museum.
The Wairau Lagoon looking South