Nature and conservation
A view of Moutohora (Whale Island)
The 143-hectare island is a remnant volcanic cone which has eroded, leaving two peaks. This is still an area of volcanic activity and there are hot springs on the island in Sulphur Valley and Sulphur and McEwans bays.
Once the goats, which had been introduced to the island, where eradicated, a planting programme began and 12,000 plants covering 45 species are now established. Today Moutohora is covered with a mosaic of pohutukawa, mahoe, kanuka, bracken fern and grassland.
There are 190 native and 110 introduced plant species. The island is now completely free of the goats, rats, cats and rabbits which previously devastated native plants and animals.
Seal on rocks at Moutohora
The most significant feature of Moutohora's current fauna is the breeding colony of grey-faced petrels. Sooty shearwaters, little blue penguins, the threatened New Zealand dotterel and variable oystercatcher also breed on the island. Threatened species which are occasional visitors are the Caspian tern, the North Island kaka and New Zealand falcon. Other species present include common forest birds, captive-bred red crowned parakeets, three lizard species and fur seals.
In March 1999 local Ngati Awa and the Department of Conservation joined forces to see the fulfilment of a dream. Forty North Island saddleback (tieke) were transferred from Repanga (Cuvier Island), off the coast of Coromandel, to Moutohora.
This relocation followed the traditional flight made centuries ago when the Mataatua waka (canoe) was accompanied by two tieke from Repanga to Whakatane. This flight followed the drowning of the twin sons of Muriwai, sister of Toroa, the captain of the waka. The two tieke settled briefly on Moutohora before returning to Repanga.
History and culture
Numerous archaeological sites of both Maori and European origin have been recorded, including an extensive pa (fortified earthworks) site on Pa Hill and a number of house terraces and garden sites, middens (food refuse dumps), stone tool manufacture areas and stone walls.
After permanent Maori occupation ceased in the early nineteenth century, Ngati Awa and Tuhoe continued to visit the island for sea food and mutton birds/petrel and to collect stones for hangi (underground ovens).
The first European occupation came in the 1830s with an unsuccessful attempt to establish a shore-based whaling station. The venture failed without a single whale being captured.
Forty years later came attempts to make money from sulphur. It was extracted and sold to a refinery in Auckland over a number of years but was of poor quality, and the venture was abandoned in 1895. The next phase of industrial activity came in 1915, when quarrying provided rock for the construction of the Whakatane harbour wall. A total of 26,000 tonnes of rock was removed over five years.
In 1965 Moutohora was declared a wildlife refuge and the island was bought by the Crown in 1984. The wildlife refuge status was revoked in 2012 and the wildlife management reserve allows for the cultural take of mutton bird to be legal on the island.
Public access to Moutohora is restricted to permit holders and approved tour parties led by concessionaires. Permits must be obtained from the Department of Conservation office in Opotiki. During periods of high fire danger all access may be declined.
Know before you go
Research on or about Moutohorā (Whale Island) Wildlife Management Reserve is encouraged, especially on key aspects of conservation that would benefit management operations for the island, surrounding waters and its biota. As the island has reserve status, all research requires a Department of Conservation research permit.
The Moutohorā (Whale Island) research strategy (PDF, 2,596K) outlines the process for research proposal applications, approvals and permitting.
Te Tapatoru a Toi is the joint management committee between Ngati Awa and the Crown (Department of Conservation) for the strategic management of Moutohora, Ohope and Tauwhare Pa scenic reserves.