Skip to main content

History of Maritime New Zealand

The work of Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) affects the lives of many thousands of New Zealanders and makes a vital contribution to the country’s economic success. By helping to keep our marine environment safe, secure and clean, MNZ’s work makes an impact on sea-going vessels and international visitors on a daily basis.

The ability to safely navigate New Zealand’s coastal waters has existed throughout our nation’s history. From the very start of our economic development, shipping has been and remains crucial to maintaining our security and building our prosperity. New Zealand’s imports and exports are still mostly transported by sea, just as they were in the past.

The rugged coastline, extending for 15,134 kilometres, was our state highway in the early days of colonisation, before the network of roads and railways were built on land. Ships carried people and goods around the coastal waters, and New Zealand was also an important port of call for vessels following international trade routes.

Nearly 500 vessels were registered in New Zealand by 1866, and in that year alone more than a thousand ships arrived and almost a thousand ships departed from the country’s ports. The value of goods imported and exported was steadily increasing.

Maritime disasters were common. Then, as now, the serpentine coastline, coupled with unpredictable and sometimes treacherous weather and sea conditions, were hazardous for shipping.

In the fledgling nation’s first 50 years, more than a thousand ships were wrecked. The wreck of the Orpheus on 7 February 1863 cost 189 lives, and 131 people died on the Tararua on 29–30 April 1881. The Wairarapa lost 121 passengers and crew when it hit cliffs on Great Barrier Island on 29 October 1894. The marine transport system that exists today was built on the lessons learned from these and other tragedies.

Let there be light

From the earliest days of development, there was a recognised need to maintain the safety of people and ships at sea. But despite ships’ captains reporting as early as 1840 that they were having trouble finding their way into New Zealand harbours, there was a long lag before the problem could be addressed. Colonial authorities planned and debated for years before the first navigation lights were installed to warn ships of dangers and mark the entrance to ports.

Provincial councils constructed the earliest lighthouses, the first of them Pencarrow, lit in 1859. The first government lighthouse was built for £5,747 at Tiri Tiri Matangi to show the entrance to Auckland Harbour. Lit in 1865, it is the country’s longest operating lighthouse. Lighthouses were in widespread operation by the nineteenth century, with 27 manned lighthouses in use by 1900.

Today MNZ owns and maintains 23 lighthouses and 75 light beacons located outside harbour limits. All of the lighthouses are fully automated and operated from MNZ’s head office in Wellington. A lighthouse engineer based in Wellington uses a computer link to check any operating faults in the main lighthouses and can troubleshoot most problems remotely. If there is a failure, standby units for the rotation gear, lamp and power supply are automatically activated. The lighthouses are inspected every six months, and there is a restoration programme to preserve and protect their historic character.

Despite the advances in lighthouse technology, their job today remains the same: to give a point of contact on New Zealand’s coastline, provide an aid to navigation, and extend meteorological services and search and rescue assistance to mariners.

Connecting ships to shore

The connection of telephone lines to lighthouses in 1884 provided the first ship-to-shore communication. Farewell Spit, Cape Maria Van Diemen and Nugget Point were all able to broadcast weather reports and relay messages from ships by 1900.

The first maritime radio coast station, Wellington Radio (ZLW), began broadcasting in 1911. With the introduction of Awarua (ZLB), Awanui (ZLA) and Chathams Maritime Radio (ZLC), the radio service was fully developed by 1913. The introduction of Auckland Maritime Radio (ZLD) further boosted capability in 1923.

In 1993 the current coastal services provided by MNZ were installed, replacing a service that had operated with little change for eight decades. A VHF and HF service now gives full coverage around New Zealand’s coastline. A listening watch is kept on all international distress frequencies across a network of 30 VHF sites, two MF/HF sites, one Inmarsat receiver and a 24-hour Maritime Operations Centre.

MNZ’s search and rescue responsibilities, met by the Rescue Coordination Centre, encompass one of the biggest search and rescue regions in the world, extending about 30 million square kilometres from the Equator to Antarctica. The round-the-clock search and rescue response service, the maritime radio and lighthouse network are vital supports for MNZ’s vision of a vibrant, viable maritime community that works and plays safely and securely on clean waters.

The genesis of MNZ

The Marine Board was one of the first government agencies, set up to collect levies to pay for the construction of lighthouses. While the structure, responsibilities and name of the original organisation have changed many times over the intervening years, the maintenance of safety at sea has remained its focus throughout.

During the final decades of the 19th century, the board came under Customs Department control, before becoming the Marine Department. In 1972 it was absorbed into the Ministry of Transport as the Marine Division, becoming the Maritime Transport Division under government restructuring in 1988.

Five years later, in 1993, the Maritime Safety Authority was established as a Crown authority in its own right. The establishment of the Maritime Safety Authority was one part of a far-reaching Transport Law Reform Bill. The Bill addressed the full range of New Zealand maritime law and brought about the first major reform of the country's shipping legislation in nearly 40 years.

The Maritime Safety Authority was subsequently charged with administering the new Maritime Transport Act 1994 when it came into force in February 1995.

Maritime Transport Act 1994 [New Zealand Parliamentary Counsel Office]

It was renamed Maritime New Zealand on 1 January 2005 to reflect its wider roles of maritime safety, security and marine environment protection.

The Marine Board’s role – of helping keep mariners safe and enabling shipping to make its vital contribution to the country’s development – is continued by MNZ more than 150 years later. Now, as then, the maritime authority’s success in maintaining safety at sea has been built on its strong relationship with mariners, and its willingness and ability to adapt its approach and find better ways of doing things.

Continuing to develop its role and becoming a more evidence-based, risk-focused and intelligence-led regulator will ensure MNZ’s success into the future.

20 years, and sailing ahead

20 August 2013 marked 20 years since the establishment of the Maritime Safety Authority, now Maritime New Zealand. Catch a glimpse of how some of the organisation celebrated the big event.