Chatham Islands

  • overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Of all the islands south of Australia and New Zealand, the Chatham Islands are unique as the only group to have permanent human settlement.  The impact of people on the endemic flora and fauna has been huge.  Many species have been lost and habitat altered, but what remains is unique and subject to some incredible conservation efforts.

Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


Geographical Information: 
43º 40’S – 44º 25’S to 177º 00’W - 176º 00’W, in the South Pacific Ocean, 860 km east of New Zealand
They have a total area of 97,000 ha which is spread unevenly amongst some 40 different islands. Chatham Island (90,000 ha) and Pitt Island (6,190 ha) are the only two islands permanently inhabited by people.
Maximum Altitude: 
Physical Features: 

Pyramid Rock

Pyramid Rock

The islands are located at the eastern extension of the Chatham Rise  which runs due west toward New Zealand and which together with Campbell Plateau, the Lord Howe Rise, Norfolk Rise and Three Kings Rise, is considered to be part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland.

The Islands are the only part of the Chatham Rise above sea level. This results in part from block faulting initiated about 100 million years ago and exposing older rocks of which the basement rock, Chatham Schist is the oldest and in part results from repeated episodes of basaltic volcanism in the last 80 million years. Different formations of limestone and other associated sedimentary rocks indicate episodes and prolonged histories of marine submergence and emergence. This has largely been due to sealevel changes associated with the ice ages and from the late Pliocene era (2 million years ago) through the Pleistocene to the present.

The islands lie in the convergence zone of the colder (north bound) ocean currents from the south and the warmer (southbound) ocean currents from the north. Climatically, the islands reflect their mid latitude oceanic setting. Temperate conditions predominate, low 20 degrees Celsius in mid summer and 5 – 8 degrees in mid winter, with mists associated with ocean current convergence, and strong prevailing north-west and south-west winds.



Early in 1791 an expedition, under the command of Captain George Vancouver, left England under orders to complete the survey, made by Cook, of the northwest coast of America. Running short of stores when passing south of Tasmania Vancouver turned towards New Zealand and, on November 2nd 1791, dropped anchor in Dusky Sound. On November 21st the `Discovery' and the `Chatham' sailed from Dusky Sound, their rendezvous being Otaheiti. Lieutenant W R Broughton, commander of the tender `Chatham', shaped a course around the south end of New Zealand, discovered the Snares, and sailed northeast to discover the Chathams. In his journal, Lieutenant Broughton gives a very full account of the discovery of the Chathams:

`Early on the morning of the 29th (November 1791) low land was discovered, bearing by compass N.E. to E.N.E.; and being then in 40 fathoms water, we brought till daybreak.. ……. After sailing about 10 leagues, we came abreast of a small sandy bay. With our glasses we observed some people hauling up a canoe, and several others behind the rocks in the bay. Accompanied by Mr Johnston, the master, and one of the mates, we proceeded towards the shore in the cutter....As (the people) approached they made much noise, and having soon joined us, we entered into conversation by signs, gestures, and speech, without understanding what each other meant. We presented them with several articles, which they received with great eagerness and seemed pleased with whatever was given them but would make no exchanges.

The available evidence of recent archaeological field work indicates the Chatham Islands have been settled for about the same period as New Zealand, and that its initial settlement occurred within the interval AD 800 to 1000. The first landfall was made by Archaic East Polynesians from New Zealand, presumably as a result of an accidental drift. Secondary settlement of the Chathams may have occurred, but only in the interval prior to about AD 1400, and even then arrivals were solely from New Zealand and infrequent. The islands became a closed system that date because a climatic deterioration, known as the Little Ice Age, worsened sea conditions and therefore effectively distanced the Chathams even further from New Zealand. The population grew and divided permanently, as widely separated areas of the archipelago were settled by new groups, which were formed as social fission proceeded.

The Moriori were obviously different from the Maori people in northern New Zealand. They lacked fortifications and even villages. There were no canoes of the type seen by Cook and other early observers in New Zealand. Tattooing was not practised and the Moriori wore few personal ornaments. They carried no fine artefacts and were poorly or scantily dressed.

To explain this difference, early anthropologists developed the theory that the Moriori were of Melanesian or mixed Melanesian/Polynesian origins, who had been forced to flee to the Chatham Islands, from New Zealand, by the more assertive Polynesians who arrived with the `Great Fleet' of 1350 AD. In other words, they had been part of a group of original settlers of New Zealand that had been pushed on or forced to flee when the Polynesians settled in New Zealand. This theory has now been dismissed, for there is no evidence to indicate the first settlers of New Zealand or the Chatham Islands were other than Polynesian. Secondly, the aboriginal people of the Chathams were not refugees fleeing an invasion of New Zealand by Polynesians, because this external military force did not exist.

The people who first landed on the Chathams could not grow any traditional Polynesian cultigens there, due to the overcast and temperate climate. They therefore lived on the indigenous food resources of the islands. Most of the available food occurred either in the sea or along the shores.

The earliest sealing recorded on the Chathams followed closely the initial successes on the southern coasts of New Zealand and, more particularly, the bonanzas of the Antipodes and Auckland Islands.  In what is commonly called the early period in sealing, that is prior to 1810, only three Sydney sealers and one American can be positively identified as visiting the Chathams, though evidently there were several more.

As elsewhere around southern New Zealand, there followed a relatively quiet period from 1810, until the sealing industry staged a short revival from 1822 to 1829. It is particularly difficult to assess the extent and importance of the Chathams during the second or middle period (1810 to 1835) because records are far and few between, especially for the first half of this second period.  The final decade 1835 to 1844, leading to the extinction of the Chatham Island sealing, is marked by a disproportionate quantity of historical material. Throughout, there is a striking lack of seals, and the sealers in this period must have spent more time growing potatoes and pigs, than actually sealing. The beginning of this decade (1835) was marked by the invasion of Ngatiawa Maoris from Wellington.

It is apparent that there had been a number of Maori visitors to the Chathams prior to the invasion of 1835. A number of Maori worked on sealing ships and there is a record of a Maori sealing gang, from Kapiti Island, moving to the Chathams in 1832. It was these Maori visitors who gave the Maori name, Wharekauri, to the Chathams, a name they could pronounce more easily than the Moriori one of Rekohu. These two groups of people, the Maori and the Moriori, obviously got on well together and there are records of mixed settlements. All that changed in 1835.

Under pressure from the more northern tribes, such as the Waikato, from about 1826 onwards, the Ngati Awa tribe began to spread south from Taranaki to Waikanae, to Kapiti Island and Wellington. Two of the Ngati Awa subtribes, the Ngati Matunga and the Ngati Ama, settled about Wellington, but in mid 1835 a close alliance with Te Rauparaha and the Ngati Toa tribe changed to a bitter quarrel and the two panic stricken subtribes prepared to flee.

Various refuges were apparently being considered, when several Maori who had visited the Chathams on sealing and whaling vessels recommended it in the highest possible terms. A European vessel, the Lord Rodney of Sydney, was seized to transport 700 Maori from Wellington to the Chathams.

The Maori were more or less ignored by the Moriori until, after several weeks spent hurriedly planting their valuable potatoes and building a fortified pa at Whangaroa, the Maori began to spread throughout the island encroaching on the Morioris food supplies. The Moriori held a `council of war' in which they decided to offer no physical resistance because they were pacifists by religion. Then the Maori began to `walk the land', killing and eating sufficient of those met en route (about one-eighth) to establish a new title to the land in accordance to the Maori custom of conquest, enslaving many, and conquering the remainder who, though permitted to occupy their former homes, became feudal vassals rendering service as required.

Slavery was relaxed progressively from the adoption of Christianity in 1842 and abolished on the Maori' acceptance of British authority on 6 July 1858, but by then only a remnant remained. A very religious, stubborn and conservative people whose lives were hedged about with innumerable deadly prohibitions, the Moriori were soon dispirited, broken in morale and often found little reason to stay alive. They believed their race was destined to die, and died in compliance.

No doubt the influenza plagues of 1839 and 40 contributed to the death rate of the Moriori. Their  decline was phenomenal - from at least 1663 in mid 1835, to 268 in 1848, and only 160 in 1861. Mr Tommy Solomon, the last full blooded Moriori, died on the Chathams in March 1934. There is a monument to Tommy Solomon at Owenga. With the advent of Christianity in 1842, and the arrival of five resident German missionaries in 1843, all fighting ceased and most Moriori slaves were given at least a partial release.

In October 1843, still dissatisfied, a group of 40 Ngati Matunga Maori and 25 Moriori slaves hired the pirated Sydney brig Hannah, for 150 hogs, to take them to the Auckland Islands.

Today the island is populated by descendants  of Moriori, European and Maori, they are all known as Chatham Islanders. They are predominately  farmers and fisherman. The population is approx 700 people.


Flora and Vegetation: 

Because the Chatham’s are isolated in distance and geological time from New Zealand mainland, it is not surprising that they have the highest proportion of endemic plants of any region of comparable size in New Zealand, with 40 to 45 species and varieties found nowhere else. This makes the Chatham’s of exceptional biological interest.

About 325 species of flowering plants are indigenous to the Chatham Islands. Almost 40 plant species, subspecies and varieties are endemic, including two highly distinctive genera Embergeria (Chatham Islands sowthistle) and Myosotidium (Chatham Island forget-me-not).
Some plants are common to both the Chatham Islands and the mainland, or differ to only a very minor degree.  A significant number of endemic Chathams plants are related to species found in temperate northern New Zealand, such as Chatham Islands species of koromiko (hebe) and toetoe (Cortaderia turbaria). Other plants such as the Chatham Island species of Olearia (tree daisies) have a relationship with southern New Zealand and the subantarctic islands, so that the islands have an interesting mixture of plants from both cooler and warmer climates.

Birding Highlights: 

Shore Plover

Shore Plover

Many opportunities here, but a highlight has to be the Chatham Island Albatross on the Pyramid Rock, the Pacific Albatross, the endemic Shore Plover and Oystercatcher and the two endemic cormorants. A walk through a forest reserve on the main island should reward you with the Chatham Island pigeon and warbler.

The indigenous animal and plant life of the Chathams is renowned for its high degree of endemism. Of 48 indigenous species and subspecies of birds inhabiting the group at the time of the first European settlement (about 1800), 20 or 42% were endemic.

Country or region: Chatham Isl.
Number of species: 99
Number of endemics: 8
Number of breeding endemics: 2
Number of globally threatened species: 18
Number of introduced species: 14

The taxonomic order and nomenclature follows Clements 5th edition (updated 2005).

Snares Penguin Eudyptes robustus Rare/Accidental Vulnerable
Erect-crested Penguin Eudyptes sclateri Rare/Accidental Endangered
Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome Rare/Accidental Vulnerable
Yellow-eyed Penguin Megadyptes antipodes Rare/Accidental Endangered
Little Penguin Eudyptula minor 
Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora 
Gray-headed Albatross Thalassarche chrysostoma Vulnerable
Buller's Albatross Thalassarche bulleri Vulnerable
Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta Near-threatened
Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos Rare/Accidental 
Hall's Giant Petrel Macronectes halli Near-threatened
Cape Petrel Daption capense 
Mottled Petrel Pterodroma inexpectata Near-threatened
Kermadec Petrel Pterodroma neglecta Rare/Accidental 
Magenta Petrel Pterodroma magentae Breeding endemic Critically endangered
Soft-plumaged Petrel Pterodroma mollis Rare/Accidental 
Juan Fernandez Petrel Pterodroma externa Rare/Accidental Vulnerable
Black-winged Petrel Pterodroma nigripennis 
Chatham Petrel Pterodroma axillaris Breeding endemic Critically endangered
Broad-billed Prion Pachyptila vittata 
Fulmar Prion Pachyptila crassirostris 
Fairy Prion Pachyptila turtur 
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus 
Little Shearwater Puffinus assimilis 
Gray-backed Storm-Petrel Garrodia nereis 
White-faced Storm-Petrel Pelagodroma marina 
Leach's Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa Rare/Accidental 
Common Diving-Petrel Pelecanoides urinatrix 
Australian Gannet Morus serrator Rare/Accidental 
PELECANIFORMES: Phalacrocoracidae
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 
Chatham Islands Shag Phalacrocorax onslowi Endemic Endangered
Pitt Island Shag Phalacrocorax featherstoni Endemic Vulnerable
Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel Rare/Accidental 
White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae 
Pacific Reef-Heron Egretta sacra 
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis 
CICONIIFORMES: Threskiornithidae
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus Rare/Accidental 
Black Swan Cygnus atratus 
Paradise Shelduck Tadorna variegata Rare/Accidental 
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Introduced species 
Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa 
Australian Shoveler Anas rhynchotis 
Swamp Harrier Circus approximans 
GALLIFORMES: Odontophoridae
California Quail Callipepla californica Introduced species 
Weka Gallirallus australis Introduced species Vulnerable
Buff-banded Rail Gallirallus philippensis 
Baillon's Crake Porzana pusilla 
Spotless Crake Porzana tabuensis 
Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio 
South Island Oystercatcher Haematopus finschi Rare/Accidental 
Chatham Oystercatcher Haematopus chathamensis Endemic Endangered
CHARADRIIFORMES: Recurvirostridae
White-headed Stilt Himantopus leucocephalus 
Masked Lapwing Vanellus miles 
Pacific Golden-Plover Pluvialis fulva Rare/Accidental 
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola Rare/Accidental 
Double-banded Plover Charadrius bicinctus 
Shore Plover Thinornis novaeseelandiae Endemic Endangered
Chatham Islands Snipe Coenocorypha pusilla Endemic Vulnerable
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica 
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Rare/Accidental 
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres 
Red Knot Calidris canutus 
Sanderling Calidris alba Rare/Accidental 
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata Rare/Accidental 
Parasitic Jaeger Stercorarius parasiticus 
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus 
Silver Gull Larus novaehollandiae 
Red-billed Gull Larus scopulinus Endemic (country/region) 
White-fronted Tern Sterna striata Endemic (country/region) 
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea Rare/Accidental 
New Zealand Pigeon Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae Endemic (country/region) Near-threatened
New Zealand Kaka Nestor meridionalis Extirpated Vulnerable
Red-fronted Parakeet Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae 
Chatham Islands Parakeet Cyanoramphus forbesi Endemic Endangered
Shining Bronze-Cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus 
Long-tailed Koel Eudynamys taitensis Endemic (country/region) 
Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis Introduced species 
Welcome Swallow Hirundo neoxena 
Australasian Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae 
Dunnock Prunella modularis Introduced species 
Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula Introduced species 
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos Introduced species 
Gray Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa 
Tomtit Petroica macrocephala Endemic (country/region) 
New Zealand Robin Petroica australis Endemic (country/region) 
Chatham Robin Petroica traversi Endemic Endangered
Gray Gerygone Gerygone igata Endemic (country/region) 
Chatham Gerygone Gerygone albofrontata Endemic 
Silver-eye Zosterops lateralis 
New Zealand Bellbird Anthornis melanura Extirpated 
Tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae Endemic (country/region) 
Rook Corvus frugilegus Rare/Accidental 
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris Introduced species 
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella Introduced species 
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Introduced species 
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris Introduced species 
Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea Introduced species 
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Introduced species 
House Sparrow Passer domesticus Introduced species 

Bird Checklists of the World is part of Avibase and Bird links to the World, which are designed and maintained by Denis Lepage, and hosted by Bird Studies Canada, which is a co-partner of Birdlife International.
© Denis Lepage 2006


  • Bell B D 1975 The Chatham Islands Nature Heritage 6 (83) 2301-8
  • Bulter, D and Merton D  1992. The Black Robin, saving the worlds most endangered bird.
  • Given D R & Williams P A 1984 Conservation of Chatham Island Flora and Vegetation Botany Division DSIR Christchurch
  • King M and Morrision R 1990.  A land apart, The Chatham Islands of New Zealand.
  • King M  1989  Moriori a people rediscovered.  Viking  Auckland.
  • Natusch S 1977 Hell and High Water. A German Occupation of the Chatham Islands 1843-1910 Pegasus Press Christchurch
  • Richards E C (Ed) 1950 Diary of E R Chudleigh 1862-1921 Chatham Islands Simpson and Williams Ltd Christchurch
  • Richards R M 1982 Whaling and Sealing of the Chatham Islands Roebuck Society Publication No 21 Canberra
  • Thomas M C 1950 Forgotten Islands of the South Pacific. The Story of New Zealand's Southern Islands by Rosaline Redwood AH & AW Reed Wellington
  • Simpson F A 1950 Chatham Exiles: Yesterday and Today of the Chatham Islands AH & AW Reed Wellington
  • Cemmick D & Veitch D Black Robin Country Hodder Stoughton Auckland 1985
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