Nature and conservation
A marine reserve
The Kermadec Islands are the visible surface of a chain of about 80 volcanoes, stretching for 2,600 km between Tonga and New Zealand.
Raoul Island is the biggest in the group, which begins at the southernmost L’Esperance. While the other islands and islets are smaller, several of them harbour important bird colonies.
The marine reserve was created in 1990 and is one of New Zealand’s largest marine reserves, covering 745,000 ha. It supports New Zealand’s only truly subtropical marine systems, and historically low levels of fishing have left this environment largely undisturbed and abundant.
The Pacific and Australasian tectonic plates collide along the Kermadec Trench, lifting and buckling the Australasian plate and sinking the Pacific plate. The volcanic chain is formed by the Pacific plate melting as it sinks beneath the Australasian plate.
Monitoring at Kermadec Islands.
The Kermadecs have a mild, subtropical climate with about 1,500 mm of rainfall each year, with occasional violent cyclones. The area is volcanically active and earthquakes can be an almost daily occurrence.
The region has never been connected to a larger landmass. In their isolation, the Kermadecs have evolved a unique subtropical and temperate biodiversity, both above and below the waterline. A particular feature of the inshore waters is the abundance of large predatory fishes, notably Galapagos sharks, spotted black grouper (which can grow to around 2m in the Kermadecs) and kingfish.
Between late August and early November a significant proportion of the SW Pacific humpback whale population, including cows with calves, migrates south through the archipelago. Many pass very close to Raoul Island.
Green turtles and other tropical marine species are most abundant around Raoul Island (five of the world’s seven sea turtle species are found here). Subtropical and temperate species tend to dominate the inshore fauna and flora of the southern islands.
All of the islands support breeding colonies of sea birds. The largest colonies are located on the relatively small islets off the Raoul and Macauley Islands, which remained rat-free following human discovery.
Deepwater hydrothermal vents harbour extensive beds of giant vent mussels, found only in the Kermadecs. They in turn provide habitat for deepwater crabs and an endemic eelpout (an eel-like fish). Elsewhere fields of sea lilies (stalked crinoids) have been observed but in most places the sea floor away from the vents is dominated by bare rock and fine sediments.
Aerial view of Raoul Island
Outer islands as seen from Coral Bay, Raoul Island, Kermadec Islands
History and culture
Raoul Island was settled by early Polynesians between 600 and 1,000 years ago, and may hold important clues to understanding the Maori migration voyages between eastern Polynesia and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Settlement of the island appears to have been intermittent, possibly failing for want of resources, or due to volcanic activity.
Evidence of occasionally extensive ancient settlements remains, mainly on the northern coast of Raoul at Low Flat, the Farm Terrace, and Coral Bay, and it is likely that the Denham Bay Caldera beachfront was also occupied at times.
There is evidence of communities based on coastal fishing, and the harvesting of seabirds and marine mammals, also producing tools and other artefacts from local basalt and obsidian.
The Kermadec Islands have a number of plants that were probably introduced by voyagers from other parts of Polynesia. The presence of kiore, a species of rat now eradicated from Macauley Island, also indicates Polynesian contact with that island.
Maori scholars believe the Kermadec archipelago represents a place called Te Rangitahua in their oral history, particularly Raoul Island. The Aotea and Kurahaupo canoes both visited Te Rangitahua on the way from Rarotonga to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the fourteenth century. The Kurahaupo was damaged there, and most of the crew transferred to the Aotea to travel on to Aotearoa. The Kurahaupo was repaired and eventually landed at Takapaukura (Tom Bowling Bay) in Northland.
Early European voyagers also based activities, particularly whaling, on the Kermadec islands, and much of their early eighteenth and nineteenth century contact with New Zealand flowed from this association.
Shipwreck on Raoul Island
From the early to mid nineteenth century, Raoul and Macauley islands were used extensively for provisioning by whaling vessels operating in the French Rock and Vasquez grounds near the Kermadec Islands.
From 1836 onwards, there were a number of European attempts to settle Raoul, focused mainly on Denham Bay and, to a lesser extent, at Low Flat and the Terraces. Exotic plants and animals were introduced and areas cleared for pasture and cultivation.
The New Zealand Government annexed the Kermadecs in 1887. Provision depots for shipwrecked sailors were established on the main islands in the southern Kermadecs in 1888.
In 1934 most of Raoul Island and all of the other islands in the group were set aside as a flora and fauna reserve, later to become a nature reserve. The rest of Raoul (111 ha) was set aside for a meteorological station on the island in 1938, when the last independent settlers left the island. DOC acquired this block of land in 1991.
The Kermadec Islands are 1,000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand. The islands are remote and can only be accessed by private boat or charter vessel.
You can only visit the islands with a landing permit from the DOC Warkworth office.
Know before you go
Landing on Raoul Island
The islands of the Kermadec Group are all of international conservation significance. All the islands in the Kermadec group, except Raoul, are extremely fragile, and cannot withstand even low numbers of visitors. Therefore permits to land will only be given to people who propose to undertake work which will assist either the management or understanding of the islands' ecosystems.
Raoul Island is a little more robust, so permits to land are available to people who have a genuine interest in its natural and cultural history.
Visitors to any of the islands require a landing permit. Apply to the Department of Conservation Warkworth office.
The waters around all the islands and rocks, out to the edge of the Territorial Sea (12 nautical miles) are a marine reserve.
All marine life in this area is totally protected. All fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited.
Marine reserve map and boundaries
Map of Kermadec Marine Reserve (With WSG84 lat/long coordinates of reserve boundaries) (PDF, 512K)
Use the WSG84 coordinates and map provided to ensure you do not fish within the boundaries of the Kermadec marine reserve.
Fishing is prohibited
Fishing of any kind is an offence is the Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve, as is the taking or disturbing of any marine life, including shellfish and seaweeds. It is also an offence to take any part of the seafloor. This includes taking home any shells or rocks you may have collected from the beach.
Contact the Warkworth office for more information, permits and research enquiries.
Pew Environment group 'The Kermadecs' website