Otamahua/Quail Island Harbour
Image: Abi | Creative Commons

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Ōtamahua/Quail Island is an inner harbour island, reached via a short ferry ride from Lyttelton. It is Canterbury’s largest island but is easily explored in a day.

Easy grades make the walks on this island suitable for small children and family groups.

Place overview


  • Bird and wildlife watching
  • Walking and tramping


  • Visitor centre

Find things to do Ōtamahua/Quail Island Recreation Reserve

About track difficulties

Bird and wildlife watching

At the northern point of the island there is a bird observation barricade.

Birds such as black-backed / karoro and red-billed gulls / tarāpunga, white-flippered penguins / kororā, terns, shags and oystercatchers are often seen from the observation point. Fantails / pīwakawaka and grey warblers / riroriro are present on the island.

Banks Peninsula tree weta have recently been transferred to the island - you may see custom-built weta homes attached to the trunks of manuka trees.

Kiwi Guardians programme

Take your family on a Kiwi Guardians adventure. Kiwi Guardians is a free, fun and easy way for 6-10 year olds to get to know this special place - grab a map, go and explore, and earn a reward! More about Kiwi Guardians


On the south side of the island there are safe and sheltered beaches for swimming and water-sports. A section of the bay has been set aside for water-skiing.

There are toilets here and the old barracks can be used for shelter but not overnight stays.


Ōtamahua/Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust holds regular weeding and tree-planting volunteer days in Autumn and Spring. They are usually during the weekends.

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    About this place

    Nature and conservation


    The island is 81 hectares in area, with a high point of 86 metres. It lies in the flooded crater of an extinct volcano - Lyttelton Harbour / Te Whakaraupo.

    There were two rock quarries on the island. The columnar basaltic rock was used as ballast by early sailing ships returning home without cargo. Rhyolite stone was also quarried from above Walkers Beach by ‘hard labour gangs’ of prisoners brought over from the mainland. The stone was used to build walls and terraces along the foreshore which can be still seen today.


    Red-billed gulls at sunset. Photo copyright: Kim Westerskov (DOC USE ONLY).
    Red-billed gulls at sunset

    Birds such as black-backed / karoro and red-billed gulls / tarāpunga, white-flippered penguins / kororā, terns, shags and oystercatchers are often seen from the observation point. Fantails / pīwakawaka and grey warblers / riroriro are present on the island.

    Banks Peninsula tree weta have recently been transferred to the island - you may see custom-built weta homes attached to the trunks of manuka trees.

    History and culture

    Ōtamahua/Quail Island is a place rich in history and culture. The Ōtamahua/Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust and the Department of Conservation are working to remove pests, re-vegetate, and eventually re-introduce native wildlife. 

    Heritage Centre

    A visitor centre on the island has displays on the cultural and natural history of the island. 


    Quail island ships' graveyard.
    Quail Island ships' graveyard can be seen along the Quail Island Track

    Ōtamahua means the place where children collect seabird eggs. The island appears to have been uninhabited, but was visited often to collect shellfish, flax, bird’s eggs and other foods.

    Fine stone from King Billy Island (a rocky outcrop just off Quail) was used to work greenstone/pounamu.

    Captain Mein Smith named the island ‘Quail’ after seeing native quail here in 1842; they were extinct by 1875.

    The island was farmed briefly in 1851 by the Ward brothers - until two of the brothers drowned in the harbour - and then it passed through several hands until it was used as a Quarantine Station in 1875 for new immigrants.

    In 1907 a small leprosy colony was established on the island and housed several patients until 1925, when the remaining lepers were sent to Fiji.

    After the turn of the century, when Antarctic exploration was at its peak, the island was used to quarantine and train dogs and ponies for Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions. In 1917 the island hospital was used during the influenza epidemic.

    There are replica dog kennels and a replica leprosy patient’s hut built on the island by students of Cathedral College. The quarantine barracks have been restored and moved down to the beach front.

    The island was declared a recreation reserve in 1975.

    Getting there

    Ōtamahua/Quail Island lies within Lyttelton Harbour/Te Whakaraupō, close to Christchurch City.

    A regular bus service runs between Christchurch City and Lyttelton (#28) and includes a stop at B jetty. Further information about bus services is available from BUSinfo phone +64 3 366 8855. 

    Black Cat Cruises operate a regular 7 day ferry service to the island during Summer. Between May and September each year there is no ferry service.

    Black Cat Cruises website or phone +64 3 328 9078

    Know before you go

    • Toilets are located at Whakamaru Beach (Swimmers Beach) and Skiers Beach.
    • Most track surfaces on the island are evenly graded or grassed, but sturdy footwear is recommended for the longer walks for your comfort and safety.
    • Carry adequate clothing and be prepared for sudden changes in the weather - parts of the island are very exposed.
    • All walking times are approximate.
    • There are preciptitous unfenced cliffs. Small children should be kept under close supervision at all times.
    • There is a danger of windfall or treefall in high or gusty wind conditions.

    Ōtamahua / Quail Island is at times subject to extreme fire danger. If fire breaks out on the island:

    • Head to the nearest beach or coastal area, if it is safe to do so.
    • If you have a mobile, dial 111 for fire.

    Look after the island

    • All wildlife, plants, and natural and historic features are protected. Avoid damaging recently planted trees.
    • Animals, including dogs, are prohibited, as is the carrying of firearms.
    • Take home all your rubbish.
    • No unauthorised vehicles (including mountain bikes) allowed.
    • No fires except gas-fired BBQs in the picnic area on Whakamaru Beach (swimmers beach).
    • No camping.
    • Bait stations and predator traps are in use at all times, read the warning signs on the wharf and around the island.
    • Do not use the historic stock jetty - it is unsafe.
    • Do not remove rocks from the sea wall along the beach.


    Ōtautahi / Christchurch Visitor Centre
    Phone:   +64 3 379 4082
    Address:   9 Rolleston Ave
    Botanic Gardens
    Christchurch 8013
    Email:   christchurchvc@doc.govt.nz
    Full office details
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