Ōtamahua/Quail Island Harbour

Image: Abi | Creative Commons


Ōtamahua/Quail Island is an inner harbour island, reached via a short ferry ride from Lyttelton. It's 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


  • Visitor centre


  • Bird and wildlife watching
  • Camping
  • Walking and tramping

Find things to do and places to stay Ōtamahua/Quail Island Recreation Reserve

About this place

Nature and conservation


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

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.


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

On warm summer days you’re likely to spot resident lizards like geckos and skinks.   

The Ōtamahua/Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust and DOC are working to establish native vegetation and re-introduce native wildlife. A maintained network of traps protects the island from introduced predators, with the exception of mice. The island has been free of possums, rabbits, cats, hedgehogs, mustelids and rats since 2006.

History and culture

Ōtamahua/Quail Island is a place rich in history and culture and boasts a number of local, and national historic sites.


Interpretive displays can be found in the historic Barracks buiding at Whakamaru beach, illustrating the cultual and natual history of the island. There are also interpretation panels along the Ōtamahua/Quail Island Loop Track for walkers to enjoy.


Ōtamahua means the place where children collect seabird eggs, it was also once known as "Te Kawakawa" likely referring to the kawakawa (pepper tree) of the same name.

The island appears to have been uninhabited, but was visited often to collect shellfish, flax, bird’s eggs and other foods. Fine stone from nearby Aua/King Billy Island was used to work greenstone/pounamu.

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

The island's history of agriculture began in 1851 with the Ward brothers. After two of the brothers drowned in the harbour, the island  passed through several hands until it was established as a Quarantine Station in 1875 for new immigrants. Later the island was used as an important animal quarantine facility.

Emigrating to New Zealand in the 1800s was no easy feat. Long sea voyages in cramped, dirty conditions meant passengers were at risk of getting sick. To keep disease from spreading across the country, single men with signs of illness were quarantined on the island until they were declared healthy.

The quarantine station played an important role in managing outbreaks of disease - including a diptheria outbreak at the Lyttelton Orphanage and two devastating waves of the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.

In 1907 the only leprosy colony in New Zealand was established on the island, and this housed several patients until 1925, when the remaining lepers were sent to a colony in 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.

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. These historic sites offer glimpses into the island's rich history.

The island was declared a recreation reserve in 1975 and has since been enjoyed by locals and visitors for its sheltered beaches, walking tracks, historical sites and ecological restoration programme.

Getting there

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

Black Cat Cruises operates a (cash only) ferry service from Lyttelton Wharf. Check their schedule and make sure you know when the last ferry leaves Quail Island.

You can make your own way by canoe, kayak or private boat. Whakamaru (Swimmers) beach, Skiers Beach or Walkers Beach are the recommended places to land/launch. Take care as there are shallow areas, and mud flats at low tide. The majority of the island’s coast is unsuitable for landings.

The wharf is not suitable for overnight mooring (as per signage).

Know before you go

  • Toilets are located at Whakamaru Beach (swimmers beach), Skiers Beach and the Caretaker's Cottage.
  • Most track surfaces on the island are evenly graded or grassed, but sturdy footwear is recommended.
  • Some tracks used by the Ōtamahua/Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust for planting access. Stay on marked tracks to avoid stepping on new plants and for your own personal safety.
  • Parts of the island are very exposed. Be prepared for sudden changes in the weather.
  • There are precipitous unfenced cliffs. Supervise small children 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 a 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

  • No fires except gas-fired BBQs in the picnic area on Whakamaru Beach (swimmers beach).
  • All animals and firearms are prohibited.
  • All wildlife, plants, natural and historic features are protected.
  • Take home your rubbish.
  • No unauthorised vehicles (including mountain bikes) allowed.
  • There are bait stations and predator traps. Read the warning signs on the wharf and around the island.
  • Do not remove rocks from the sea wall along the beach.
  • Camping is permitted only in designated areas.

Camping on the island for approved groups

Overnight camping on the island is available for approved groups at Whakamaru Beach (swimmers beach), and Skiers Beach. Contact the DOC Ōtautahi / Christchurch Visitor Centre.


Ōtautahi / Christchurch Visitor Centre
Phone:   +64 3 379 4082
Fax:   +64 4 471 1117
Email:   christchurchvc@doc.govt.nz
Address:   31 Nga Mahi Road, Sockburn
Christchurch 8042
Postal Address:   Private Bag 11089
Christchurch 8042
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