The island has diverse and abundant birdlife and forest is dominated by rimu, southern rātā and kāmahi, with associated stands of Hall’s tōtara and miro. New Zealand fur seal, sea lions and leopard seals may be seen on the beaches. The human history of Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara goes back over several centuries.

Natural history


Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara, is renowned for its diverse and abundant birdlife including weka, kākā, kākāriki, tūī, bellbirds/korimako, pigeons/kereru, fantails/piwakawaka, saddleback/tieke, rifleman/titipounamu, brown creeper/pīpipi, Stewart Island robin/toutouwai and yellowhead/mohua. Some visitors may even be lucky enough to catch a rare day-time glimpse of the Stewart Island brown kiwi/tokoeka. 

Trees and plants

The island forest is a typical southern New Zealand podocarp mix dominated by rimu, southern rātā and kāmahi, with associated stands of Hall’s tōtara and miro. Southern rātā is the southern equivalent of pohutukawa. Its bright scarlet flowers present a distinctive splash of colour on the island during the summer of good flowering years. The flaky bark and gnarled trunks are distinctive rata features.

Rimu is the tallest of the island’s native trees emerging high above the forest canopy. Around the coastal fringe areas of the forest, smaller shrubs form a buffer with the sea. In the more sheltered areas inside the forest there is a diverse understorey of broadleaf species, as well as a number of tree and ground ferns.

Marine foreshore life 

On the beaches, visitors may come across sea lions/rāpoka/whakahao and occasionally leopard seals. Usually these marine mammals come ashore to rest. Don’t approach them.

Human history

The long Ngāi Tahu presence in Paterson Inlet and Ulva Island is seen by the number of archaeological sites, named features and urupa (burial grounds) in the area. Settlements such as The Neck/Te Wehe a Te Wera were important places for the local pre-European Māori community, and later in the development of the integrated Māori/European communities.

It was visited by Ngāi Tahu Māori as part of their food gathering trips and later housed the first Stewart Island Post Office. It was declared a reserve in 1899.

It was also visited periodically by Ngāi Tahu to strip bark from totara trees for use in storing harvested muttonbirds/titi. Some sites where tōtara trees have been stripped are probably 100 – 200 years old.

In 1872 Charles Traill established a post office in Post Office Bay which was operated until 1923. The old post office, the first in the Stewart Island/Rakiura region, can still be seen behind the privately owned houses near the landing.

Charles Traill and his brother Walter, both Orkney Islanders, established an extensive garden which included radiata pine and other exotic tree species. Some large survivors of their garden are still growing alongside the native forest trees on the island.

In the 1880s the Tourist Department provided funding for the island's tracks. The island became one of New Zealand's first reserves in 1899, when it was officially declared a reserve for the 'Preservation of Native Game and Flora'.

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