Nature and conservation
Motuopao Island is an important refuge for threatened species once common on the mainland such as pupuharakeke (flax snail) and many seabirds. Removal of environmental damaging weeds is an ongoing project for the Department, as well as active monitoring to ensure rodents and other pest plants and animals do not invade the island.
Motuopao is home to substantial breeding populations of black-winged petrel (Pterodroma nigripennsis) and common diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix).
Six species of breeding petrels have been recorded on Motuopao, including grey-faced petrels (Pterodroma macroptera), white-faced storm petrels (Pelagodroma marina), sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus), and fluttering shearwater (Puffinus gavia). Almost all of these species were once common on the mainland.
Motuopao was a manned lighthouse station between 1879 and 1940 and during this period was grazed by sheep. In 1989, the Department of Conservation eradicated kiore (Rattus exulans) and in 1997 it started controlling weeds including Madeira vine (Anredera cordifolia), smilax (Asparagus asparagoides) and Gladiolus cardinalis, wallflower (Cheiranthus cheiri), and tree mallow (Lavatera arborea).
Weed control was initiated to control the spread of the remaining garden plants (introduced during the lighthouse period) and to remove ecosystem impacting plants before restoration of native habitats.
Motuopao is home to three skinks; Smith’s skink (Leiolopisma smithi), Moco skink (L. moco) and Suter’s skink (L.suteri). Pacific geckos (Hoplodactylus pacificus) have also been recorded on the northern side of the island.
Native plants and animals on the New Zealand mainland face constant battle for survival against nasty introduced pests, including mice, rats, ants, and stoats.
Motuopao has none of these pests. For this reason, Motuopao is strictly a ‘no landing zone’. The only visitors are DOC staff, iwi and researchers undertaking approved weed control, historic management activities, including the preservation of the lighthouse structure and settlement, and plant and animal work.
Motuopao (also Motuopau or Motu Opou) Island is located 200m off the tip of Cape Maria Van Diemen in the Far North, and is visible from Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga).
The island comprises of two 118 m tall basaltic stacks covered in sand with a saddle valley that runs in an east and west direction. The island is frequently windswept by strong south-westerlies and access to the island is difficult due to the swells and 5-10 knot currents in the channel between Motuopao Island and Cape Maria van Diemen.
History and culture
Following the realisation in the 1870s that New Zealand needed a network of lighthouses to protect shipping from natural hazards, Motuopao was chosen as the site best suited as the location of a light to protect shipping using the dangerous waters at the northern tip of the country.
A lighthouse settlement was established in the early 1880s with three families of lighthouse keepers. The wooden lighthouse structure was built on a concrete base at the northern end of the island. Despite its close proximity to the mainland the 200 m of water was extremely dangerous with very strong currents and unexpected wave surges resulting in the drownings of at least two of the islands inhabitants.
By the beginning of WWII, the Marine Department had decided that the light was in the wrong location, so in 1941 the glasshouse and light mechanism on top of the lighthouse were removed and re-erected on a concrete base at the new lighthouse settlement six kilometres to the east at Cape Reinga.
Today Motuopao Island is a Nature Reserve.
Managing the industrial archaeology of Motuopao
The remains of the lighthouse settlement are relatively undisturbed. The features were first recorded as archaeological sites in the 1980s by Wynn Spring-Rice for the Lands & Survey Department. Spring-Rice mapped the foundations of the three keepers houses (which had been dismantled and removed in the 1950s), the flying fox mechanism used to get supplies to the island, the concrete base for the gantry, assorted smaller wooden structures and the wooden tower of the original light on the islands highest point.
The lighthouse tower is the most prominent structure on the island. It requires maintenance from time to time. This is usually done as part of the yearly weeding trip by DOC staff. Although much of the kauri and Australian ironwood structural framing and exterior cladding are in good condition, the attaching nails have been severely degraded in the salt-rich environment and consequently parts of the exterior cladding fall away from time to time. In addition, the removal of the light and protective glasshouse in the 1940s exposed the interior to the weathering elements. In particular, it allowed rain to enter the structure at the top and pond in the concrete basement and so accelerated the rot in some of the wood framing.
Heritage architect Dave Pearson produced remedial plans and to-date work has involved the construction of a protective roof 'cap' to weatherproof the interior and the reinstatement of some cladding.
Engineers plan to strengthen the base of the lighthouse. The remaining ruins associated with the lighthouse settlement have been mapped and recorded so that other DOC management activities on the island do not interfere with the historic heritage.
Beaglehole, H., 2006. Lighting the Coast. A History of New Zealand's Coastal Lighthouse System. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.
An archaeological inspection and update of the previously recorded archaeological sites on Motuopao Island (PDF, 1361K)
Cape Maria van Diemen Lighthouse Motuopao Island heritage assessment