History of Whitianga, Buffalo Beach and Mercury Bay

Maori History

Whitianga has been continuously occupied for more than a thousand years since Maori explorer Kupe's tribe settled here after his visit in about 950 AD. Following this visit many of Kupe's tribe settled here. Te Whitianga a Kupe is the original place name of the town, meaning Kupe's crossing place. There is still a passenger only ferry crossing from Whitianga to Ferry Landing, close to Cooks Beach. The alternative to the two minute ferry crossing is a 45 minute drive.

Buffalo Beach

This famous beach named after HMS Buffalo which was blown from Cooks Beach in a storm and wrecked, drowning two crew members in July 1840. The ship, built of teak in India in 1813 and originally called "Hindostan", took convicts and settlers to Australia. She was calling at Whitianga to load with kauri spars to take back for the admiralty in London.

Captain Cook's visit - 1769

From Cook's journal - "my reasons for putting in here were the hopes of discerning a good harbour and the desire I had of being in some convenient place to observe the Transit of Mercury, which happens on the 9th instant and will be wholly visible here if the day is clear between 5 and 6 o'clock." Cook also named the Whitianga Harbour "River of Mangroves" and this area is still referred to as "The River".

The sighting of the Transit of Mercury is commemorated at Cooks Beach by a cairn of Coromandel granite which tells the story; "In this bay was anchored 5 Nov 1769, HMS Endeavour, Lieutenant James Cook RN, Commander. He observed the transit of Mercury and named this bay."

European Settlement

The original European settlement was situated on the opposite side of the river from approximately 1836 to 1881.


Historically Whitianga was a centre for boat building, kauri milling, flax milling, gold mining and gum digging. For many years it was a leading timber port with sailing ships from Norway, Sweden, France, Italy and Great Britain coming to load timber.

  • Overseas vessels of 2000 tons with a draught of 18" and carrying with their decks loads over a million feet of timber worked the harbour entrance.
  • The larger ships were towed into the port from near Centre Island. Over a period of sixty years, it is estimated over 500 million feet of kauri was exported from the Whitianga district.
  • The first kauri gum was exported in 1844. It reached its peak in 1899 when over 11,000 long tons of gum was exported at an average of $120 per ton.
  • Today Whitianga serves as a small regional centre for the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula / Mercury Bay area and is a focal point for local fishing, farming and tourism industry.

Built by Lonely Yak