Learn about New Zealand’s maritime history, key events, lighthouses, major oil spills and more in our visual timeline.

New Zealand’s Maritime History


Introduction of Seacert

Introduction of SeaCert (Seafarer Certification), the new Maritime New Zealand seafarer licensing framework for national and international certificates of competency and proficiency.

Introduction of MOSS

Introduction of the Maritime Operator Safety System (MOSS). This new system improves safety in maritime transport operations and builds on what has been learned from Safe Ship Management (SSM).


Anniversary of NZ maritime radio

New Zealand Post marks the 100-year anniversary of New Zealand’s maritime radio service being fully developed and the centenary of the Castle Point Lighthouse, by publishing stamps showing New Zealand’ coastlines and lighthouses.

Anniversary of Maritime Safety Authority

Maritime New Zealand celebrates the 20-year anniversary of the Maritime Safety Authority being established.


Rena grounding

The Rena runs aground on the Astrolabe Reef off the Tauranga coast. Approximately 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil is spilled.


NZ elected to IMO

New Zealand is elected to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) council, which is responsible for ensuring the Organisation’s core objectives are met. Membership on the council gives New Zealand a stronger voice on the IMO.


New name

The Maritime Safety Authority (MSA) is renamed Maritime New Zealand (MNZ).

Lighthouse monitoring

New Zealand’s lighthouses are monitored remotely in Wellington by Maritime New Zealand. Faults are checked via computer and most problems are dealt with remotely, including activating standby units if there is a failure.


Maritime Security Act

The Maritime Security Act 2004 comes into law, providing for ship and port security, the prevention of international terrorism, and adoption of changes to the Annex of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

Maritime Transport Amendment Act

The Maritime Transport Amendment Act 2004 takes effect, changing the policy framework within which MSA operates.

RCCNZ established

Following a review, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) is established and begins operating 24/7. It co-ordinates all major aviation and marine incidents in New Zealand’s search and rescue region, an area covering 30 million square kilometres.


Lifejackets become mandatory

Maritime Rules Part 91 enters into force, requiring all New Zealand recreational craft to carry lifejackets on board.


Tai Ping grounding

The Tai Ping runs aground at Tiwai Point near the entrance to Bluff Harbour. She is refloated without any fuel oil spilled.

Jody F Millennium grounding

The Jody F Millennium grounds on the beach at Gisborne, spilling 25 tonnes of fuel oil.


Seafresh 1 sinking

The Seafresh 1 sinks off the Chatham Islands, spilling 60 tonnes of diesel.

IMO conventions adopted

New International Maritime Organization (IMO) conventions relating to the protection of the marine environment are adopted, including those targeting anti-fouling systems and ballast water management.


MV Rotoma oil incident

The container ship MV Rotoma discharged about 7 tonnes of oily bilge discharge off the Tutukaka coast, creating an oil slick 6 km long.


Don Wong grounding

The Korean fishing vessel Don Wong 529 ran aground off Stewart Island spilling 400 tonnes of automotive oil into the ocean.

Introduction of Safe Ship Management

Introduction of Safe Ship Management (SSM), the first safety management system for domestic (Non-SOLAS) vessels.

International Safety Management Code

The International Safety Management Code is introduced, covering most vessels of 500 gross tons and above. It becomes applicable to other large cargo vessels and mobile offshore drilling units from 2002.


Amendments to the International Convention

Amendments to the International Convention on ‘Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers’ comes into force. This greatly improves seafarer standards and, for the first time, gives the International Maritime Organization (IMO) powers to check compliance with the Convention.


Maritime Transport Act

The Maritime Transport Act (1994) takes effect and affirms the mandate of the Maritime Safety Authority (MSA) as the national standards development body for ship safety regulations in New Zealand.


New services installed

The current coastal navigation and communication services are installed, replacing a service that has operated with little change for eight decades.

MSA becomes a Crown authority

The Maritime Safety Authority (MSA) is set up as a Crown authority in its own right. It replaces the Ministry of Transport’s Maritime Transport Division. The MSA’s establishment is part of a Transport Law Reform Bill which addresses the full range of New Zealand’s maritime laws and provides the first major reform of shipping legislation in almost 40 years.


Health and Safety in Employment Act

The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 comes into force, covering work on board ships and for ships as a place of work.

Ship Registration Act

The Ship Registration Act 1992 comes into force. It provides for the registration of ships in New Zealand.


Last manned lighthouse

The last manned lighthouse, at Brothers Island in Cook Strait, is automated and de-manned. New Zealand is the first country in the world to have all lighthouses automated.


Global Maritime Distress and Safety System

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which allows emergency messages to be transmitted automatically, is adopted. It is phased in from 1992.

Maritime Transport Division

Under government restructuring, the Ministry of Transport’s Marine Division becomes the Maritime Transport Division.


Mikhail Lermontov grounding

The Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov, carrying 740 passengers and crew, grounds on rocks near Cape Jackson. One crewman is lost.


Rainbow Warrior bombing

The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior is blown up by French agents, killing a crewman. The ship had been heavily involved in anti-nuclear protests against the French in the Pacific.


USS Texas visits

The visit of the USS Texas sparks anti-nuclear rallies, becoming an election year issue in 1984. Nuclear ship visits are subsequently banned by the New Zealand Government.


Inquiry into demanning lighthouses

An inquiry is held into the automation and demanning of New Zealand’s lighthouses.


Rangatira’s last voyage

The Lyttelton to Wellington ferry Rangatira completes its last voyage, ending more than 80 years of regular services between the two ports.


IMO pollution measures

The most important of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) measures for countering pollution, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, is developed. Later to become MARPOL, it covers accidental and operational oil pollution, and pollution by chemicals, goods, sewage, garbage and air pollution.


Marine Division opens

The Marine Department is absorbed into the Ministry of Transport as the Marine Division.


Global search and rescue system

A global search and rescue system is initiated with establishment of the International Mobile Satellite Organization, greatly improving the provision of radio and other messages to ships.


Wahine grounding

The ferry Wahine runs aground near Wellington, costing 53 lives. 681 passengers are rescued.


Oil poses risk

Growth in the amount of oil being transported by sea and in the size of oil tankers poses a new problem for the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Measures to prevent tanker accidents and minimise their consequences are introduced, including threats caused by tanker cleaning operations.


Last harpooning

New Zealand whalers harpoon their last whale off the Kaikoura coast, ending more than 170 years of whaling.


Aramoana comes into service

The country’s first roll-on, roll-off ferry, the Aramoana, enters service between Wellington and Picton.


NZ joins IMO

New Zealand becomes a member of the IMO. The Organization’s first task is to adopt a new version of the SOLAS convention.


IMO meets for the first time

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) meets for the first time. The IMO Convention took effect in the previous year.


Shining bright

A xenon light source fitted to the Tiritiri Matangi Island lighthouse creates the most powerful light-beam ever achieved by a New Zealand lighthouse. It has an output of 11 million candle-power and a range of 58 nautical miles (107km) making it one of the most powerful lights in the world at this time. Most light shine for just 27 nautical miles (50km).


Waterfront dispute

The waterfront dispute of 1951 becomes the biggest industrial confrontation in New Zealand’s recorded history, lasting 151 days. Troops load and unload ships.


Buzzing lighthouses

All lighthouses in New Zealand are converted to electricity.


IMO established

An international conference in Geneva formally establishes the International Maritime Organization (IMO).


Cape Reinga lighthouse constructed

Cape Reinga is the last major manned lighthouse to be constructed.


First electric lighthouse

Baring Head is the first lighthouse to operate on electricity.


First electric lighthouse

New Zealand became the first country in the southern hemisphere to install a radio beacon to assist ships’ navigation.


Auckland Maritime Radio

Auckland Maritime Radio (ZLD) begins broadcasting.


Acetylene light

Taiaroa Head is the first lighthouse fitted with an acetylene light.


First SOLAS convention

Sparked by the Titanic disaster, maritime nations gather to develop the first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention. This is the most important international treaty addressing maritime safety. It is still in force today.


Maritime Radio developed

With the introduction of Awarua (ZLB), Awanui (ZLA) and Chatham Islands Maritime Radio (ZLC), the maritime radio service is fully developed.


Titanic disaster

The Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks on her maiden voyage, killing 1,503 people.

Automatic manned light

Bean Rock is the first manned light to be made fully automatic.


Wellington Radio broadcast

The first maritime radio coast station, Wellington Radio (ZLW), begins broadcasting.

Queen Charlotte Sound light

The first automatic light is installed at Queen Charlotte Sound – a Dieffen back light.


Wellington Radio broadcast

The first incandescent petroleum burner is tested – to replace paraffin (kerosene).


Broadcasting to ships

Farewell Spit, Cape Maria Van Diemen and Nugget Point lighthouses are all able to broadcast weather reports and relay messages from ships.

Twenty seven manned lighthouses

Twenty seven manned lighthouses operating around New Zealand.


First fog system

The first fog system is installed at Pencarrow (Slaughters Cotton Power).


Wairarapa hits cliffs

The Wairarapa hits cliffs on Great Barrier Island, killing 121 people.


First ship to shore communications

Telegraph lines are connected to lighthouses, providing the first ship-to-shore communication.


First frozen shipment of meat

The first shipment of frozen meat leaves for Britain, helping to lift New Zealand from an economic depression and becoming the cornerstone of its future economy.


SS Tararua grounding

The SS Tararua struck a reef off Waipapa Point in the Catlins, killing 131 people.


Paraffin oil used

Paraffin oil is used at Manukau South Head. Paraffin oil replaces the colza oil that was used to light early lighthouses.


Busy ports

More than one thousand ships arrive and almost a thousand ships depart from New Zealand’s ports.

500 registered vessels

Nearly 500 vessels have been registered in New Zealand.

Marine Department established

The Marine Board was disestablished and replaced by the Marine Department.

493 registed vessels

493 vessels are registered to New Zealand.


Marine Board of New Zealand

The Marine Board of New Zealand, one of the first government agencies, is set up to collect levies to pay for the construction of lighthouses.

Orpheus hits Manukau Harbour

The British Navy ship Orpheus is the biggest casualty of the New Zealand Wars and the country’s worst maritime disaster. It hit the Manukau Harbour bar, killing 189 people.


287 registered vessels

287 vessels are registered to New Zealand.

Marine board gains control of harbours

Control of harbours and shipping moved from the Colonial Secretary to the Marine Board, under the Marine Board Act 1862.


NZ’s first lighthouse

New Zealand’s first lighthouse is built at Pencarrow Head, near Wellington. Its light is first lit on 1 January 1859 and, looked after by New Zealand’s only woman lighthouse keeper.


Harbour Regulations Ordinance

Harbour Regulations Ordinance issued, this was divided into four parts: Pilots and pilotage, quarantine harbour regulations, and Penalties.

Wellington’s harbourmaster

William Hay is appointed harbourmaster for Wellington.

Bay of Islands’ harbourmaster

Thomas Buckham is appointed harbourmaster for the Bay of Islands.


Auckland’s harbourmaster

David Rough is appointed harbourmaster for Auckland.


Troublesome navigation

Ships’ captains first reported they were having trouble finding their way into New Zealand harbours.


Over 1,500 ships wrecked

More than 1,500 ships were wrecked in New Zealand, resulting in over 2,000 deaths.


Spotting land

Ship’s boy Nicholas Young receives a gallon of rum and has Young Nick’s Head named after him for being the first on board the Endeavour to spot land.


In high sights

Explorer Abel Tasman sights the Southern Alps.

1250 AD

Early settlers

While debate over when New Zealand was first settled continues, evidence suggests the Polynesian ancestors of Māori began arriving during the 13th Century.