150 years of light

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 48, June 2015

For 150 years the light from Tiritiri Matangi’s 21 metre cast-iron tower has illuminated North Shore homes and, on clear nights, picked out the city’s highest points.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse has been providing light for 150 years.
The light was first exhibited... on the 1st of January, 1865, and it had scarcely been lit an hour before the barque ‘Meteor’ sighted it at a distance of twenty-six miles, which at once determined the vessel’s position and course. Captain Verney reports that the light appeared beautifully clear and bright, even at such a great distance.

So read the news report in the Daily Southern Cross on 10 January 1865, announcing that the Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse in the Hauraki Gulf had begun broadcasting its one-million-candlepower light across the water, marking the approach to Auckland Harbour about 2 kilometres to the south.

For 150 years, while Auckland grew from a modest 12,500 residents to the 1.4 million-plus residents it has today, the light from Tiritiri Matangi’s 21 metre cast-iron tower has illuminated North Shore homes and, on clear nights, picked out the city’s highest points. As the clock ticked over to its sesquicentenary on New Year’s Day, New Zealand’s oldest working lighthouse remained firmly entrenched as a much-loved landmark and a key part of our maritime safety network.

The milestone birthday was celebrated with lighthouse open days on the 1st and 2nd of January, hosted by the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi community organisation.

Mary-Ann Rowland, who manages the island’s shop and 180 volunteer guides, described the festivities as “an amazing couple of days”. Hundreds of visitors crossed from Auckland by ferry, with an extra sailing on New Year’s Day.

The guides, all volunteers, were flat out marshalling the crowds and satisfying the public appetite for information and advice about Tiritiri Matangi’s history, as well as the island’s more recent role as a conservation site.

Interior of Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Four hundred people had the rare opportunity to go inside the lighthouse – there is normally no public access. Ray Walter, the last lighthouse keeper on the island and Jim Foye, Maritime NZ’s representative, hosted the tours and answered questions. Another highlight was the chance to view the partially restored Cuvier Light, recovered from a storage shed in Pureora Forest several years ago and transported to the island. The 8 tonne first-order dioptric light had been housed in the Cuvier Island lighthouse for almost one hundred years, and is one of only a few remaining in the world.

Four former lighthouse keepers shared tales of their life and times working on the island, and as night descended one of their number, Kevin Wilson, piped everyone from the visitor centre up to the lighthouse. A lightshow turned the white tower a deep red, restoring it for a time to the colour it was up until 1947. The deep boom of the diaphonic foghorn, resonating at intervals throughout the day, added to the atmosphere. The last visitors left by ferry at 10.30pm, the white light flashing every 15 seconds from the tower accompanying them across the water.

As well as being New Zealand’s oldest operating lighthouse, Tiritiri Matangi was the first to be built by the government. It was prefabricated in England, then assembled onsite and painted red. Despite the significant physical challenges presented by the offshore location and steep and muddy terrain, the lighthouse construction was completed in just over two months for a total cost of £5,747.

The lighthouse reads ‘1864’ above the red door.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Its light was fuelled first by colza then paraffin oil, and modified again to burn kerosene. An automatic acetylene-burning revolving light was installed in 1925, and around this time the keepers left Tiritiri. In the 1930s a radio beacon was fitted to the light. Keepers returned to work on the island after the Second World War, and in 1955 the light was converted from oil to diesel-generated electricity.

A decade later, a new xenon light of 11 million candlepower, donated by Auckland businessman Sir Ernest Davis, was installed. It was the brightest light in the southern hemisphere, able to be seen from 93 kilometres out to sea and considered by some mariners to be too intense. In 1966, an underwater power cable supplied mains electricity to the light, and by 1984 improved shipboard navigational aids meant the light could be reduced to a strength of 1.6 million candlepower.

In 2002, a modern rotating light beacon was installed within the original lighthouse and fitted with a 50 watt tungsten halogen bulb. This light is powered from battery banks charged by solar panels and has a range of 18 nautical miles (33 kilometres).

When the lighthouse was fully automated in 1984, the last lighthouse keeper, Ray Walter, stepped down – but he stayed on as conservation officer for the island’s newly established wildlife sanctuary and then served as a Department of Conservation ranger until 2006.

Since the wildlife sanctuary was established, the island’s 220 hectares, stripped of native bush over 120 years of farming, have been rid of predators and unwanted vegetation. Volunteers from tramping clubs, the Forest and Bird conservation organisation, schools and the general public have replanted hundreds of thousands of native trees. The Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi was formed in 1988 to raise funds for the island and, working with the Department of Conservation, has introduced endangered birds, insects and reptiles.

Apart from the tower, the island’s built structures include three keepers’ houses, the restored signal tower, three foghorns and the former workshop, where the museum is now located. A new building houses the visitor centre.

Thousands of people make the day trip from Auckland each year to see the native wildlife up close and explore the lighthouse complex. Tiritiri maintains an enduring role in protecting New Zealand’s fauna and flora and keeping mariners safe at sea.

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