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Otago Peninsula facts for kids

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Dunedin area New Zealand
Location of the Otago Peninsula (Muaūpoko) on New Zealand's South Island.

The Otago Peninsula (Māori: [Muaūpoko] Error: {{Lang}}: text has italic markup (help)) is a long, hilly indented finger of land that forms the easternmost part of Dunedin, New Zealand. Volcanic in origin, it forms one wall of the eroded valley that now forms Otago Harbour. The peninsula lies south-east of Otago Harbour and runs parallel to the mainland for 20 km, with a maximum width of 9 km. It is joined to the mainland at the south-west end by a narrow isthmus about 1.5 km wide.

The suburbs of Dunedin encroach onto the western end of the peninsula, and seven townships and communities lie along the harbourside shore. The majority of the land is sparsely populated and occupied by steep open pasture. The peninsula is home to many species of wildlife, notably seabirds, pinnipeds, and penguins, and several ecotourism businesses operate in the area.


Otago harbour landsat
NASA satellite photo of Otago Peninsula and Otago Harbour. The city of Dunedin is located at the isthmus at lower left.
Harbour Cone Otago Peninsula
Harbour Cone

The peninsula was formed at the same time as the hills that face it across the harbour, as part of a large, long-extinct, volcano. Several of the peninsula's peaks, notably the aptly named Harbour Cone, clearly show these volcanic origins in their form. These rocks were built up between 13 and 10 million years ago.

Much of the peninsula is steep hill country, with the highest points being Mount Charles (408 m), Harbour Cone, and Sandymount. Two tidal inlets lie on the Pacific coast of the peninsula, Hoopers Inlet and Papanui Inlet. Between them is the headland of Cape Saunders. Nearby natural features include the 250-m-high cliffs of Lovers' Leap and The Chasm.

At the entrance to the Otago Harbour the peninsula rises to Taiaroa Head, home to a breeding colony of northern royal albatross, the only colony of albatross to be found on an inhabited mainland. The viewing centre for the albatross colony is one of the peninsula's main ecotourism attractions, along with other wildlife such as seals and yellow-eyed penguins. Most of the Otago Peninsula is freehold farming land, with increasing numbers of small holdings or lifestyle blocks. Some biodiversity sites such as Taiaroa Head are managed as sanctuaries for wildlife. Many species of seabirds and waders in particular may be found around the tidal inlets, including spoonbills, plovers, and herons.

The Pacific coast of the peninsula includes several beaches that are far enough removed from Dunedin to be sparsely populated even in mid-summer. These include Allan's Beach, Boulder Beach, Victory Beach, and Sandfly Bay.

Victory Beach, named after the 19th century shipwreck of the Victory close to this coast, features a rock formation known locally as "The Pyramids" for its resemblance to the ancient Egyptian monuments. Sandfly Bay, named not for the insect but for the sand blown up by the wind, is reached via a path through some of New Zealand's tallest sand dunes, which rise for some 100 metres above the beach.

Other tourist attractions on the peninsula include Larnach Castle, a restored Armstrong 'disappearing' gun coastal defence post, and a war memorial cairn. There are views of the city and surrounding country from Highcliff Road, which runs along the spine of the peninsula.

The total population of the peninsula is under 10,000, with about half of these in the suburbs of Dunedin that encroach onto its western end, such as Vauxhall and Shiel Hill. For much of its length, only the strip adjacent to the Otago Harbour is populated, with several small communities dotting its length. Largest of these are Macandrew Bay (the peninsula's largest settlement, with a population of 1,100), Portobello, and Otakou, which was the site of the first permanent European settlement on the Harbour, and the site of an early whaling station, commemorated at nearby Weller's Rock. There were several other whaling stations inside the harbour and outer peninsula, including the Middle Fishery Station at Harrington Point.

Otago Peninsula from Mount Cargill
Panorama of Otago Peninsula from Mt. Cargill, looking southeast across Otago Harbour. On the extreme left are the harbour mouth, Aramoana and Taiaroa Head. Near the centre is Harbour Cone, and below it Broad Bay. Portobello and Macandrew Bay are to the left and right respectively. Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua is mid left above Port Chalmers.
Pyramids Otago Peninsula
Panorama of the view from the smaller of the two Pyramids on Otago Peninsula.


Pre-European settlement

Otakou Whare Runanga 2008
Otakou marae whare runanga

Modern archaeological opinion favours a date for New Zealand's first human settlement around 1300 AD, with people concentrated on the east coast of the South Island. In Archaic (or moa hunter) times the Otago Peninsula was a relatively densely occupied area at the centre of the country's most populous region.

A map of recorded Māori archaeological sites for the Otago Conservancy shows many more on the Otago Peninsula than elsewhere in the region. Another showing only those of the Archaic period shows sites clustered on the peninsula and along the coast across the harbour to the west and north. This was one of three more or less distinct clusters on the South Island's south east coast: one from about Oamaru south to Pleasant River; another from Waikouaiti south, which includes the Otago Peninsula and tails off about the Kaikorai estuary; another extending south from the Clutha mouth. The clusters contain a few larger sites. On the Otago Peninsula the one at Little Papanui is of middle size while that at Harwood Township is one of the largest. These and numerous other smaller sites are clearly visible, though often not recognised by visitors for what they are.

Their occupants were people of Polynesian culture and descent, ancestral to modern Maori, who lived by hunting large birds, notably the now extinct flightless moa, but also seals and by fishing.

Whale ivory chevron pendants found at Little Papanui were made by the site's early occupants and are now in the Otago Museum, Dunedin. The site's lowest levels have been estimated to have been occupied some time between 1150 and 1300 A.D. Another peninsula site, at Papanui Inlet, is thought to have been occupied in the same period, as was the extensive one at Harwood Township. Little Papanui and Harwood are considered to have been permanent settlements, not temporary camps. A single radiocarbon date for Harwood suggests it was also occupied in 1450. Three magnificent greenstone adzes, said by H.D. Skinner to be the finest of their type, were found nearby and are dated to the same time. They represent a form already archaic when they were made. They are in the Otago Museum.

Southern Māori oral tradition tells of five successively arriving peoples and while the earliest, Kahui Tipua, appear to be fairy folk modern anthropological opinion is that nevertheless they represent historical people who have become encrusted with legend. Te Rapuwai were next and seemed to be succeeded by two Waitaha tribes but it has been suggested this was really one with 'Waitaha' also being used as a catchall name for all earlier peoples by some later arrivals. 'Te Rapuwai' may perhaps also have been used like this. Nevertheless, some middens, such as those on the peninsula, have been identified traditionally with Te Rapuwai. Anderson's later, or tribal Waitaha, arrived in the south in the 15th century.

Moa and moa hunters went into decline but a new Classic Māori culture evolved, characterised by the construction of pa, fortified villages, and new peoples arrived on the Otago Peninsula. People here at this time practised what has been called a foraging economy. Increasing reliance seems to have been placed on harvesting the root of the cabbage tree (cordylline australis) and 'umu ti', cabbage tree ovens, proliferate over some parts of the Peninsula showing intensive use of the land.

Kati Mamoe (Ngāti Mamoe in modern standard Māori) arrived in the late 16th century. Kai Tahu (Ngāi Tahu in modern standard Māori) came about a hundred years later. Pukekura, a fortress on Taiaroa Head, was built about 1650. Nearby villages on Te Rauone Beach perhaps date from the same time. Pukekura's terraces are still visible, with some of them co-opted into later European defence works.

Many traditions survive from this period concerning figures such as Waitai and Moki II who at different times both lived at Pukekura pa. One of the best known concerns Tarewai who is difficult to place chronologically but was of Kai Tahu descent. He gained possession of Pukekura, was in conflict with Kati Mamoe at Papanui Inlet and made a famous escape back into Pukekura by a cliff still known as Tarewai's Leap. There had been an argument about Kati Mamoe fishing rights on Papanui Inlet. A particularly fine, talismanic, whale bone fishook of the 18th century was found there and is now in the Otago Museum.

The arrival of the Europeans

Looking across Port Chalmers and Otago Harbour towards the Otago Peninsula, Harbour Cone at top centre

James Cook was off the coast in February 1770 and named Cape Saunders after the Secretary of the Admiralty. His chart showed a bay at what is Hooper's Inlet, which may have been explored and named by Charles Hooper chief officer on Daniel Cooper's English sealer, Unity, in the summer of 1808-9. Sealers used the harbour from about this time, probably anchoring off Wellers' Rock, modern Otakou, where there was an extensive Māori settlement or settlements. The Sealers' War (also known as the War of the Shirt) was sparked by an incident on the Sydney Cove in Otago Harbour late in 1810 while her men were sealing at Cape Saunders. This incidentally produced James Kelly's attack on 'the City of Otago', probably the Te Rauone settlement(s) in December 1817 after William Tucker and others had been killed at Whareakeake (Murdering Beach) a few miles north. Peace was re-established by 1823. 1826 saw the visit of the Rosanna and the Lambton, ships of the first New Zealand Company bringing the first recorded European women and producing Thomas Shepherd's pictures of the Peninsula, the oldest now known, held in the Mitchell Library Sydney. In November 1831 the Weller brothers, Joseph, George and Edward, established their whaling station at Wellers Rock.

In the course of a turbulent decade the Wellers' Otago establishment grew to be the largest in the country and the harbour became an international whaling port. European women were present at the station from the beginning. There was conflict with Māori who suffered epidemics of measles and influenza in 1835 and 1836. Whaling collapsed in 1839 in March 1840. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the Peninsula in June, although the South Island had already been annexed by 'right of discovery'. The first Christian service was preached on the Peninsula later that year at Otago by Bishop Pompallier. In 1841 Octavius Harwood and C.W. Schultze took over the Wellers' operation.

Various European visitors in the 1840s made records. In 1844 Māori reserved the land at the Heads when they sold the Otago Block to the Otago Association for its Scottish Free Church settlement. Charles Kettle, the Association's surveyor, laid out suburban and country blocks in 1846-7. The arrival of the first migrant ships in early 1848 saw the focus of settlement move to Dunedin while Port Chalmers on the other side of the harbour succeeded Otago as the international port. In December William Cargill, secular leader of the Otago settlement, successfully petitioned the government to re-instate 'Otago' as its original name. The old whaling village and adjacent Māori settlements had now become 'Otakou'.

The growth of modern settlement

As Dunedin developed the Peninsula's southern end became a city recreation ground and then a suburb. Native bush was cleared over most of the terrain in a massive transformation of the landscape. Settlements were formed on the harbourside and on the Highcliff Road on the spine of the land mass, but in the early phase of European settlement, also on the more exposed Pacific slopes.

Lime Kiln Otago Peninsula
Peninsula lime kiln

During the Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s pleasure gardens were established at Vauxhall; George Grey Russell built his house at Glenfalloch and William Larnach acquired the land for his big house at Pukehiki, 'Larnach Castle'. A lighthouse was built at Taiaroa Head in 1864 and work began using prison labour, sometimes including Maori prisoners of war, to build the winding harbourside road, with its distinctive seawalls of the local stone. Across the cleared land settlers built dry stone walls, following the pattern of 'Galloway Dykes', another conspicuous and distinctive feature of the landscape whose only other examples in New Zealand are across the harbour on the opposite heights. Stone lime kilns were built near Sandymount in 1864.

The land was used for mixed farming and later focused on dairying. This produced New Zealand's first dairy co-operative, at Springfield on the Highcliff Road, in 1871. The peninsula was made a county in 1876, the administrative centre being Portobello. In the 1880s, following fears of a Russian invasion, Taiaroa Head was extensively fortified. An Armstrong Disappearing gun was installed in 1886. Ferries linked the peninsula's harbour coast with the city and Port Chalmers.

In 1904 a marine fish hatchery was established at Aquarium Point, Portobello. Another sign of changing attitudes to wild life was the self-establishment of the royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head in the 1920s which was now carefully nurtured for its scientific interest.

The 20th century saw land use change as the draining and development of the Taieri Plain eventually led to that area eclipsing the Peninsula's dairying and mixed farms gave way to extensive grazing. The rural population, especially on the Pacific coast, dwindled, leaving abandoned steadings and roads decaying slowly behind macrocarpa and hawthorn plantings. The re-made, Europeanised landscape now took on an air of mellow decay, and started to look 'natural', unusual in a recently colonised country like New Zealand. This attracted the attention of visitors and artists. Colin McCahon, New Zealand's most celebrated painter, first worked out his 'vision' of the New Zealand landscape with studies of the peninsula, the most developed being that of 1946-49 now owned by the city and on display in the central Dunedin Public Library.

Radio masts appeared at Highcliff and rural depopulation was compensated by the growth of the harbourside settlements. Improving roads saw the demise of the ferries. After World War 2 the Taiaroa Head garrison was withdrawn and the lighthouse automated. The University of Otago took over the hatchery as a research facility as its commercial purpose waned. The City of Dunedin absorbed Peninsula County in 1967, promising to extend water and sewerage reticulation.

In recent decades there has been growing suburban occupation of the townships, some 'lifestyle' developments on the harbour slopes and an increasing tourist traffic.

The Otago Peninsula is one of the few places in New Zealand where there is everywhere visible evidence of the long human occupation of the land. In a magnificent but compact setting the challenge is to maintain its balance of human and natural in the face of growing residential and tourist development.

Natural history

White-headed Stilt
Black-winged stilt on the peninsula

Various species of endemic, rare, and endangered wildlife have been confirmed in the vicinity of Otago Peninsula both on land and at sea. Jewelled geckos are known from the area. Giant moas were historically seen on the peninsula. Endangered ocean megafaunas such as Basking Sharks, Great White Sharks, and Leatherback Turtles have been confirmed along Otago coasts.

Oceanic Birds

There is a diversity of flora and fauna on the Otago Peninsula. Avifauna observed include the endangered yellow-eyed penguin, Megadyptes antipodes, little blue penguin, shags, and the royal albatross. For albatross, Taiaroa Head has been colonised, this being the only location in the world close to large-scale human cultivation and habitation. Various species of wading birds also inhabit the peninsula, notably royal spoonbills, which are a common sight around Hooper's Inlet and Papanui Inlet on the peninsula's Pacific coast.

Marine Mammals

Two sea lions on the beach of Otago Peninsula
Two sea lions on the beach of Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Otago Peninsula's coasts are prominent habitats for marine mammals. Seal and sea lion colonies have regenerated during the 20th century after massive exploitation in the 19th century which almost wiped out both them and whales. A number of New Zealand fur seals and Hooker's sea lions currently breed around Taiaroa Head. Otago Peninsula is considered a remarkable and pioneering habitat, especially for sea lions, as it is the only continual breeding ground on a main inhabited island. Southern elephant seals and leopard seals are also known to occur in the area.

Otago Peninsula is regarded as one of the most favoured habitats for Southern right whales on mainland coasts, both currently and historically. They were seen frequently in the harbor to breed or calve until the arrival of Europeans. Their occurrence was a major reason for early European visits to the area, as they were the primary target species for shore-whaling, and were almost hunted to extinction. No whale was seen in the harbour for many years after the cessation of whaling in the area until 1975, but they are now making a slow recovery and the number of whale sightings in this area is increasing. Their current visits into the harbor are very seldom and increased ship lanes and underwater noises may affect negatively on presences of whales. Some future studies might be conducted to examine any solutions to bring back whales into the harbor. On occasions, they can be seen off the coast close to shore in their winter-migration season, along with Humpback whales, which were also hunted in the area. Today, quantities of occurrence between these species have become reversed due to drastic difference in biomasses. Taiaroa Head could be the spot with highest possibilities to catch glimpses of these giants. Other Baleen whales that have been confirmed in the area in recent times include Blue whales and Minke whales.

Several species of dolphins and small whales also occur constantly around the peninsula; dusky dolphins and endangered endemic Hector's dolphins form strong connections with the area while bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins appears less frequently. The outer peninsula just off Taiaroa Head is one of three main congregating areas for dusky dolphins in New Zealand while the harbor water and the peninsula provides breeding areas and nurseries, and Hector's dolphins frequent the vicinity of the harbour. Orca are also occasionally seen. Many other oceanic species such as Sperm whales, pilot whales, and several species of beaked whales including the first sightings of Shepherd's beaked whales within the nation and dolphins such as southern right whale dolphins can be found further offshore around the rich, deep sea canyon about 20 km off the peninsula coast and rarely strand.

Tourist attractions

Fletcher House Broad Bay2
Fletcher House in Broad Bay
  • Fletcher House, an Edwardian cottage museum, Broad Bay.
  • Otago Peninsula Museum & Historical Society Museum, Peninsula social and agricultural history, Portobello.
  • Glenfalloch Woodland Gardens & Cafe
  • Larnach Castle
  • Royal Albatross Colony - only mainland colony of Albatross in the world
  • In 2008 the Dunedin City Council purchased 328 hectares of land surrounding Harbour Cone, a distinctive geological feature on the Otago Peninsula. There are a number of walks to enjoy in this spectacular area, and more information can be found on the Dunedin City Council's website: Harbour Cone

Photo Gallery




The statistical area of Otago Peninsula covers 84.99 km2 (32.81 sq mi). It includes the southern part of the peninsula east of Ocean Grove, and also Harwood, Otakou and Harington Point. It had an estimated population of 890 as of June 2022, with a population density of 10 people per km2.

Historical population
Year Pop. ±% p.a.
2006 819 —    
2013 780 −0.69%
2018 852 +1.78%

Otago Peninsula had a population of 852 at the 2018 New Zealand census, an increase of 72 people (9.2%) since the 2013 census, and an increase of 33 people (4.0%) since the 2006 census. There were 378 households. There were 441 males and 411 females, giving a sex ratio of 1.07 males per female. The median age was 52.9 years (compared with 37.4 years nationally), with 126 people (14.8%) aged under 15 years, 87 (10.2%) aged 15 to 29, 444 (52.1%) aged 30 to 64, and 198 (23.2%) aged 65 or older.

Ethnicities were 91.5% European/Pākehā, 16.9% Māori, 0.7% Pacific peoples, 1.4% Asian, and 1.8% other ethnicities (totals add to more than 100% since people could identify with multiple ethnicities).

The proportion of people born overseas was 18.7%, compared with 27.1% nationally.

Although some people objected to giving their religion, 64.4% had no religion, 23.6% were Christian, 1.1% were Buddhist and 2.1% had other religions.

Of those at least 15 years old, 192 (26.4%) people had a bachelor or higher degree, and 105 (14.5%) people had no formal qualifications. The median income was $25,800, compared with $31,800 nationally. 99 people (13.6%) earned over $70,000 compared to 17.2% nationally. The employment status of those at least 15 was that 312 (43.0%) people were employed full-time, 138 (19.0%) were part-time, and 24 (3.3%) were unemployed.

See also

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