French Pass

Following recent Waitangi Treaty Settlement agreements the strait between Rangitoto kit e Tonga / D'Urville Island and Te Waipounamu now has a dual name Te Aumiti / French Pass

Inspect the nautical charts and the tide tables thoroughly before commencing a journey through the pass. It is also recommended to obtain local knowledge before passing through here.

The main navigation channel is between Channel Point light and the light mounted on the rock in the pass. It is dangerous to attempt to travel against the stream unless the boat is easily capable of at least eight knots under power.

Lower powered vessels may be able to push through at neap tides, but the strength of the current tends to be unpredictable.

Prudent mariners will plan their approach for slack water, especially at spring tides. Even if travelling with the stream there can be problems controlling a boat, because of the eddies. When the flow is south-west a line of eddies appears from Channel Point to the south-south-west until abreast of Rock Cod Point.

To the south-east of this line of eddies, the water stream is slower and at times a counter current occurs. If travelling south-west, with the tide, it is advisable to keep in the mid channel, to avoid these eddies, as the bow of the vessel can swing into the counter current and the boat be slewed in to the shore. A big whirlpool called Jacobs Pool also forms about 300 metres to the south-west of the mid channel light.

If attempting to negotiate the pass against the south-west flow, it is best to head straight for the mid channel light until 40 metres from it, as the rock causes an eddy with less strength of current.

During the north-east tide flow there is a corresponding line of eddies to the north-east, with a counter current form Collinet Point to Channel Point. These eddies are not as dangerous as those formed by the south-west flow.

The streams do not change at the same time as high and low water. The tide table should be consulted. Slack water usually lasts for about 20 minutes.

Yachts should not rely on the wind to remain steady through the pass and are advised to start engines before entering the pass in order to maintain steerage way.

Fisherman or Coutre Pass should only be attempted with local knowledge.

Diving in the pass is extremely dangerous and is not recommended.


The Māori name for the pass is Te Aumiti. The name was awarded to commemorate the shag, Te Kawau.

Tribal traditions record that the pass was named by the Polynesian navigator and explorer, Kupe, who is reputed to have visited New Zealand while travelling in the Matawhaorua canoe sometime in the thirteenth century.

Kupe named the reef that spans most of the pass and the strait itself after a shag, Te Kawau that he had sent out to test the tides and currents. The shag dove into the water of the pass and drowned. In remembrance, Kupe named the reef, Te Kawau-a-Toru or Toru’s Shag, Te Kawau. Toru was one of Kupe’s men and the master of the shag.

Kupe named the navigable water between the reef and Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D’Urville Island, Te-o-miro-Kawau-a-Toru or the licking, swishing, swallowing currents that drowned Toru’s shag, Te Kawau. Over time, miro became miti and a shortened version of Te Aumiti was used.1

The European name for the pass was bestowed by the French Admiral Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville after navigating the pass in the corvette, Astrolabe in January 1827. The journey from Current Basin to Admiralty Bay took five days and very nearly ended in disaster. While navigating the pass the ship hit the reef twice and was pulled into a whirlpool. Eventfully the Astrolabe was washed over the reef into Admiralty Bay where the naturalists and surveyors on board set out to investigate the area.2

From 1854 to 1880 the only navigational aid sailors had going through the pass was an iron perch erected on the eastern end of the reef. In 1881 the Marine Department replaced it with a concrete based beacon and a few years later this was replaced again by painted telegraph poles bound together with chain.

In the early 1880s the Marine Department built a lighthouse on the mainland side of the pass. A house for the lighthouse keeper was built on the cliff above with a connecting stairway to give access to the light. At the same time a ship’s lamp was attached to the beacon on the reef.

On 1 October 1884 the lighthouse and beacon were officially lit. The lighthouse light was to be lit every evening and extinguished at dawn. The beacon light was to be kept going at all times and had to be replenished with oil at each slack tide. This was a challenging task as the tides allowed only 20 minutes to row across the pass, tend to the light and row back again to the mainland.

In the early 1900s the beacon was deemed unsafe and Marine Department engaged a lighthouse expert, to design and build new beacon. Manual maintenance of the beacon continued until 1927 when an automatic light was installed.

In 1952 the lighthouse was also automated and a lighthouse keeper was no longer needed.3

Between 1888 and 1912, a Risso’s dolphin, named Pelorus Jack, escorted the majority of ships passing to and from Te Aumiti / French Pass across Admiralty Bay. The dolphin would swim alongside the ships, always stopping at the pass, appearing never to swim through. Pelorus Jack became so popular that people would make the trip from Wellington to Nelson just to catch a glimpse of the dolphin.

Pelorus Jack was protected by an Act of Parliament in 1904 and was last seen in 1913 when it is believed to have died of natural causes.4

The reason for Pelorus Jack’s unusual behaviour is unknown. People have speculated that the dolphin was orphaned as an infant and sought out the company of ships. Others, including some local Māori, believe that Pelorus Jack was the taniwha, Tuhirangi called up by Tangaroa, the god of the sea, to act as a guardian in dolphin form.5


Pelorus Jack. Early 1900s. The dolphin Pelorus Jack diving through waves. This photograph was probably taken while he was accompanying a boat travelling between Nelson and Wellington.

Courtesy of the Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives, 19660491040.

Dolphin diving into waves alongside a boat.

Pelorus Jack. Early 1900s. The dolphin Pelorus Jack diving through waves. This photograph was probably taken while he was accompanying a boat travelling between Nelson and Wellington. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives 19660491040


1. I. W. Keys, “The Cultural Succession and Ethnographic Features of D'Urville Island”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 69 (1960), accessed April 24, 2018, .

2. Olive Baldwin, Story of New Zealand’s French Pass and d’Urville Island (Plimmerton: Fields Publishing House, 1979), 50-55.

3. Olive Baldwin, New Zealand’s French Pass and d’Urville Island. Book Two: Sea Business (Plimmerton: Fields Publishing House, 1981) 16-19.

4. Joy Stephens, “A world famous dolphin”, The, accessed May 16, 2018, .

5. Basil Keane, “Taniwha - Taniwha of the sea”, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed May 16, 2018, .

No anchoring in the channel
Deep (>10m)
No swimming
Rocks/reef/sand bank warnings
Beware of rocks