Queen Charlotte Sound

Queen Charlotte Sound (Tōtaranui in Māori) is the easternmost sound of the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand’s South Island. Like the other sounds, is a drowned river valley (also called ria) and runs south-west to north-east before joining up with Cook Strait. Its calm waters, which contrast with the notoriously rough waters of Cook Strait, make it popular with sailors.

The entrances to Queen Charlotte Sound can be hazardous, as shown by the number of ship wrecks: Most remarkably in recent years the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov, which sank in 1986 in Port Gore after striking rocks.

At the head of Queen Charlotte Sound lies the picturesque seaside town of Picton, the northern terminus of the South Island's rail and road networks and the gateway to the South Island. Picton's Waikawa Bay is also home to New Zealand's third-largest marina.

Other small, isolated settlements dot Queen Charlotte Sound and often comprise of individual properties or holiday homes, known locally as a 'bach'. Due to the rugged nature of the coastline, many of these properties are solely accessible by boat.

To the east of the Queen Charlotte Sound are Arapaoa Island and Tory Channel (Kura Te Au). Interisland ferries use Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound on their journeys between Picton and Wellington in the North Island. To the west is the Marlborough Sounds' highest peak, Mt Stokes (1203m), with Cape Jackson and Cape Koamaru as its western and eastern headlands.

It was from a hill on Arapawa Island in 1770 that Captain James Cook first saw the sea passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea, which was subsequently named Cook Strait. Captain Cook sheltered in Queen Charlotte Sound during each of his three voyages of exploration at various points. James Cook named the sound for Charlotte, wife of British ruler George III, in 1770.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whaling occurred in the Tory Channel area, most notably at the base at Perano Head on Arapawa Island. Remnants of the whaling factory remain on the island in Tory Channel. 1

Kenepuru Sound

Kenepuru Sound is the shallowest and smallest of the Marlborough Sounds in the South Island of New Zealand. In Māori, one of the meanings of ‘kenepuru’ is silt and evidence of this can be seen two-thirds of the way out of shore.  Renowned for its aqua or turquoise water colour (due to its shallower waters), the Kenepuru Sound is surrounded by sandy beaches, resorts and holiday houses.  

The 25-kilometre (16 miles) long drowned valley is an arm of Pelorus Sound and runs from the northeast to southwest. Pelorus Sound comes out at Cook Strait, and Kenepuru Sound joins it about a quarter of the way from its southern end. Due to the large number of mussel farms in the area, it has been touted the green shell mussel capital of the world.

Kenepuru Sound runs parallel to Queen Charlotte Sound, from which it is separated by a narrow spine of land. At its narrowest sit Te Mahia Bay and Portage Bay, which is named for the simplest method of passing between the two sounds. 
The magnificent Queen Charlotte track runs along the tops of the ridge between Kenepuru Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound.

Early road development linking Picton with Kenepuru contributed to Kenepuru Sound becoming a popular holiday destination. Resorts and holiday houses (called baches) are dotted along the coast, with larger concentrations at Te Mahia Bay and Portage Bay. A sealed, but windy and narrow road leads along the southern shore of Kenepuru Sound all the way to Kenepuru Head. From there, unsealed roads continue further and along the less populated northern shore. 2

Pelorus Sound

Recent Waitangi Treaty settlements record this sound as a dual name; Pelorus Sound / Te Hoiere

It has a shoreline of 380km and was named after the nautical instrument used on sailing ships and the HMS Pelorus which undertook the first survey of the sound in 1838 under the command of Philip Chetwode.

Pelorus Sound's main channel winds south from Cook Strait for about 55 kilometres. It is aligned roughly north to South from its seaward beginning at Kaitira (east entry point) and Te Akaroa (west entry point) to Havelock at its head.

Pelorus has several major arms including Tennyson Inlet, Tawhitinui Reach, Keneperu Sound and the Crail/Clova/Beatrix Bay complex.

In the 1860s, timber mills were set up in the Pelorus sound and native timber from the area was transported around New Zealand and to Australia. Later, these timber camps gave way to sheep and dairy farming.

In 1888 a dolphin appeared in the sound that would escort boats to and from the French Pass. It became known famously as Pelorus Jack.

Today, marine farming is the primary industry that occupies the Marlborough Sounds. Marlborough marine farmers grow approximately 80 per cent of the marine products farmed in New Zealand, including Greenshell mussels, salmon, oysters, paua and seaweeds. 3

Outer Sounds

The Outer Sounds area is naturally exposed to all winds and can represent quite a hurdle to boat users due to its proximity to the Cook Strait. The latter is infamous for its strong currents and rough waters, especially when the wind is from the north or south. 

Due to this, some of the narrow channels closer to Cook Strait are dangerous to navigate. Most notable amongst these is the French Pass at the southern end of D'Urville Island, which has several vortices.

There have been several shipwrecks in the Marlborough Sounds. One of the most well-known is that of the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov, which sank in 1986 in Port Gore near the mouth of Queen Charlotte Sound, after colliding with rocks.

But it is not always windy and rough: On a fine day, the South Island is visible from the coast of Wellington in the North Island, and the North Island can also be seen from areas in the Marlborough Sounds.

Notable places in the Outer Sounds are Croisilles harbour, D’Urville Island (Rangitoto ki te Tonga), Forsyth Island, and Te Kakaho Island (the Chetwode Islands), Motuara, Long Island, Blumine Island and Pickersgill Island.


1. “Queen Charlotte Sound (New Zealand),” Wikipedia, accessed March 26, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Charlotte_Sound_(New_Zealand)
2. “Kenepuru Sound,” Wikipedia, accessed March 26, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenepuru_Sound
3. “Pelorus Sound,” Wikipedia, accessed March 26, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelorus_Sound