Topic: Ships and the Astrolabe Reef in the 19th century

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Close encounters: Ships and the Astrolabe Reef in the 19th century by Stephanie Smith

Archived vesion here.

Advice to mariners in the middle of the 19th century was to stay away from the waters around Motiti Island at night. The island is too flat to give any useful landmarks from which to take bearings, and it is surrounded by treacherous rocks and shoals, including the Astrolabe Reef. The position of the reef was accurately charted by the surveyors on board the H.M.S. Pandora in 1852, and it was recognised as a danger – especially in fine weather. “It would break almost always but as it is covered at high water, in very fine westerly weather it might not show.” However, the ship after which the reef is named encountered it in very bad northerly weather, which also proved dangerous.

In 1826 and 1827, Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville was circumnavigating New Zealand as captain of the French corvette Astrolabe.     

On the morning of 16 February 1827 the Astrolabe encountered a severe storm off the Bay of Plenty coast. Wind came screaming in from the north and north-east, the seas were high, and visibility was very poor. Dumont d’Urville had thought they were in the vicinity of Mayor Island, but he reckoned without the slow progress the ship had made in the heavy weather since the previous day, when they had lost sight of Mount Edgecumbe in the mist and were unable to find their latitude.

 Later in the morning the weather cleared a fraction and the wind slackened, and the Captain began to feel more optimistic. He went down to his cabin for ten minutes to change his clothes and check the map. He was sure at this stage that the ship was at a safe distance from any land. However, when he went back on deck, he saw to his horror a “frightful reef, not more than a mile away”, which had been hidden in the fog. What is more, he could see that they had already just barely cleared a spur of it which ran out very close to the ship. The Captain ordered every possible sail to be hoisted immediately, a risky move in the strong winds. The corvette plunged and listed alarmingly in the big waves, but with all its canvas catching the wind it was quickly carried away from the danger and survived with no damage. Thus the ship and her crew left “the terrible reefs, which might have been the grave of the Astrolabe”.

 For all the peril they were in,Dumontd’Urville was not unconscious of the splendour of the seas over the reef. “Such a sight as this, horrible for us at this critical moment, would no doubt have been wonderful for an onlooker not exposed to its dangers. The reef consisted of rocks not very far below the surface of the sea. The waves, rushing down from the crest of their great moving masses, came crashing against these threatening spikes, broke into great bursts of foam, to surge up the next moment in rounded columns of dazzling whiteness, which sometimes reached forty to fifty feet in height. On either side a vast stretch of water rose and fell with a slow rhythm in splendid majesty.” 

Not much more than a year later, on 7 April 1828, those on board the Church Missionary Society schooner Herald had another uncomfortable encounter, almost certainly with the same reef. On that occasion the Reverend Henry Williams felt it necessary to remind himself “The Lord is my shepherd I will not fear”. The ship and its prayerful passengers continued on their way unscathed. 

The schooner Nellie was not so lucky. It was wrecked on the Astrolabe Reef on a fine night in January 1878. Most of the cargo was salvaged, along with spars, rigging and an anchor, and no one drowned, although the captain sustained broken ribs in the process of getting the holed vessel off the reef. To add to his woes he later had his master’s certificate suspended for a month, as a Court of Inquiry into the wreck found that he had been negligent in failing to ensure that a proper lookout was kept. 


Byrne, Brian. The Pandora survey : the completion of the 1848-1856 Great Survey of New Zealand by HMS Pandora, together with an account of its genesis and initial phase. Auckland : T. B. Byrne, 2007. 

Dumontd’Urville, Jules S. C. New Zealand 1826-1827 : from the French of Dumont d’Urville. Translated and with an introduction by Olive Wright. Wellington : Wingfield, 1950. 

Ingram, C. W. N. New Zealand shipwrecks : over 200 years of disasters at sea. 8th ed., revised & updated by Lynton Diggle, Edith Diggle & Keith Gordon. Auckland : Hodder Moa, 2007. 

Matheson, A.H. Motiti Island, Bay of Plenty. Monograph, Whakatane and District Historical Society, no. 2. Whakatane: Mann reprint, 2009. 

Stephanie Smith

Specialist Information Librarian: New Zealand Room

Tauranga City Council

07 577 7183


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