General History of the Islands

The island was given its Maori name by Kupe around 1000 years ago. Before colonisation the island was a refuge for raiding parties. According to records, there was never a permanent pa site. In 1997 the Geographic Board assigned the larger of the two islands its current name of Matiu-Somes Island.

After European settlement the island was named after the Deputy Governor of the New Zealand Company, Joseph Somes. It was intended to be sold for sections before the Crown assumed management in 1858. The island became a popular picnic spot in the 1860s and 1870s, with steamer ships transporting tourists for day trips. It was the last time Somes would be open to the public until the 1990s.

In 1872 an English ship sailed into Wellington Harbour flying the dreaded yellow flag:  smallpox was aboard. The mostly Norwegian and Danish passengers were quarantined on Somes, and a cemetery established for those who died. Up to the end of WWI, there was a quarantine service operated for immigrants that carried disease. All immigrants had to sit in a smoke house in various chemical fumes for 10 mins, until all lice were killed off. Quite the welcome to NZ I’m sure.  

During WWI and WWII German and Austrian ‘alien enemies’ were held on Matiu/Somes Island. In 1914 there were 300 prisoners on the Island. By 1915, the population swelled to 600 people, a mix of prisoners and disease sufferers. There are accounts of people swimming to freedom across the 3 km expanse to Petone. No one escaped for long – as we know NZ is too small a place, especially when you have a very distinguishable accent.

The Island does have a ‘first’ – NZ’s first inner harbour lighthouse was built here. The original lighthouse has been replaced and there is a quaint white lighthouse standing proud and nestled by the growing bush, on the southern end of the Island – it’s automated these days.  

Mokopuna Island

There is a second Island, 50 m to the north, which swimmers in the longer swim will circumnavigate – Mokopuna Island (grandchild in Maori). The Island is small in comparison and is best known as the quarantine settlement for a Chinese fruiterer, Kim Lee. Lee was suspected of having leprosy and was isolated on Mokopuna Island just north of Somes in 1903. He lived in the cave on the eastern side of Mokopuna and was given packing cases to make furniture and shelter. The lighthouse keeper delivered food and water to him by boat, or by flying fox when the sea was too rough. Lee died in 1904 after six months of exile. While it is now thought that Lee may have had tuberculosis or an auto-immune disease rather than leprosy, the island is also known as Leper Island to this day.

Swim Supporters

When following the swim event supporters can walk around the periphery trail keeping an eye on their athlete for most of the journey. A quick trip to the top of the Island will allow supporters a fantastic 360º view of the harbour and also a quick look at the fortified bunkers that were built in 1942 to protect NZ from enemies in 1942. The quarantine buildings and visitor centre are also on the top section of the Island. 

The Island is filled with bird life and on any day you will be blown away with the cheeky Kakariki & Piwakawaka who fulfil the meet-and-greet role to visitors. They use the trails as aerial tunnels. You will find the bird life surprisingly tame with sea gulls, little Blue Penguin and many other types of birds from one end of the Island to the other. Swimmers will have a birds-eye view (chuckle) of the rocky cliffs and crags around the Island that support breeding colonies.

Swim History

Modern swim history started in 1948 when the Petone Swim Club organised the first 3 km swim event between the Island and the Petone foreshore. The event has been swum every year apart from two since then. This is a non-wetsuit swim.

  • Non-wetsuit race record - Chris Pennell, 43 mins 15 secs

In 2017 Traction Fitness organised a predominantly wetsuit swim from Petone Beach to Matiu/Somes Island and there were some astonishing times swam, as follows -

  • Wetsuit Men’s Race Record – Harrison Hitchins, 37 mins 45 secs

  • Wetsuit Women’s Race Record – Bayley van de Coolwijk, 41 mins 58 secs

  • Wetsuit Vet Men’s Race Record – Nathan Milner, 46 mins 22 secs

The Wellington Coastline Sea Swim Series in February 2018 was the first year a swim event has been organised around the Islands. 

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