Explore Matiu/Somes Island

Located in the northern half of Wellington harbour, Matiu/Somes Island is a predator-free scientific reserve with a rich multicultural history, abundant wildlife, and popular walking tracks.

With easy access via the ferry service between Days Bay and Queens Wharf, this popular tourist attraction is well worth a visit on any trip to the capital.


Owned by local iwi (Taranaki Whānui), Matiu/Somes Island was originally named Matiu by Kupe nearly 1000 years ago. After European settlement, the island was named Somes after the Deputy Governor of the New Zealand Company, Joseph Somes. In 1997, the Geographic Board renamed the island Matiu-Somes in recognition of its bicultural heritage.

For such a small island, it has been used for a multitude of purposes over the centuries. Initially, it was used as a place to erect a lighthouse after several safety incidents in the Wellington harbour. In 1865, a 14-foot cast iron tower lighthouse was imported from England along with a 6-room lighthouse keeper’s house, and it began its work navigating vessels the following year.

It was also used as a human quarantine station. Given New Zealand is an isolated nation, we were often largely exempt from diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, and scarlet fever that swept across other continents. To keep these diseases at bay, islands close to major settlements were used as human quarantine stations, with Matiu/Somes Island being known as ‘Leper Island’. 

This island was also used as New Zealand’s first animal quarantine station during the 1800’s. As New Zealand’s vital agricultural industry was based on exotic species, it was imperative that all measures were taken to avoid diseases being imported along with new livestock. Animals were quarantined for 30-60 days to check for diseases, with blood samples regularly taken and tested.

Matiu/Somes Island also has a significant defence history. During WWI, the human quarantine barracks were used to hold enemy aliens who were a risk to New Zealand’s security, with nearly 300 prisoners, mainly German nationals, held on the island.

In WWII, it once again became an internment camp, with prisoners required to do road-building, gardening and fishing, for which they were paid a small daily allowance. They also had the opportunity to earn additional money by making small items such as wooden toys and päua jewellery. There are tales of some internees trying to escape the island, but there are no successful escape tales from Matiu/Somes. 

Walking tracks

Guided walks by volunteer forest rangers take place on the island at a cost of $10 per adult and $2 per child. Starting at 11am on weekdays, during the summer weekends and public holidays, they depart at 11am and 1pm.

The walks can also be self-guided, with a choice of 10-40 minutes in length with an easy level of difficulty.

Offering 360 degree views of Wellington harbour, forested canopies, native birds, and abundant wildlife, if you’re lucky, you might even get a glimpse of the world’s smallest penguin.


The only way to get to Matiu/Somes Island is to take the East by West charter ferry between Days Bay in Eastbourne, and the Queens Wharf on the Wellington waterfront.

With regular departures from all sites, make sure you buy a ticket at the East by West ticket office on the waterfront, and check out the timetable here before you go.

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