Lying 48km northwest of Cape Reinga, where the South Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea converge, Three Kings Islands is an archipelago of 13 uninhabited islands. Three Kings Islands measure about 4.86 km² in area and consist of one large island (Great Island), three smaller islands (South West Island, West Island and North East Island), and several islets and rock stacks.
Purchased by the Crown from Maori owners in 1908, Three Kings Islands was declared a sanctuary under the Animals Protection and Game Act in 1930. In 1956, its status was changed to that of a Nature Reserve for the preservation of flora and fauna, and is now managed by the Department of Conservation.
The islands are situated on a submarine plateau (the Three Kings Bank), and are separated from the New Zealand mainland by an 8 km wide, 200 to 300 m deep submarine trough.
These islands were named Drie Koningen Eyland on 6 January 1643 by Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman who three weeks earlier had become the first European known to have seen New Zealand.
Tasman anchored at the islands when searching for water. As it was the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany, the day the biblical three kings known as the wise men visited Christ the child, he named the islands accordingly.
Native plants and animals on the New Zealand mainland face constant battle for survival against nasty introduced pests, including mice, rats, ants, and stoats.
Three Kings Islands have none of these pests. For this reason, the islands are strictly a ‘no landing zone’. The only visitors are DOC staff, iwi and researchers undertaking approved threatened plant and animal work, biosecurity and weed control.
Before 1810 and again in the 1870’s, whalers liberated goats and pigs onto Great Island to provide a source of food for passing ships. This had a profound effect on the islands and its plant life, with some plant populations coming close to extinction.
The rarest of them all was reduced to one individual, a small tree Pennantia baylisiana, and Tecomanthe speciosa, a large tree vine. In response to this, the Islands became the nerve centre of the Tecomanthe and Pennantia recovery programme in 2005. The goal for the programme is to have a healthy population of reproducing plants flourishing around Three Kings Islands.
The Islands are home to a wide variety of sea and land bird species including the northernmost population of Pacific Albatross. The seabirds range from fluttering shearwater (Puffinus gavia), grey-faced petrel (Pterodroma macroptera gouldii) to the red-billed gull (Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus), each of which is estimated to have tens of thousands of breeding pairs on the islands, with the highest numbers found on Great Island.
Three Kings Islands are also a stronghold for a large Australasian gannet (Morus serrator) colony, with breeding colonies on South West Island. Black-winged petrels are also common, with an estimated 5000 pairs nesting on Great Island, and smaller numbers on North East, South West and West Island.
Over the summer and autumn months, flocks of grey ternlets (Procelsterna cerulea) containing up to 200 birds are commonly present on the Islands.
Six species of lizard, including a large endemic skinkOligosoma fallai and an endemic gecko Hoplodactylus aff. pacificus, call Three Kings Islands home. Great Island has the largest number of lizard species (six species), followed by North East and South West islands (five species each), with West Island being home to four species of lizards.
Invertebrates, spiders and snails
Three Kings Islands is a sanctuary for invertebrates, spiders and snails. The giant centipede Cormocephalus rubriceps, also found on the mainland, grow larger and more abundant on Three Kings Islands. At 240mm in length, it has an ability to deliver a savage poison-filled bite with its razor sharp pincers.
Ten of 38 species of landsnails found on the islands are found only on Great Island and nowhere else in the world.
Three Kings Islands is also home to many species of stick insect, weta, and spiders.
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