Kermadec Islands

The Kermadec Islands /kərˈmædɛk/ (Māori: Rangitāhua[1]) are a subtropical island arc in the South Pacific Ocean 800–1,000 km (500–620 mi) northeast of New Zealand's North Island, and a similar distance southwest of Tonga. The islands are part of New Zealand, 33.6 km2 (13.0 sq mi)[2] in total area and uninhabited, except for the permanently manned Raoul Island Station, the northernmost outpost of New Zealand.

Kermadec Islands
Coordinates29°16′37″S 177°55′24″W
Total islandsaround 16
Area33.6 km2 (13.0 sq mi)
Highest elevation516 m (1,693 ft)

The islands are listed with the New Zealand Outlying Islands. The islands are an immediate part of New Zealand, but not part of any region or district, but instead an Area Outside Territorial Authority.


Polynesian people settled the Kermadec Islands in around the 14th century (and perhaps previously in the 10th century),[3] but the first Europeans to reach the area—the Lady Penrhyn in May 1788—found no inhabitants. The islands were named after the Breton captain Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec, who visited the islands as part of the d'Entrecasteaux expedition in the 1790s.

British, American and Australian whaling vessels cruised offshore in the 19th century and often visited the islands in search of water, wood and food. The first such vessel on record was the whaler Fanny that visited Raoul Island in 1823.[4] European settlers, initially the Bell family, lived on the islands from the early nineteenth century, growing food for the whalers, and remained until 1937. One of the Bell daughters, Bessie Dyke, recounted the family's experience to writer Elsie K. Morton who published their story in 1957 as, Crusoes of Sunday Island.[5]

Raoul Island Station

The Station consists of a government meteorological and radio station, and a hostel for Department of Conservation officers and volunteers, that has been maintained since 1937. It lies on the northern terraces of Raoul Island, at an elevation of about 50 m (160 ft), above the cliffs of Fleetwood Bluff. It is the northernmost inhabited outpost of New Zealand.

Nuclear testing proposals

In 1955 the British Government required a large site remote from population centres to test the new thermonuclear devices it was developing. Various islands in the South Pacific and Southern Oceans were considered, along with Antarctica. The Admiralty suggested the Antipodes Islands.[6]. In May 1955, the Minister for Defence, Selwyn Lloyd, concluded that the Kermadec Islands would be suitable. They were part of New Zealand, so Eden wrote to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sidney Holland, to ask for permission to use the islands. Holland refused, fearing an adverse public reaction in the upcoming 1957 general election in New Zealand. Despite reassurances and pressure from the British government, Holland remained firm.[7]


The islands lie within 29° to 31.5° south latitude and 178° to 179° west longitude, 800–1,000 km (500–620 mi) northeast of New Zealand's North Island, and a similar distance southwest of Tonga. The total area of the islands is 33.6 km2 (12.97 sq mi).


The climate of the islands is subtropical, with a mean monthly temperature of 22.4 °C (72.3 °F) in February and 16.0 °C (60.8 °F) in August. Rainfall is approximately 1,500 mm (60 in) annually, with lower rainfall from October through January.


The group includes four main islands as well as some isolated rocks. These are:

  • Raoul Island or Sunday Island is by far the largest of the islands. It lies 900 km (560 mi) south-southwest of 'Ata, the southernmost island of Tonga, and 1,100 km (680 mi) north-northeast of New Zealand. Raoul Island has an area of 29.38 km2 (11.34 sq mi) with numerous smaller satellite islands; its highest point, Moumoukai peak, is 516 m (1,693 ft) high
  • Macauley Island, the second largest, is located 110 km (68 mi) south-southwest of Raoul Island. Together with neighbouring Haszard Island, its area is 3.06 km2 (1.18 sq mi).
    • Macdonald Rock is about 4 km (2.5 mi) north of Macauley Island.[8]
  • Curtis Island, the third largest, lies 35 km (22 mi) south-southwest of Macauley Island. It reaches a height of 137 m (449 ft) and has an area of 0.59 km2 (0.23 sq mi) with neighbouring Cheeseman Island.
  • Nugent Island is the northernmost island. It is approximately 100 metres (109 yd) across.
  • L'Esperance Rock, formerly French Rock, is 80 km (50 mi) south-southwest of Curtis Island. It is 250 m (820 ft) in diameter, 0.05 km2 (0.019 sq mi) in area, and 70 m (230 ft) high.
  • L'Havre Rock, about 8 km (5.0 mi) north-northwest of L'Esperance Rock, is submerged except at low tide.

Seamounts north and south of the Kermadec Islands are an extension of the ridge running from Tonga to New Zealand (see Geology). Star of Bengal Bank, 103 km (64 mi) south-southwest of L'Esperance Rock, has a least depth of 48 metres (157 ft)


The islands are a volcanic island arc, formed at the convergent boundary where the Pacific Plate subducts under the Indo-Australian Plate. The subducting Pacific Plate created the Kermadec Trench, an 8 km deep submarine trench, to the east of the islands. The islands lie along the undersea Kermadec Ridge, which runs southwest from the islands towards the North Island of New Zealand and northeast towards Tonga (Kermadec-Tonga Arc).

The four main islands are the peaks of volcanoes that rise high enough from the seabed to project above sea level. There are several other volcanoes in the chain that do not reach sea level, but form seamounts with between 65 and 1500 m of water above their peaks. Monowai Seamount, with a depth of 120 m over its peak, is midway between Raoul Island and Tonga. 100 km south of L'Esperance Rock is the little-explored Star of Bengal Bank, probably with submarine volcanoes.

Further south are the South Kermadec Ridge Seamounts, the southernmost of which, Rumble IV Seamount, is just 150 km North of the North Island of New Zealand. The ridge eventually connects to White Island in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, at the northern end of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The islands experience many earthquakes from plate movement and volcanism.

Raoul and Curtis are both active volcanoes. The volcanoes on the other islands are currently inactive, and the smaller islands are the eroded remnants of extinct volcanoes.

From 18 to 21 July 2012, Havre Seamount (near Havre Rock) erupted, breaching the ocean surface from a depth of more than 1100 m and producing a large raft of pumice floating northwest of the volcano. The eruption was not directly observed, but it was located using earthquake and remote sensing data after the pumice raft was spotted by aircraft and encountered by HMNZS Canterbury.[9] [10]



The islands are recognised by ecologists as a distinct ecoregion, the Kermadec Islands subtropical moist forests. They are a tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests ecoregion, part of the Oceania ecozone. The forests are dominated by the red-flowering Kermadec pōhutukawa, related to the pōhutukawa of New Zealand. The islands are home to 113 native species of vascular plants, of which 23 are endemic, along with mosses (52 native species), lichens and fungi (89 native species). Most of the plant species are derived from New Zealand, with others from the tropical Pacific. 152 non-native species of plants introduced by humans have become established on the islands.

Dense subtropical forests cover most of Raoul, and formerly covered Macauley. Metrosideros kermadecensis is the dominant forest tree, forming a 10 – 15-meter high canopy. A native nikau palm (Rhopalostylis baueri) is another important canopy tree. The forests had a rich understory of smaller trees, shrubs, ferns, and herbs, including Myrsine kermadecensis; Lobelia anceps, Poa polyphylla, Coprosma acutifolia, and Coriaria arborea. Two endemic tree ferns, Cyathea milnei and the rare and endangered Cyathea kermadecensis, are also found in the forests.

Areas near the seashore and exposed to salt spray are covered by a distinct community of shrubs and ferns, notably Myoporum obscurum, Coprosma petiolata, Asplenium obtusatum, Cyperus ustulatus, Disphyma australe, and Ficinia nodosa.


The islands have no native land mammals. An endemic bird subspecies is the Kermadec red-crowned parakeet. The group has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International because of its significance as a breeding site for several species of seabirds, including white-necked and black-winged petrels, wedge-tailed and little shearwaters, sooty terns and blue noddies.[11] The area also hosts rich habitats for cetaceans.[12] In recent years, increased presences of humpback whales indicate Kermadec Islands functioning as migratory colliders, and varieties of baleen (not in great numbers) and toothed whales including minke whales,[13] sperm whales, less known beaked whales, killer whales, and dolphins frequent in adjacent waters.[14][15] Vast numbers of southern right whales were historically seen in southwestern areas although only a handful of recent confirmations exist around Raoul Island.[16] The deep sea hydrothermal vents along the Kermadec ridge support diverse extremophile communities including the New Zealand blind vent crab.[17]


The introduction of cats, rats, and goats devastated the forests and seabirds.[18][19] Overgrazing by goats eliminated the forests of Macauley Island, leaving open grasslands, and altered the understory of Raoul Island. Predation by rats and cats reduced the seabird colonies on the main islands from millions of birds to tens of thousands. The New Zealand government has been working for the last few decades to restore the islands. New Zealand declared the islands a nature reserve in 1937, and the sea around them a marine reserve in 1990.[20] The marine reserve surrounds each of the islands and is one of New Zealands's largest at a total area of 7,480 km2 (2,890 sq mi).[21]

Goats were removed from Macauley in 1970 and from Raoul in 1984, and the forests have begun to recover. The islands are still known for their bird life, and seabird colonies presently inhabit offshore islets, which are safe from introduced rats and cats. Efforts are currently underway to remove the rats and cats from the islands, as well as some of the invasive exotic plants.

Visits to the islands are restricted by the Department of Conservation. The Department allows visits to Raoul by volunteers assisting in environmental restoration or monitoring projects, and other visitors engaged in nature study. Visits to the other islands are generally restricted to those engaged in scientific study of the islands.

On 29 September 2015, New Zealand prime minister John Key announced the creation of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, a 620,000 km2 (239,383 sq mi) protected area in the Kermadec Islands region.[22] However, subsequently, fishing companies and iwi bodies filed legal action opposing it, and a coalition deal with the New Zealand First party[23] has led to the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill[24] not passing its second reading as of 2019.[25]


  1. Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "Kermadec Islands – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand". Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  2. "Data Table - Protected Areas - LINZ Data Service (recorded area 3359.9864 ha)". Land Information New Zealand. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  3. Gentry, Steven (2013). "2: Rangitahua – the Stopping-off Place". Raoul & the Kermadecs: New Zealand's Northernmost Islands, a History. pp. 37–51. ISBN 978-1-927242-02-5.
  4. Robert Langdon (ed.) Where the whalers went: an index to the Pacific ports and islands visited by American whalers (and some other ships) in the 19th century, Canberra, Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, p.145. ISBN 0-86784-471-X
  5. Morton, Elsie (1957). "Author's Note". Crusoes of Sunday Island.
  6. Lorna Arnold and Katherine Pyne, Britain and the H-bomb (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p. 96.
  7. Rebecca Priestley, Mad on radium—New Zealand in the atomic age - "Cold War and Red Hot Science" (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013)
  8. Chart NZ 2225 Archived 12 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Hydrographic Office, Royal New Zealand Navy, 1994. Retrieved 7 May 2007.
  9. "NASA Satellites Pinpoint Volcanic Eruption". NASA Earth Observatory. NASA. 14 August 2012. Retrieved 14 August 2012.
  10. Noted. "'Massive' Kermadec volcanic eruption rivalled Mt St Helens". Noted. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  11. BirdLife International. (2012). Important Bird Areas factsheet: Kermadec Islands. Downloaded from on 3 February 2012.
  12. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 March 2016. Retrieved 11 March 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. Noted. "A surprise encounter while sailing to the Kermadecs Islands – The Listener". Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  16. "Sir Peter Blake Trust". Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  17. McLay, Colin. "New crabs from hydrothermal vents of the Kermadec Ridge submarine volcanoes, New Zealand: Gandalfus gen. nov.(Bythograeidae) and Xenograpsus (Varunidae)(Decapoda: Brachyura)." Zootaxa 1524 (2007): 1–22.
  18. Courchamp, F.; Chapuis, J. L.; Pascal, M. (2003). "Mammal invaders on islands: Impact, control and control impact". Biological Reviews. 78 (3): 347–383. CiteSeerX doi:10.1017/S1464793102006061. PMID 14558589.
  19. Towns, D. R.; Broome, K. G. (2003). "From small Maria to massive Campbell: Forty years of rat eradications from New Zealand islands". New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 30 (4): 377. doi:10.1080/03014223.2003.9518348.
  20. "Kermadec Islands: Places to go". Department of Conservation (New Zealand). Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  21. "Data Table - Protected Areas - LINZ Data Service (recorded area 748000 ha)". Land Information New Zealand. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  22. Tracy Watkins (29 September 2015). "John Key announces one of the world's largest ocean sanctuaries". Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  23. Simon Maude and Jonathan Milne (22 October 2017). "Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary put on ice by NZ First, catching Greens unaware". Sunday Star-Times. Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  24. "Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary" (PDF). Ministry for the Environment (New Zealand). September 2015. Retrieved 28 August 2019.
  25. "Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill - New Zealand Parliament". Government of New Zealand. Retrieved 28 August 2019.

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