Tuia - Encounters 250: Cook’s place names around New Zealand - Cook Strait

Photo Credit: Christopher Stephens, New Zealand Geographic Board

Long before the arrival of Europeans, Māori travelled across Raukawa Moana for trade, warfare, and to gather kai moana. The coasts and waters of the strait are filled with stories of Kupe, as it here he fought the giant wheke (octopus) and stayed for a time at Mātakitaki (Matakitakiakupe or Cape Palliser) and Maranui (Seatoun).

When Dutch navigator Abel Tasman arrived in 1642, he sailed into modern-day Golden Bay / Mohua, crossed Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere and then sailed north. On maps made following Tasman’s voyage, the strait is shown as a large bay on the ‘rugged line’ of New Zealand’s west coast. Tasman did suspect there was access to another sea, however, due to the strong current.

Early in 1770, while the HMB Endeavour was ashore in Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui, James Cook and several men took a pinnace (small sail boat) to explore the head of the sound. After half a day, they had not even seen the head and, as the wind was against them, decided to land on the south east coast of the sound (probably on Arapaoa Island). Here Cook and an unnamed man climbed to a nearby hill. Cook’s biographer JC Beaglehole identifies this hill as Kaitapeha, but the name ‘Cooks Lookout’ has been established for a nearby hill.

Cook and the man struggled up the thickly-forested hill and were ‘abundantly recompensed’ when they reached the top. There Cook could see across to the Pacific Ocean, with a strait of water connecting it to the Tasman Sea to the west. The land to the north was indeed an island and not part of a southern continent. 

Cook did not refer to the strait by his own surname and it has been theorised that Banks who bestowed this name. Cook was, after all, not known for naming places after himself – he was far more likely to apply the name of a political admiral or Tory peer, in the hopes of securing finance for further voyages.


  • NZ Gazetteer - Cook Strait
  • Anne Salmond, Two Worlds, Viking, Auckland 1991, p. 83
  • JC Beaglehole (ed), The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, Vol. 1, Hakluyt Society, Cambridge (England), 1955, p. 238, p246
Last Updated: 11 February 2019