Whakatāne is a town in the eastern Bay of Plenty Region in the North Island of New Zealand, 90 km east of Tauranga and 89 km north-east of Rotorua, at the mouth of the Whakatāne River. Whakatāne District is the encompassing territorial authority, which covers an area to the south and west of the town, excluding the enclave of Kawerau.
Whakatāne has an urban population of 19,600, making it New Zealand’s 24th largest urban area, and the Bay of Plenty’s third largest urban area behind Tauranga and Rotorua. Another 15,400 people live in the rest of the Whakatāne District. Around 40% of the district’s population have Māori ancestry. The District has a land area of 4,442.07 km2 (1,715.09 sq mi). Whakatāne District was created in 1976.
Whakatāne forms part of the parliamentary electorate of East Coast, represented by Anne Tolley of the New Zealand National Party. It is the main urban centre of the Eastern Bay Of Plenty sub-region; incorporating Whakatāne, Kawerau, and Opotiki, the Eastern Bay stretches from Otamarakau in the west, to Cape Runaway in the north-east and Whirinaki in the south. It is the seat of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, chosen as a compromise between the region’s two larger cities, Tauranga and Rotorua.
The site of the town has long been populated. Māori pā (Māori fortified village) sites in the area date back to the first Polynesian settlements, estimated to have been around 1200 CE. According to Māori tradition Toi-te-huatahi, later known as Toi-kai-rakau, landed at Whakatāne about 1150 CE in search of his grandson Whatonga. Failing to find Whatonga, he settled in the locality and built a pa on the highest point of the headland now called Whakatāne Heads, overlooking the present town. Some 200 years later the Mataatua waka landed at Whakatāne.
The name „Whakatāne“ is reputed to commemorate an incident occurring after the arrival of the Mataatua. The men had gone ashore and the canoe began to drift. Wairaka, a chieftainess, said “Kia Whakatāne au i ahau” (“I will act like a man”), and commenced to paddle (which women were not allowed to do), and with the help of the other women saved the canoe.
The region around Whakatāne was important during the New Zealand Wars of the mid 19th century, particularly the Volkner Incident. Its role culminated in 1869 with raids by Te Kooti’s forces and a number of its few buildings were razed, leading to an armed constabulary being stationed above the town for a short while. Whakatāne beach heralded an historic meeting on 23 March 1908 between Prime Minister Joseph Ward and the controversial Māori prophet and activist Rua Kenana Hepetipa. Kenana claimed to be Te Kooti’s successor.
The town was a notable shipbuilding and trade centre from 1880 and with the draining of the Rangitikei swamp into productive farmland from 1904, Whakatāne grew considerably. In the early 1920s it was the fastest growing town in the country for a period of about three years and this saw the introduction of electricity for the first time. The carton board mill at Whakatāne began as a small operation in 1939 and continues operating to this day.
The Whakatāne River once had a much longer and more circuitous route along the western edge of the Whakatāne urban area, having been significantly re-coursed in the 1960s with a couple of its loopier loops removed to help prevent flooding and provide for expansion of the town. Remnants of the original watercourse remain as Lake Sullivan and the Awatapu lagoon. The original wide-span ferro-concrete bridge constructed in 1911 at the (aptly named) Bridge Street was demolished in 1984 and replaced by the Landing Road bridge.
Whakatāne has in recent years benefited from its relative dominance over numerous smaller and less prosperous towns surrounding it, such as Te Teko (affectionately known as ‚Texas‘) and Waimana, and its popularity as a retirement and lifestyle destination.
A 1.8 m (6 ft) groundswell at the Whakatāne Heads
Rainforest near Whakatāne is renowned for its biodiversity
Moutohorā Whale Island is a small island off the Bay of Plenty coast about 12 kilometres north of Whakatāne. The island has numerous sites of pā. It also provided shelter for James Cook’s Endeavour in 1769. A whaling station existed on the island during the 19th century.
Whakaari/White Island is an active marine volcano located 48 kilometres offshore of Whakatāne and a popular visitor attraction. Sulphur mining on the island was attempted but abandoned in 1914 after a lahar killed all 10 workers.
The mouth of the Whakatāne River and Ohiwa Harbour have both provided berths for yachts, fishing trawlers and small ships since European settlement of the area. Nearby Ōhope Beach is a sandy beach stretching 11 km (7 mi) from the Ohiwa Harbour entrance.