Whitianga is a town on the Coromandel Peninsula, in the Waikato Region of New Zealand’s North Island. The town is located on Mercury Bay, on the northeastern coast of the peninsula. The town has a permanent population of 4,790 as of June 2016, making it the second-largest town on the Coromandel Peninsula behind Thames.
Whitianga is located on the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula, 208 km from Auckland, 93 km from Thames, 42 km from Tairua. It is situated on the coast of Mercury Bay along the 5 km long east-facing Buffalo Beach. The town centre is at the southern end of the beach.
Buffalo Beach is named after the HMS Buffalo, which was wrecked during a storm while anchored in Mercury Bay. Her anchor can be seen at a monument at Buffalo Beach.
A passenger ferry crosses from Whitianga to Ferry Landing, close to Cooks Beach. The alternative to the two-minute ferry crossing is a 45-minute drive around Whitianga Harbour.
Whitianga has been continuously occupied for more than a thousand years since Māori explorer Kupe’s tribe settled here after his visit in about 950 AD. Following this visit, many of Kupe’s tribe settled here. Te Whitianga o Kupe is the original place name of the town, meaning Kupe’s crossing place.
Whitianga Pā, located on the ferry landing side of the river is a notable site. According to Ngati Hei history the earliest known chief occupying the rock was Hei Turepe. The pa is protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. The hill leading up to the pa on the fourth side is defended by a 22-foot man made ditch which is now part of the track leading down to Back Bay where pa inhabitants had access to shellfish. On Cook’s visit to the site in November 1769, the inhabitants who welcomed him believed the pa had been disused for a generation since it had been attacked by a Tauranga chief who married the slain chief’s wife and settled peacefully into the area. Whitianga rock has several holes cut into the stone that were used as firepits, water stores, and palisade holes. Cook noted burnt palisade stumps as evidence that an earlier attack had evicted the ancient pa’s residents.
Captain Cook’s visit – 1769
The people of Hei commemorated their leader in a few place names, one being the bay at the head of which he had settled, Te Whanganui A Hei, (the Great Bay of Hei). This large sheltered bay was later renamed by Captain James Cook when he came here in November 1769 to observe the transit of Mercury. Cook was accompanied by Charles Green, the Royal Society expedition astronomer who died on the homeward journey in 1771.
From Cook’s journal – „my reasons for putting in here were the hopes of discerning a good harbour and the desire I had of being in some convenient place to observe the Transit of Mercury, which happens on the 9th instant and will be wholly visible here if the day is clear between 5 and 6 o’clock.“ Cook also named the Whitianga Harbour „River of Mangroves“ and this area is still referred to as „The River“.
The sighting of the Transit of Mercury is commemorated at Cooks Beach by a cairn of Coromandel granite which tells the story ; „In this bay was anchored 5 Nov 1769, HMS Endeavour, Lieutenant James Cook RN, Commander. He observed the transit of Mercury and named this bay.“