The low-lying point, with hidden reefs extending well out to sea, marks the eastern entrance to Foveaux Strait and is difficult for mariners to see in thick weather. The point acquired its 14-metre wooden-towered lighthouse after 1881, when it claimed the SS Tararua in the country’s second-worst shipping disaster.
The 828-ton screw steamer, rigged as a three-masted schooner, had sailed from Port Chalmers for Bluff en route to Melbourne when in thick misty rain she struck Otara Reef, about a kilometre off shore. Instead of making for the open sea, the lifeboats headed for the shore, only to be dashed on the rocks; those who remained with the vessel clung to the wreck in pounding seas for almost 22 hours before her masts snapped, and with men and women still clinging to them, toppled into the sea.
To complete the tragedy the hull turned over to drown those still aboard. In the final count, of the 151 aboard only 20 survived. The captain, blamed by the Court of Inquiry for grave navigational errors and for failing to post a proper lookout, perished with his ship. The bodies of 65 of the victims lie buried in the Tararua Acre (signposted), and the vessel’s boiler may occasionally be seen on the rocks below. The light was ordered immediately and was first shown in January 1884. The tower stands only 21.4 metres above sea level. Now automatic, its light is visible for 22.5 kilometres, flashing once each 10 seconds. From here the view extends south-west across Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island, west over Toetoes Bay to the smelter chimney of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, and east to Slope Point. The locality offers good sea fishing and plentiful shellfish.