French Pass Lighthouse New Zealand

The French Pass Lighthouse together with a stone beacon marks a channel through the turbulent waters between Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D’Urville Island and the South Island. The New Zealand List of Lights calls the lighthouse Channel Point.

Standing at an elevation of 3 metres (9.8 ft) above sea level, it is New Zealand’s lowest lighthouse. Even its companion beacon, placed on the outer edge of the reef, is higher, with an elevation of 5 metres (16 ft).


French Pass (Māori: Te Aumiti; officially Te Aumiti / French Pass) is a narrow and treacherous stretch of water that separates D’Urville Island, at the north end of the South Island of New Zealand, from the mainland coast. At one end is Tasman Bay, and at the other end, the outer Pelorus Sound / Te Hoiere leads out to Cook Strait.

French Pass has the fastest tidal flows in New Zealand, reaching 8 knots (4 m/s). When the tide changes, the current can be strong enough to stun fish.

The local tribes are Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Kuia.


In the oral tradition of some Māori tribes, Te Aumiti (French Pass) is the resting place of Kupe’s pet king shag, called Te Kawau-a-Toru. Kupe was a pioneer Polynesian navigator who discovered Cook Strait in his canoe. While he was exploring Cook Strait, Kupe was attacked by a giant octopus. In the furious battle to kill the octopus, the coast was gouged into the convoluted shapes that today make up the Sounds. Kupe’s loyal shag then led Kupe to the French Pass passage and explored the area on Kupe’s behalf. Te Kawau-a-Toru had a huge wingspan and was reputed to be a sacred bird with “the eye of the ancestor”, insight into ancient knowledge. However, while testing the channel to see if it was safe for Kupe’s canoe, Te Kawau-a-Toru got caught in the tidal rip, broke a wing and drowned. The broken reef adjacent to the channel is Kupe’s loyal bird turned to stone – Te Aumiti a te Kawau-a-Toru (the currents that swallowed Toru’s shag). A nearby rocky point where a lighthouse now stands is the bird’s petrified bones.

The first recorded European navigation of the pass occurred in 1827. Admiral Jules Dumont d’Urville navigated the pass during his second voyage to New Zealand, in the French Navy corvette Astrolabe.
Approaching the narrowest part of the pass, the vessel swung sideward and did not respond to steerage. The corvette struck rocks twice and was then washed over the reef and into Admiralty Bay. The high energy and complexity of the location were summed up by d’Urville suggesting that no one should attempt to navigate French Pass except in an extreme emergency.

In 1888, a Risso’s dolphin appeared in the area. For the next 24 years, this dolphin accompanied boats to and from French Pass. He became famous as Pelorus Jack and was the first dolphin in the world to receive the protection of the law. Pelorus Jack stayed in the Pelorus Sounds, and did not navigate the pass into Tasman Bay. He would meet boats as they came out of the pass, riding their bow waves for 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) to Pelorus Sound. Then he would join boats returning to Nelson at the entrance to Pelorus Sound / Te Hoiere and escort them back to the pass. Pelorus Jack was last seen in April 1912. The lightkeeper at French Pass claimed he found the body of Pelorus Jack decomposing on the shore.

In August 2014, the name of French Pass was officially altered to Te Aumiti / French Pass.

The tidal stream changes direction four times a day and does not follow the channel. At equinoctial spring tide, the north-east-going stream has been known to reach 8 knots (4 m/s or 8.5 knots (15.7 km/h; 9.8 mph) and the south-west-going stream 8.5 knots (15.7 km/h; 9.8 mph). Neap tide rates are less, but still strong. A daily table of times is published by Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)

The tide times listed are the time of, apparent, slack water, and the NE and SW directions listed are the direction the tide will start to flow towards at the time listed. The change does not coincide with low water or high water at nearby Elmslie Bay.

Lighthouse overview

Lighthouse feature: Details
Location: latitude 40°55’ south, longitude 173°50’ east
Elevation: 3 metres above sea level
Construction: cast iron tower
Tower height: 7 metres
Light configuration: drum type lense, illuminated by a 50 watt incandescent bulb
Light flash character: fixed light with red and white sectors
Power source: mains electricity
Range: 10 nautical miles (18 kilometres) white sector, 7 nautical miles (13 kilometres) red sector
Date light first lit: 1884
Automated: 1961
Demanned: 1967


Getting to French Pass Lighthouse


French Pass Lighthouse is not accessible to the public.

There is no public access to enter the lighthouse

It can be seen from a boat on the seaward side.

Find this on the map: French Pass


The History of French Pass Lighthouse


French Pass separates the mainland from D’Urville Island. Before the lighthouse was built the channel was used by small boats. During the 1870s, with the growing settlements in Wellington and Nelson, passenger and mail steamers also began to use French Pass. It was a quicker and more comfortable trip, provided the ship avoided the reef between the mainland and D’Urville Island.

During the 1860s a stone beacon had been placed on the outer edge of the reef, but at night this was difficult to see. By 1880 the Wellington to Nelson mail steamer was using the pass regularly at night, to the horror of the Secretary of Marine who wrote:

Some serious casualty will arise if a light is not put up.

Despite this, it was 2 years before a light was fitted to the beacon. Then, as soon as it was finished, the beacon was struck by a steamer, causing considerable damage to both the beacon and the boat.

In 1884 the French Pass Lighthouse was built on the mainland, facing out to the repaired beacon. The lighthouse was first lit on 1 October 1884.

Operation of the French Pass light

In 1961 the acetylene-powered lighthouse became one of the first to be automated. A keeper remained as caretaker for another 6 years. In 1967 the light was replaced and the keeper was withdrawn. The light was converted to mains electricity in 1971.

The light was later upgraded to a tungsten halogen bulb. This was powered by mains electricity and backed up by battery in the event of a mains failure.

Life at French Pass light station

A single keeper was stationed at the French Pass Lighthouse, with responsibility also for the channel beacon. A local family helped by ferrying the keeper out to the beacon whenever the light went out, which happened frequently.

The first few years of daily journal entries contain many reports of the light going out. Several times the wind was so strong that it could not be relit. In one week during bad weather, the keeper had to relight the beacon three times. After 7 years of this irritation, the keeper plucked up the courage to complain to the Marine Department, stating that the small retainer he was being paid wasn’t worth risking his life to go out to the beacon in gale-force winds, and rough seas. By all accounts it worked; the following year the keeper reported with great satisfaction:

The French Pass light has not blown out this year.” Tidal stream

Te Aumiti / French Pass has the fastest tidal flows in New Zealand, hence the need for a lighthouse and channel beacon.

The pass is a gateway from Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere to the Marlborough Sounds and is a shortcut of about 15 nautical miles (28 km; 17 mi) that is a comparatively more comfortable trip than the alternative routes around the top of Stephens Island or through the Stephens Passage between it and Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D’Urville Island, both wild windy waters.

The pass is 500 metres (1,600 ft) wide; however, the navigable channel narrows to 100 metres (330 ft), and is awash with whirlpools, eddies, overfalls, rips and counter-currents. With care, a vessel can navigate the pass within an hour on either side of slack water.

A prudent mariner will time their passage through here to coincide with a change of tidal stream when counter-currents and whirlpools lessen.

Warning 1: Tidal stream times are approximate only. Slack water, if it occurs at all, in brief

Warning 2: It is dangerous to attempt it under sail

Warning 3: It is very dangerous to try it against the stream unless the boat can travel at least 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) under engine power

At night, the lighthouse on the mainland has a white and a red sector on both sides (identification F WR). If a boat is on the correct course, the white sector is visible, if you leave this sector, the red light becomes visible. The range of the red light is 10 nautical miles (19 km; 12 mi), and that of the white light 17 nautical miles (31 km; 20 mi). The red sector is obscured in Waikawa Bay by Two Island Point. The beacon on the reef emits a white glow every 1.5 seconds (identification F W), with a range of 4 nautical miles (7.4 km; 4.6 mi).

A note on nautical chart NZ6151 directs mariners to provide an “All ships, all ships” warning to other vessels on channel 16 VHF ten minutes prior to entering the pass, stating the direction of travel. The warning helps to prevent a boat from meeting another one coming from the opposite direction, especially as it is not possible to see others approaching when travelling from the northeast in time to avoid collision.

The approach from the south west is through an area called the Current Basin. A shallow area, called Middle Bank, is marked with a green buoy, and this should be kept to port heading towards the pass, and starboard heading away from it. The position and depth of Middle Bank is liable to change.

Fisherman or Coutre Pass at the northern end of the reef should only be attempted with local knowledge.

French Pass Reef Beacon

French Pass Reef Beacon

The lighthouse’s companion beacon is located across the channel on the edge of the reef, at latitude -40.922931 and longitude 173.833739.Its structure is a cylindrical concrete turret, painted white. It stands at 5 metres (16 ft) high, and at night emits a white glow every 1.5 seconds, with a range of 4 nautical miles (7.4 km; 4.6 mi).

Its formal identifiers are ARLHS: NZL-069 – Admiralty: K4240 – NGA: 5032.


From 1854 to 1880 the only navigational aid that sailors had going through the pass was an iron perch erected on the end of the reef.  In 1881, that was replaced with a concrete beacon. By this time, passenger and mail steamers regularly took a shortcut through the pass, at night, when travelling between Nelson and Wellington.

Despite the known dangers, it was not until 1892 that a ship’s lamp was attached to the beacon, only to be struck shortly afterwards by a steamer, causing considerable damage to both the beacon and the boat. It was not until two years after that, that a lighthouse was constructed on the mainland side of the pass, facing towards the repaired beacon. A house for the lighthouse keeper was built on the cliff above with a connecting 100-step stairway to give access to the light.

On 1 October 1884 the lighthouse and beacon were officially lit.

In 1961, the lighthouse was automated, meaning the single lighthouse keeper no longer had to risk his life re-lighting the beacon light in a gale or replenishing it with oil at “slack tide”. The keeper was withdrawn in 1967.


Neither the lighthouse and its staircase, nor its companion beacon is open to the public; although they can be seen from a boat and there is a good lookout over French Pass a short walk from nearby Elmslie Bay Wharf.


Like all lighthouses in New Zealand, both lights are remotely controlled by Maritime New Zealand from a central control room in Wellington.


  1. ^ “French Pass – get technical and historical information and resources about French Pass lighthouse”Maritime New Zealand. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  2. ^ “K4238”online list of lights. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  3. ^ “List of lights – South Island light list”Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  4. ^ “French Pass/Channel Pass Light”Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society – World List of Lights (WLOL). Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  5. “Cruising Guide to the Marlborough Sounds”. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  6. ^ Hydrographic Department, Great Britain (2001). New Zealand Pilot. Taunton, England: Hydrographer of the Navy. ISBN 0707712912.
  7. ^Find tidal stream predictions and diagrams for the Te Aumiti / French Pass”Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  8. ^ “An online cruising guide for yachts transiting the French Pass”World Cruising Wiki. 5 May 2022. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  9. ^“French Pass / Anaru”New Zealand Gazetteer. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  10. ^ “French Pass Reef (South Island) Light ARLHS NZL-069”Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society – World List of Lights (WLOL). Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  11. ^ “K4240”online list of lights. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  12. ^ “GeoHack (-40.922931; 173.833739)”GeoHack. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  13. ^ “French Pass Lookout Track”[[Department of Conservation (New Zealand)|]]. Retrieved 14 February 2023.
  14. ^ Rowlett, Russ (27 December 2022). “Lighthouse of New Zealand: South Island”The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 14 February 2023.

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