250 years after Cook: The future of Dusky Sound

Department of Conservation —  04/04/2023

The 27th of March 2023 marks 250 years since Captain Cook sailed Resolution into Tamatea/Dusky Sound. DOC recently revisited the site to gather information for future improvements. 

Written by Pania Dalley.

Last month Senior Heritage Advisor Matt Schmidt, archaeologist Peter Petchey, Senior Visitor Advisor Meg Embleton-Muir and I glided into Pickersgill Harbour  aboard a float plane, just a 30-minute flight from Te Anau, to set foot on Astronomer’s Point in Tamatea/Dusky Sound. We were there to gather information to update an old Conservation Plan dating back to 1996. 

Tamatea/Dusky Sound is a place of many firsts – including the first evidence of European activity, the first brewery, the first European-style ship to be built in Aotearoa New Zealand, the first recorded shipwreck, the first Europeans to encounter Southern Māori, and first European women and children to live in New Zealand. 

Astronomer’s Point map 1773
📷 Peter Petchey

Cook gets hooked 

In 1770 Captain Cook sailed past ‘Dusky Sound’. He returned for a lengthy stay in 1773 which saw the start of European visitors to the Southern area of New Zealand.

On March 26, 1773, after 123 days battling icebergs around Antarctica and the treacherous seas of the Southern Ocean, Cook needed a place to rest his men, replenish his supplies and complete repairs to his ship. He filled Resolution’s sails and headed into Tamatea/Dusky Sound looking for safe anchorage. Lieutenant Pickersgill found a safe harbour. Early the following morning, Captain Cook sailed the Resolution into this harbour, which he named after the lieutenant.  

During the Resolution’s five-week stay in Pickersgill Harbour, Captain Cook’s men made many discoveries – George Forster collected samples of fauna and flora; an accurate chart was made of Dusky Sound, and the expeditions artist, William Hodges, sketched many drawings of the area including the first encounter between Europeans and Southern Māori.

Māori were most likely in the area restocking their seasonal supplies with birds, fish and seals before the winter set in.

The Resolution needed substantial repairs following its voyage, and the area became a hive of activity as Cook and his men set about chopping down an acre of trees and clearing a site on a Point in Pickersgill Harbour.

The most accurately fixed geographical place in the world 

Today, we use GPS navigational equipment, but in 1773, William Wales of the Board of Longitude set up a temporary observatory in the clearing on what is now called Astronomer’s Point. The observatory was set up to confirm the geographical position of New Zealand. By comparing results from a newly invented chronometer to the measurements of the stars, Wales’ observations from this Point made it the most accurately fixed geographical place in the world at that time.

Back to the future

250 years later, it was the stumps left behind when Cook’s men cleared the trees that we were most interested in on our visit to Astronomer’s Point.

As I walked around Astronomer’s Point I thought this remote corner of Southern New Zealand likely hasn’t changed much since Cook and his men worked at this site – except now, the moss-covered tree stumps up to one metre tall are the only visible remains of Cook’s time there.   

We were there to produce a new map capturing our observations of these tree stumps and their decay – to inform updates to the 27-year-old conservation plan.

The Conservation Plan makes sure Astronomer’s Point is managed in a manner that preserves the tangible and intangible heritage values of the place. It identifies what heritage remnants are present, how to manage them, and also how to manage the risks to the place, especially from the impact of visitors.

Today the historic tree stumps, mostly totara, are surrounded by regenerating forest, scientifically significant because the date of clearance is known, 250 years old. It provides evidence of how a forest regenerates. 

Most visitors to the site are in organised tourist groups accompanied by a guide/interpreter, but visitation has increased markedly since 1996 – particularly unmonitored casual visitors arriving by boat.

Currently, there is a maintained wooden walkway to minimise visitor impact at the site. In August we will install a track counter pad to give us accurate visitation data. The long-term vision is to replace the existing boardwalk which is due for renewal with a product that is low maintenance, provide an interpretation panel, and replace a viewing platform. 

4 responses to 250 years after Cook: The future of Dusky Sound


    FURTHEST FRONTIER Stories from Tamatea/Dusky Sound
    In this series opener, curator Seán Brosnahan looks at our first known accounts of Tamatea/Dusky Sound made during the exploration expeditions of Captain Cook in 1770 and 1773, and examines the locations of historic significance from these expeditions. Maritime archaeologists Dr Matt Carter and Kurt Bennett undertake the first archaeological survey of the small inlet where the Resolution was berthed up for several weeks – but nearly 250 years on, will there be anything left for them to find?



    Great to see George Forster mentioned here – his contribution to early NZ ornithology and botany in particular has not received the public recognition nowadays that it deserves! (I’m currently researching him and his father Reinhold, the official naturalist on the voyage).

    Bert ffrench 09/04/2023 at 2:07 pm

    No mention of the rats they left behind but interesting to see how long it takes for a forest to fully recover