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French Pass (1884)



Photo courtesy of Maritime NZ.

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French Pass is a narrow and treacherous channel of water between D'Urville Island and the north end of the South Island in the Marlborough Sounds. It is marked with two lights, one on the mainland and the other in the middle of the channel. At the south end is Tasman Bay and at the other end the Pelorus Sound leading out to Cook Strait.

The Maori name for French Pass is 'Te Aumiti' short for 'Te Aumiro-o-te-kawau-a-toru' which means "the swishing currents of the shag Toru", the place where Kupe's path-finding shag was drowned. The shag Te-kawau-a-toru led Kupe, a renowned explorer, to the French Pass passage after his encounter with a giant octopus in Cook Straight. As Kupe killed the octopus the octopus gouged out the intricate shapes that today typify the Sounds.  160

European navigator Admiral Jules Dumont D'Urville navigated the pass during his second voyage to New Zealand in 1827. Sailing the French Navy corvette Astrolabe, the vessel swung sideways and did not respond to steerage, striking rocks twice, and then being washed over the reef and into Admiralty Bay. 15  

The pass is 500m across, but the main channel at it's narrowest point is only 100m. A reef extends out from D'Urville Island and this where during the 1860's a stone beacon was placed. But as regular steamer traffic increased at night, a light was surely needed. 17  1

By 1880 the Wellington-Nelson mail steamer was using the pass at night and at the time the Secretary of marine suggested a light be erected. 1

In 1882 a light was placed on the stone beacon But almost immediately a steamer struck the beacon causing damage to both the beacon and the ship. 1

In 1884 an iron tower was built on the mainland at the waters edge and repairs were made to the beacon. The light was first lit on October 1st, 1884. 1

The lights were maintained by a single keeper with help from a local family who were to ferry the keeper out to the beacon should the light go out. This happened quite frequently in bad weather for the first few years. The beacon was also the victim of a number of collisions. 1

The light on the reef was a small concrete tower, which housed a small automatic light. This was powered by a acetylene gas cylinder housed in a locker below the lantern. Usually the cylinders lasted two to three months and were changed over by the crew from the lighthouse tender, with help from the lighthouse keeper.

In 1888, a dolphin appeared in the area and became known as Pelorus Jack.  Pelorus Jack would meet boats as they came out of French Pass, and ride their bow waves for 8 kilometres up to Pelorus Sound. Then he would join boats returning to Nelson at the entrance to Pelorus Sound and escort them back to French Pass. Pelorus Jack was last seen in April 1912. The lighthouse keeper at French Pass claimed he found the body of Pelorus Jack washed up on the shore.

During 1952/53 the main light on the mainland was changed from a kerosene lamp to an acetylene lamp. This light was reached from the keeper house via 100 wooden steps down the cliff side. During the 1950's it displayed a fixed white light eastwards and a white and red sector westward. Outside the lantern panes was a screen dividing the white and red lights. As ships approached from the west they kept the white light constantly in sight, if they moved off course they would see the red sector and needed to correct their course.

The rod from Rai Valley to French Pass was built in 1957.  160

In 1961 the acetylene-powered light was automated, but a keeper stayed on as caretaker for six more years. When the light was replaced in 1967 the keeper was withdrawn. 1

The light was converted to mains electricity in 1971. 1  




Reachable by road, turn off 2 km west of Rai Valley. 19

DOC also has a walking track that has views of the French Pass.



Island South
Province Malborough
Location Malborough Sounds
Number K4238
Date Commissioned 1 October, 1884 1
Date Decommissioned
Automated 1967  19
Latitude 40 55' South 19
Longitude 173 50' East 19
Elevation Above Sea Level (Main) 3m  19
Elevation Above Sea Level (Reef) 5m
Height (Main) 3m  19
Height (Reef) 5m
Character (Main) Fixed red and white  19
Character (Reef) Flashed white light every 5 seconds.
Range (Main) White 10 N. miles, red 7 N. miles  19
Range (Reef) 4 N. miles
Made (Main)
Made (Reef)
Construction (Main) Iron (first to be built), White house   19
Construction (Reef) Concrete
Converted Kerosene To Diesel
Converted To Mains Electricity 1971
Present Tower Original
Date Visited


Principal Keeper From To


Martin Nelson  22 September 10, 1883  22 October 24, 1884  22
Edward R Wilson  84  199 July 3, 1885  199  June, 1892  199
George Grieg  84  245   1904  245
Edward Morris Parks  22  84 1904  22  
Charles Tregurtha  84   c 1906, Retired  175
William John Arnold  84    
William Chandler  84  183     
Charles Arthur Moeller  84  201   c 1911  201  
Robert George Wilkin  84  22  (Asst in Charge)  22 August 15, 1912  22  
William Andrew Dabinett  (AK)  283        (c  1918)  283  
Alfred E. Carter  13a 1930  13a  
Eric I. Bowley  13a c  May, 1947  13a April, 1952  18
Thomas Smith 18th April, 1952 November, 1954
James Goddard  84    
R H McCrea  84    
George Simmonds  84    
Frederick Berry  84    
Richard Rudge  84    





Additional Sources:



175. Evening Post, Volume LXXXIII, Issue 16, 19 January 1912, Page 7

183.  William Chandler (Diane Chandler, March 22, 2010)

199Edward Wilson (Lynda Webster, March 9, 2012)

201. Charles Moeller (Gary Harrison, June 20, 2012)

245New Zealand Herald, Volume XLI, Issue 12544, 11 April 1904, Page 5

283. Evening Post, Volume XCV, Issue 37, 12 February 1918, Page 7


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Text and photographs. Copyright 1999-2013   Mark Phillips. All rights reserved.

If anyone has any information on this light please contact me.

Last Updated: September 25, 2013