History of Cook Strait Ferries - Interislander

Interislander has a proud history, connecting the North and South Islands of New Zealand since 1962. The below gives a short history of the journey so far.

Early years

The passenger service connecting Wellington and Picton dates back to 1875, and was for many years operated by the famous Union Steamship Company of New Zealand Ltd. The weekly service continued until 1962 when the last ship in service, the Tamahine, was withdrawn.

A 350 kilometre passenger rail service between the port at Picton and Christchurch was inaugurated in 1945 and revamped as the Coastal Pacific in the mid 1990s. When the Union Company announced in 1956 that the Tamahine was to be withdrawn in 1962 and not likely to be replaced (in spite of an offer from the government of a $3 million loan) the New Zealand Government decided that the service would be taken over by the Railways Department and an order was placed for a new ship for the service.

New Zealand Railways' Aramoana

For the first century of rail operation in New Zealand, the treacherous Cook Strait divided the country’s railway system into virtually two independent and unconnected services. In the days before containerisation, rail freight between the islands had to be railed in a wagon to Wellington, unloaded and transferred onto a ship to Picton or Lyttelton, then loaded into another wagon before being railed the rest of the way. In August 1962, the first roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) rail and vehicle ferry GMV Aramoana was put into service by The Cook Strait Inter-Island Rail and Road Service. The service dramatically increased efficiency - rail wagons could simply be shunted onto the ferry at Wellington, and shunted off again at Picton. This meant freight could stay in the same wagon the whole journey, reducing time and money.

In her first year of service the new vessel carried 207,000 passengers, 46,000 cars and 181,000 tonnes of freight. The trade grew and soon a second ship was delivered for the service; the similar but slightly larger, Aranui. These first two ferries were managed and staffed by the Union Company until 1971.

Ships get upgraded to meet demand

By the end of the 1960s the conventional cargo services on the New Zealand coast were disappearing and the trade was increasingly being handled by ro-ro ships. New Zealand Railways were also actively promoting the carriage of freight by rail wagon and utilising one wagon for the entire journey across Cook Strait by the rail ferries. The freight side of the business grew and in 1972 the first freight ferry, Arahanga, was delivered by Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. She was the first of the ferries to be manned by New Zealand Railways staff. Two years later the French yard Dubigeon-Normandie delivered a second freight ferry, named Aratika.

When the Union Company announced that the other major passenger service between the two islands was to be terminated in 1976, the Railways board decided that the most expedient method of meeting this development was to convert one of the freight ferries into a full passenger configuration and upgrade the two older passenger ships. The ship chosen for rebuilding was the newer of the two freight ferries, Aratika, and in early 1976 she sailed for Hong Kong where she was rebuilt as a passenger ferry by the Hong Kong United Dockyard. The older Aramoana was upgraded at Sembawang Shipyard in Singapore, while Aranui was modified locally.

The service continued to operate successfully until it became obvious that the older ferries were approaching the end of their economic lives on the service and that a new vessel would be required to replace them. The Aalborg Shipyard in Denmark delivered the new Arahura in 1983. Following the new vessel’s successful entry into service, the older Aramoana and Aranui were laid up and disposed of by 1985. The shipping service was marketed as Searail from around this time.

As a part of a total upgrading of all divisions of the New Zealand Railways in 1989, the ferries were given major overhauls which included upgrading of passenger facilities and the re-designation of the service as a ‘ferry cruise’. The catering facilities were extensively improved, as were the general passenger amenities. To go with the new image, a striking new colour scheme was introduced replacing the former green hulls and yellow, red and black colours on the funnels. In their place was an all white scheme with blue and green stripes at the top of the hull and a green, blue and white funnel design incorporating the dolphin ‘Pelorus Jack’ (this dolphin was a famous sight for many years in the Marlborough Sounds). New Zealand railways were privatised in 1993, being purchased by Wisconsin

Central Transportation of the USA. The railways were rebranded as Tranz Rail, and the ships were marketed as “Interislander”.


The dolphin that appears on the Interislander logo is inspired by the dolphin Tuhirangi, later called Pelorus Jack by European settlers.

For more than 20 years Pelorus Jack accompanied ships across Cook Strait. According to Maori history, Tuhirangi guided Kupe, a Maori voyager, across the ocean to Aotearoa (New Zealand). Tuhirangi then escorted Kupe and his party safely through the outer Marlborough Sounds to the West Coast of the South Island.

Pelorus Jack was an icon to Cook Strait travellers from 1888 through to around 1912. At all hours of the day and night, Jack would respond to the call of ships’ engines and soon be riding the bow waves. One regular traveller recalled: “When he was late for the steamer that we were boarding, we would hear the passengers say, ‘Here he comes!’ and I would look up and see Pelorus Jack approaching at a racing speed with great leaps and bounds out of the water, often ending close by with a mighty splash. This delighted the passengers.”

In 1904 someone fired a shot at Jack from a steamship (reputedly from the Penguin). So great was the public outrage that the Governor General signed an Order in Council protecting the Risso’s dolphin (Jack’s species). Postcards soon declared Pelorus Jack ‘The only fish in the world protected by an Act of Parliament.’ Following the shooting, or so the story goes, Jack steered clear of the Penguin, which mysteriously sank in 1909 with the loss of 75 lives.

Another mystery surrounding the dolphin is its sex. Some contend that Interislander’s best friend was not a Jack but a Jill. Pelorus Jack was last sighted in 1912; his or her fate is unknown.