Warren Russell was the last permanent lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. He moved to Dog Island in 1980 and was made redundant in 1989 when his lighthouse became the last major one in New Zealand to be automated.

Beginning operation in August 1865, the Dog Island lighthouse was the first in New Zealand to have a revolving beam and is just one of three New Zealand lighthouses to be painted in black and white stripes to allow for better daytime visibility (the others are at Cape Campbell and Cape Palliser, which has red and white stripes) Because of the soft subsoil, the Dog Island structure took on a slight lean and has made it the talking point of the district ever since. Located in the tempestuous waters of Foveaux Strait, Dog Island, so named because it resembles the shape of a dog, is 4.8 km (three miles) from Bluff and is just half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. Its highest point is only 15 metres (49 feet) above sea level. The lighthouse tower is 36 metres (118 feet) high and is New Zealand’s tallest lighthouse. It was originally built of rock quarried on the island. In 1871, a crack appeared in the base of the structure and this was repaired with steel bands and thick hardwood. The repairs were only partially successful so in 1916, the tower was encased in concrete. Since then, it has stood the ravages of time to remain a distinctive landmark in this blustery coastal region of Southland where gale force winds often sweep across the area.

Dog Island Lighthouse (Wikipedia)

During the early part of the 20th century, three lighthouse families lived on Dog Island. Although they were only a short distance from Bluff for some odd reason, they would receive supplies only once every three months.  It must have been a struggle to bring up children on such a windswept island with little shelter from the frequent squalls and gales that march through Foveaux Strait in all seasons. The main house built in the 1880s, remains while most of the other buildings on the island have fallen into major disrepair.

In 1883 disaster struck when the principal light keeper fell 23 metres to his death down a central shaft inside the lighthouse while trying to adjust the light’s mechanism. Life was tough for lighthouse keepers and their families. Apart from frequent storms, they had to cope with the isolation that must have tested their resolve. However, reading about their experiences, many said it was a way of life they grew to love. Many families were unhappy when their lighthouses were automated and they were evicted from their unique homes to find new jobs in towns and cities that must have seemed crowded and noisy to them.


The Union Steamship Company’s 3926 ton steamer Waikouaiti was built in Germany in 1914 and named Irmgard. The vessel was taken over after the war by the Union Company and became a familiar trans-Tasman visitor to the main South Island ports. On November 28 1939, the ageing steamer struck Dog Island and eventually sank. To this day, it remains Southland’s biggest shipwreck. The captain was trying to spot the light while sailing too fast in a dense fog when his ship ran aground on Dog Island at 9.30 at night. Fortunately, the sea was calm but a slight swell caused the ship to grind on the rocks, and during the night No. 1 and 2 holds began to fill with water. The crew of 25 took to the lifeboats with their personal effects, and were towed to Bluff by a Harbour Board launch. Happily, there was no loss of life with this unfortunate incident. The prospect of refloating the vessel, with so much water shipped, was poor and the ship was left to slowly sink.

Steamer Waikouaiti Sinking (


The ship was nearing the end of a voyage from Sydney to Dunedin with 5500 tons of general cargo including hardwood poles, rail sleepers and steel. It also carried a large load of Christmas toys. When dolls, pedal cars, and dolls’ houses began washing up onto the beaches around Invercargill, locals thought all their Christmases had come at once. It was said at the time that everyone at Bluff had expensive doll’s prams and pedal cars that Christmas. Fabrics and kitchen gear were also washed up and authorities turned a blind eye to those scavenging the beaches for the unexpected booty.

Over the years, smaller vessels, mainly fishing boats, have run aground around Dog Island but they have managed to return to port with only a few scrapes to show for their close encounter with the island.

On the whole, the lighthouse has done a sterling job over the past century in keeping vessels away from this treacherous little island in the middle of Foveaux Strait as they navigate their way in and out of Bluff Harbour.

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Ceidrik Heward

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