The Acheron arrives to survey New Zealand waters

7 November 1848

HMS Acheron, 1848 (Alexander Turnbull Library, C-059-006)

The paddle-wheel sloop was one of the first steamships in New Zealand waters. Under the command of Captain John Lort Stokes, Acheron surveyed the coastlines of Cook Strait and the South Island until March 1851. Its 170-horsepower engine was especially valuable on dangerous shores such as the West Coast of the South Island.

Until the Acheron survey, which was completed by HMS Pandora in 1855, the only comprehensive charts of the New Zealand coast were those published after Captain James Cook’s 18th-century voyages. The Acheron/Pandora survey was to remain the basis for all New Zealand maritime charts for a century.

Stokes had served as a surveyor on HMS Beagle on three epic voyages, including the circumnavigation of the globe (1831–36) during which the young naturalist Charles Darwin made the observations which formed the basis for his subsequent theories on the origin of species. Stokes’ painstaking refinement of techniques for measuring longitude subsequently enabled the Acheron survey to substantially improve existing charts of the South Island and produce the first accurate charts of Foveaux Strait.