Our Wellington

News | 1 June 2021

The story behind our sea walls

The sea walls of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington tell us the story of the early protection infrastructure around our bays, and contribute to the character and recreation of these coastlines.

Three of these walls at Oriental Bay, Lyall Bay and Owhiro Bay are currently being upgraded so that they can continue to protect us all for years to come. Here’s their story.

A black and white photograph of Oriental Bay and the original band rotunda in 1932, with children playing in the water below the sea wall to the left, and adults in top hats relaxing in the sun on bench seats to the right.
The original band rotunda at Oriental Bay in 1932. Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library G45341½, S.C. Smith Collection.

Oriental Bay Sea Wall

Constructed between 1922-1930, the Oriental Bay Sea Wall is protected as a heritage listing in Wellington City Council’s District Plan. The concrete wall has deteriorated over time so we’re repairing the length of the wall from Freyberg Pool to Carlton Grove Road in three stages: Phase 1 of construction started in April and is scheduled to finish in September 2021, Phase 2 is 2022-2023, and Phase 3 is due to take place 2024-2025.  

Find out more on our Oriental Bay sea wall repairs webpage.

The Oriental Bay sea wall curling around to the right, with bus stop and pedestrians on left, ocean on right, and buildings including St Gerard's on hill beyond.
The Oriental Bay Sea Wall today.

History of Oriental Ba

The area takes its name from the sailing ship ‘Oriental’ that arrived in Wellington in 1840. At this time, Oriental Bay was described as a ‘dreary looking spot’ with few houses, steep hills and a narrow rocky shore. In 1855 the Wairarapa earthquake raised the beach, increasing the land area, which was quickly developed, with roads, tram tracks and further colonial settlement taking place.  

The next century saw even more change; the Te Aro baths were built in the early 1900s, the electric tramway was constructed in 1905, and by 1914 the Oriental Bay Tea Kiosk was a popular destination. The bay’s iconic Norfolk pines were planted from 1917, the first band rotunda was relocated in 1919, and the sea wall construction began in 1922.  

As well as creating a promenade, a recreation space and contributing to the character of Wellington’s city-side beach, the sea wall is an important civil engineering structure designed to safeguard the city-side shoreline. It was constructed from mass poured concrete cast in-situ and thousands of heavy concrete cubes, and has battled the elements since it was built.  

However, until the early 2000s, parts of the beach would disappear at high tide, so a new shoreline was created, consisting of three user-friendly beaches, along with a new concrete block headland, and a series of large rocks and submerged reef to prevent the loss of sand.

Lyall Bay Sea Wall

Black and white photo of Lyall Bay foreshore between 1910 and 1914 before the sea wall was constructed, with children playing in the sand, and women in long dresses and men in top hats standing around the tram, tram shelter, and tea rooms.
View of Lyall Bay foreshore. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972: Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/2-049134-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23221544

Built in 1932, the Lyall Bay Sea Wall is also a heritage structure protected by Wellington City Council’s District Plan. Once nicknamed ‘The Whirler Wall’ because of its unique design, it has the effect of funnelling wind along it’s curved face, so that during strong winds the sand whirls along the face of the wall and is funnelled out of the openings.   

Construction works to upgrade the existing structure and maintain its heritage and design were due to start in March 2021 but due to COVID-19, were delayed until May 2021. Works are set to be completed this year.

Find out more on our Lyall Bay Sea Wall Repairs project page.

A yellowing piece of paper from 1932 with a black pen drawing depicting the whirler wall, the new design for the Lyall By sea wall.
Drawings depicting the Whirler Wall, from Wellington City Council Archives, 00001-4/48 Part 1.

History of Lyall Bay

Hue te Para Lyall Bay was uplifted by Haowhenua, the earth-swallower, a large earthquake that struck the Te Whanganui-a-Tara area around 1460, raising the level of the channel known as Te Awa-a-Tia that once existed between the mainland and Te Motu Kairangi Miramar Peninsula. After the earthquake it was easy to wade across this channel at low tide. 

The following Wairarapa Earthquake in 1855 uplifted the land further, to form the Rongotai isthmus. Now home to the suburbs of Kilbirnie and Lyall Bay, in the late 1800s the area was covered in sand dunes, with Māori from the nearby Pā on Te Motu Kairangi using this area as a plentiful food-gathering place.  

The Lyall Bay Sea Wall was designed by Wellington City Council engineers and constructed in 1932 by men employed under the public works ‘relief schemes’ of the Great Depression. Sand dunes were removed in the area to create land for development, and the sea wall was built as a ‘sandstop’ to limit sand drift and encourage the sale of land plots for housing on the opposite side of the road.

An old black and white image of Owhiro Bay from 1975, looking right alongside the hill, road and sea wall towards the cutting up to Brooklyn, and the ocean on the left.
A photo taken in 1975 of the original mortared brick sea wall along Ōwhiro Bay Parade, which was built in the 1930s. Credit: Wellington City Council Archives, 00508-1057.

Ōwhiro Bay Sea Wall 

Built in the 1930s to protect the road from the elements, the original mortared brick sea wall protects the primary transport route of Ōwhiro Bay Parade, linking significant local population areas in Island Bay and Ōwhiro Bay suburbs to Wellington city. Around 5000 vehicles use the road daily. 

In 2010, Wellington City Council identified structural deficiencies in the sea wall and has instigated a programme of work to replace the wall in sections over the next decade.  

Find out more on our Ōwhiro Bay Sea Wall replacement projects page.

History of Ōwhiro Bay


There are a number of coastal kāinga, pā, ngakinga, urupā and overland tracks connecting the settlements around Wellington’s south coast.  

Ōwhiro Bay, with a flowing stream and kainga near the stream mouth, was a favoured place of residence where signs of cultivations including terraces and food storage pits, middens, implements such as knives and worked flakes, as well as a mere have all been found. 

The kainga has been recorded by ethnologist Elsdon Best as being of Ngāti Ira iwi, which was later occupied by Ngāti Awa. 

Ōwhiro named for ‘a moonless night’, as whiro is the first day of the lunar month, was a known centre for fishing, with the settlers who arrived after the New Zealand Company helped to survive by fishing for ‘mutton shell’ or the ubiquitous paua by those at the kainga. 

At the mouth of the Ōwhiro stream is a wave-built shingle beach ridge, ponding the stream mouth as it flows across the beach to the sea. This is Te Hapua-o-Rongomai, the pool of Rongomai, named for the atua or god Rongomai, a personified form of a meteor, who was said to have descended to earth at the mouth of the stream. 

Te Aranui o Pōneke / the Great Harbour Way road and bridge around the coast is built just over this area.