The harbour, Te Whakaraupo (the harbour of the bullrush weeds) has been home of the Maori for about 1000 years and it was first sighted by the Europeans in 1770 on Captain Cook's first voyage to New Zealand in the Endeavour.
Captain Cook sailed past the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour in 1770 and mapped it, but didn't go into the harbour. He named the peninsula 'Banks Island' after the botanist Joseph Banks onboard the Endeavour. Captain Chase, a whaler, was the first European to venture right into the harbour in 1809. He called Banks Peninsula Cook’s Mistake. In March 1827, Captain William Wiseman, another flax trader, named the two largest inlets of Banks Peninsula after his Sydney employers, merchants Cooper and Levy. Lyttelton Harbour was known as Port Cooper to an influx of British and American whaling ships after 1835. From 1835 – 1845, the harbour was a source of provisions for whaling ships of all nations, with the whalers mainly in search of Southern Right Whales. The situation of the port itself was chosen because it was sheltered and had fresh supplies of water and firewood for the ships. It was also close to the plains and eventually to Christchurch. Organised by the Canterbury Association, the first four ships full of settlers, the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Sir George Seymour and Cressy arrived in Lyttelton on the 16th December 1850. There were 773 immigrants aboard representing a cross section of English society to transplant a cross-section of English society to the other side of the world. These were the first of many ships. In fact 3,000 immigrants arrived over the next two years all looking for the promise of a new land and a new life. By 1854 the population of Christchurch had exceeded that of Lyttelton and the town became a simple suburb of Christchurch.
Lyttelton Harbour served as the last port of call for many of the British Antarctic Expeditions at the turn of the century. The use of the harbour by the expeditions gave Lyttelton a sense of being near the centre of events that were of world-wide interest. The famous explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott departed Lyttelton on the 21st December 1901 bound for Antarctica. As a shadowy insight into what was to come one of Scott's crew decided to climb the mast and is said to have been trying to execute a headstand as the ship departed. The sailor fell to his death. On New Year's Day 1908 the ship Nimrod left for Antarctica directly from Lyttelton. The departure was a feature of the annual regatta and a crowd estimated as high as 50,000, (probably the largest in Lyttelton's history), gathered on the wharves to farewell Ernest Shackleton's expedition. In The Heart of the Antarctic, Shackleton wrote of this day "such a farewell and 'God speed' from New Zealand as left no man of us unmoved". Lyttelton's relationship with the early Antarctic expeditions was a special one. Parades were held in the streets of Lyttelton with the crew dressed in their special clothing and the port area was used by the crews to practice putting up the prefabricated buildings used on the Ice.
Quail Island Quarantine
During the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, Quail Island - in the middle of Lyttelton Harbour - served as a stock quarantine station due to its natural water boundary. The animals which formed an important part of the expeditions of Scott, Shackleton and Byrd, were held on the island for quarantine and training purposes. The animals used were Samoyed and Husky dogs, Manchurian ponies and Indian Army mules.