Lake Wakatipu, South Island, New Zealand

Lake Locations:

New Zealand - South Island - Central Otago -

Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand is fuel for myths, a backdrop for Hollywood movies and a destination for adventure seekers. The depths of Lake Wakatipu reach below sea level where native people believe a giant’s heart beats. Its waters were the setting for the movie “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.” The mountains that rim the lake provided the scenery for the movie “Vertical Limit” and just like in the film cliff climbers scale the mountains in search of the ultimate thrill.

A huge glacier carved out what is now Lake Wakatipu 15,000 years ago. It is a narrow lake, three miles at it widest point. Lake Wakatipu is surrounded by mountains that run straight into the lake creating a gorge that is 1,309 feet at its deepest spot. Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand’s longest lake at 50 miles; it is the country’s third largest in overall size. The Dart River feeds Lake Wakatipu at its northern end. It is drained by the Kawarau River which flows out just east of Queenstown.

Lake Wakatipu is unusual for a lake in that it has a tide. Actually it is a large seiche or standing wave. The water rises and falls about four inches in roughly 25 minute cycles. Maori legend states this change is due to the heartbeat of a giant named Matau.

The legend tells Matau was burned to death in his sleep after kidnapping a chief’s daughter. The fire created a massive hole in the ground and melted the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains forming the lake. Lake Wakatipu, which means “hollow of the giant” in Maori, is shaped like a curled-up giant. The head rests at the north end of the lake in the town of Glenorchy. His knees are at Queenstown, and Matau’s feet are at the south end of the lake at Kingston. The legend goes on to say a giant’s heart cannot be destroyed and the beating of Matau’s heart causes the rise and fall of the water. Science attributes the change to variations in atmospheric pressure.

Lake Wakatipu is in an area of extreme changes, from the high elevations of the surrounding mountains to the plunging depths of the lake. It is those extremes that draw many tourists to the area. They come to mountain climb, ski, bike, boat, fish and just sightsee.

The main lake communities at Lake Wakatipu are Glenorchy, Queenstown and Kingston. Glenorchy is at the north end of the lake. Glenorchy and the surrounding Dart and Routeburn Valleys are also where a unique grey-green greenstone is found. This stone is important in the Maori culture, traveling a great distance in search of the stone.

Glenorchy, a tiny village of 200 residents, is called the “Gateway to Paradise” because of its famous hiking trails or as they are called in New Zealand, the tramping tracks. Routeburn, Greenstone and Caples are several well traveled trails near Glenorchy. The town is also the heart of the South Westland World Heritage area. This area was granted World Heritage status because of its universal natural and cultural value. Two parks in this area border Glenorchy and are a must visit when traveling to Lake Wakatipu. They are Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park.

Mount Aspiring National Park is named after one of New Zealand’s highest peaks. The Routeburn Track runs through the park and into Fiordland National Park, and in the summer you can travel it for a valley walk (a walk that takes you from valley to valley using mountain passes). A visit to the park promises alpine lakes, glaciers and views of the Southern Alps. Rock forms are a striking feature of this park. The “great divide” of the Southern Alps is a breathtaking example. Jet boating, mountaineering, and heli-skiing are some of the activities park goers enjoy.

The Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest park, occupying most of the land on the south island’s west coast. The scenery in Fiordland is some of New Zealand’s most dramatic. The soaring jagged peaks of Mitre Peak are juxtaposed to the depths of Milford Sound. Doubtful Sound is known for its serene atmosphere of the deep fiord. It is still “practically untouched by man.” Hiking and mountain climbing are activities park visitors enjoy. Kayaking and chartered cruises are popular water activities. Tourists also come for the diving and underwater exploring. Plant life is as varied as the topography. You might also catch a glimpse of the Fiordland crested penguins, bottlenose dolphins, and New Zealand fur seals.

Fiordland National Park can be easily accessed by Queenstown which is on the east side of Lake Wakatipu. In this land of extremes, Queenstown has earned the moniker “Adventure Capital of the World.” If your idea of adventure includes bungee jumping, skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, water rafting or skydiving, Queenstown should be on your list of destinations. Queenstown is the third largest city in the Otago region of New Zealand. It has about 10,400 residents. One of the town’s famous landmarks is actually a century old steamship. The TSS Earnslaw took its maiden voyage in 1912. Originally it carried cattle, sheep and people to the high country. Now the refurbished steamship carries tourists on tours of Lake Wakatipu. Vacation rentals offer lake and mountain views and if you are looking for something more permanent, there is real estate available at Lake Wakatipu as well.

29 miles south of Queenstown on the southern most tip of Lake Wakatipu you will find the little township of Kingston. It is named after a rural town in Ireland. It was a major crossroads during the New Zealand gold rush. Now a backwater town, Kingston reached its peak population in the 1860s when 5000 people waited at the town for boats to take them to the Wakatipu goldfields. Kingston offers a restful atmosphere in contrast to the busy, high adventure scene in Queenstown.

Lake Wakatipu is in a land of extremes from the sky scraping heights of the surrounding mountains to the plunging sub-sea level depths of Lake Wakatipu. If you are not seeking the adventure of a mountain climb or paraglide, then the views of a pristine lake against a dramatic mountain backdrop are sure to suit your fancy. The views and adventure opportunities are in abundance no matter what the season.

Things to do at Lake Wakatipu

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking
  • Mountain Climbing
  • Biking
  • Snowboarding
  • Horseback Riding
  • National Park

Lake Wakatipu Photo Gallery

Lake Wakatipu Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 71,908 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 1,017 feet

Average Depth: 755 feet

Maximum Depth: 1,378 feet

Water Residence Time: 12 years

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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