It was around 3.30am on the morning of 15th August 1868 when a few Lyttelton residents were awoken by a strange noise. One local, Mr. Mitchell, even sensed a small tremor – coming to the quick conclusion there had been a small earthquake.
Those working around the port that morning were also alarmed by the strange noise, sounding a bit like thunder. As they looked to the skies, they saw nothing but stars and the air was still and calm. But then they too noticed something really odd – as the early dim morning light broke out against the sky, nearby ships seem to be listing on their sides. Upon closer inspection, the harbour was almost empty of sea, bare earth exposed in some places. Alarms were soon raised.
Just half an hour later, an immense 8 foot wave, sounding like a rushing wind, came bowling into Lyttelton Harbour. It snapped anchors and chains, tossed boats up in the air and smashed them into each other. Boats that were moored to wharves were torn away and wrecked against the shores.
The manned steamship ‘Novelty’ who had been at anchor managed to gain control quickly as it was being washed inland. In a small victory against Mother Nature, the steamer powered against the wave and managed to avoid damage – apart from the loss of its anchor.
What was later referred to in the Lyttelton Times as an ‘Earthquake Wave At Sea’ it continued on towards the Heads of the Bay, flooding into the bottom farming paddocks of Samuel Manson. Two seaside homes and a 300 foot jetty were destroyed as well as many sheep being drowned. Countless types of marine life were later discovered stranded on numerous beaches around the harbour bays. The Manson family who had been farming at Teddington since 1845 would later speak of that day to others, saying how those paddocks affected were useless for years after. The water continued to fall and rise for days afterwards, causing whirlpools in many places.
Other areas of New Zealand also reported damage: Wellington, Nelson, Kaiapoi, Oamaru, Timaru, Dunedin and Bluff. New Zealand wasn’t the only place in the tsunami path: Hawaii, Japan and Australia also felt the brunt; ships of several tonnes have been reported to have been pushed inland by 800 metres. Some ships were never seen again. In fact, ships that arrived in Lyttelton harbour over the following days fished many items and parts belonging to those unfortunate wrecked vessels.
Now referred to as the Arica Earthquake, it struck an area that was then a part of Peru around 9.30pm on 13th August (Peru time), 1868. It is regarded to have been between magnitude 8.5 and 9.0 and lasted between 5 to 10 minutes. Hundreds of aftershocks followed in the days after.
*image of artistic rendering of the 1868 Arica quake and tsunami courtesy of Disaster Pages of Dr. George Pararas-Caroyannis – http://www.drgeorgepc.com*