In the 18th and 19th centuries Māori settled on the island. Te Rauparaha formed a base here, and his Ngāti Toa tribe regularly sailed in canoes on raiding journeys up to the Whanganui River and down to Marlborough.
The sea nearby was a nursery for whales, and during whaling times 2,000 people were based on the island. Oil was melted from the blubber and shipped to America for use in machinery, before petroleum was used. Although whales can be seen once every year during birthing season, there still are not as many as there used to be.
The conservation potential of the island was seen as early as 1870. It was reserved as a bird sanctuary in 1897 but it was not until 1987 that the Department of Conservation (DOC) took over the administration of the island. In the 1980s and 1990s efforts were made to return the island to a natural state; first sheep and possums were removed. In an action few thought possible for an island of its size, rats were eradicated in 1998.
In 2003 the anonymous Biodiversity Action Group claimed to have released 11 possums on the island. No evidence of the introduced possums has been found.