Captain James Cook, sailing in HMS Endeavour, sailed into the bay on October 12 1769. After exploring it, he named it for Sir Edward Hawke, First Lord of the Admiralty on October 15 1769. Describing it as some 13 leagues (about 40 miles) across.
This area of the New Zealand coast is subject to tectonic uplift, with the land being raised out of the sea. The coastal land in this area has significant marine deposits, with both marine and land dinosaur fossils having been found inland. Because the central mountain ranges come close to the coast at the north end of the bay, much of the bay's northerly coastline has deeply eroded tablelands that end in steep seaside cliffs which decend to narrow beaches.
The town of Wairoa lies to the north end of the bay, at the mouth of the Wairoa river and its' flood plain. While the port city of Napier lies on the coast near the southern end of the bay, on the edge of another flat river flood plain. The Hawke's Bay region, which is distinct from the bay itself, lies on the coastal land around the bay and also in the hinterland to the south.