Ulva Island is known as Te Wharawhara by Maori.  Early Maori are known to have been present in the area with some evidence of Maori occupation / visitation on the Island.

Its original European name was Cooper or Cowper Island and later it was named Ulva Island, most likely by a surveyor. 

During the 1860's Charles Traill an Orkney Islander purchased 7.8 ha (19 acres) of land on Ulva Island and established a shop and later a Post Office in 1872.

The island became the first scenic reserve in the Stewart Island area in 1892.

Mr and Mrs Howard Hunter became the successful bidders when the private land was auctioned in the 1920's and although not permanently occupied, their family continue to utilise the private land for their holidays.

In 2002 Ulva Island's scenic reserve was incorporated into Rakiura National Park and during 2004, a marine reserve was established in Paterson Inlet that encompasses approximately half of Ulva Island's coastline.