Article as appeared Friday 13th June 2014

Outdoors: Historic wrecks fading away

Dave Moran measures a ship's anchor while surveying an early 18 century wreck
site in Tonga. Photo / Darren Rice


New Zealand has 2800 known shipwrecks but not many are sitting upright and in good condition, like sunken pirate ships portrayed in children's comics and cartoons.

Wave action and corrosion transform shipwrecks into ugly piles of metal faster than most people would imagine.

Kiwi wrecks usually rust away in murky anonymity, though where it's economic to do so dive operators may purchase the salvage rights.

That's in order to winkle out the cargo, recycle scrap metal and other materials of interest. But wrecks have more than scrap value.

As an abrupt full stop in the affairs of men and woman, and sometimes their final resting places, shipwrecks capture our imagination. Older ones are revered by historians and archaeologists seeking time capsules from a bygone era. A shipwreck may recall heroic struggles to survive, heart breaking tragedies and ruinous financial losses.

Some Kiwi wrecks conceal dark secrets, or - as with ships destroyed here by German mines - events of historical importance.

A few contain valuable artifacts, or even hidden treasure.



Each wreck has a back story but there's only ever a limited time frame in which to unravel it, points out renowned Kiwi underwater explorer and author Keith Gordon. He is a Fellow of the New York based Explorers Club, whose roll of honour includes names like Sir Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong and Ranulph Finnes.

Niagara imploding

Gordon started diving during the 1950s, when enthusiasts had to make their own gear, and he's written most recently on the gold-laden RMS Niagara, which sank in 120 metres of water off Bream Head Northland, after striking a German mine in 1941.

The Niagara carried more than eight tonnes of gold bars, most of which has been successfully salvaged, but Gordon says the famous ship is now imploding.

"She's resting on her side, so little structural strength, but worse still she's being eaten away by bacteria. This creates formations we call 'rusticles' which can remove about 100kg of iron from the steel construction every day. In time all these wrecks biologically implode and collapse - eventually they'll just be iron deposits on the bottom of the ocean."

This time imperative, combined with technological advances enabling divers to locate and explore wrecks in deep water, is the basis of the current disagreements between the Government archaeologists and members of the dive fraternity, and has led to negotiations between the parties for a Heads of Agreement to cover activities involved with underwater heritage.

One evidence of the confusion surrounding shipwrecks was the questioning by Gordon of a speaker from Heritage New Zealand at a recent dive conference. Gordon quizzed the official on the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act, which came into force last month (May).

The legislation, which replaced the old Historic Places Act, has an overwhelming focus of land-based historic sites, in particular Maori ones.

Following an "exchange of views" regarding clarification of the situation of divers involved with underwater heritage, the official admitted to Gordon and those present that the new Act had changed nothing, where wreck diving is concerned.

This was despite submissions the NZ Underwater Heritage Group put to a Parliamentary Select Committee, aiming to eliminate the confusion they said was inherent in the old Act.

Do not disturb

Though they can be visited and photographed, nothing can be disturbed or removed from wrecks pre-dating 1900, which are legislated as archaeological sites.

"This is fine," says New Zealand Dive Magazine editor Dave Moran, an accomplished wreck diver.

"What we find frustrating is the time it takes to have a permit issued - up to two years."

Moran's adventures have involved months surveying a shipwreck site in the Auckland Islands, to determine whether it was the fabled gold-carrying General Grant.

It wasn't the famous General Grant, but Moran points out that without bring able to remove and analyse objects from it, the wreck could not have been crossed off the list.
He says dive technology has exploded in recent years, mostly thanks to technology spin-offs from space exploration.

"Now armed with submersibles, and equipment such as the new generation re-breathers, better suits, mixed gas computers, cameras and various machines and instruments, we're able to explore far deeper.

"We knew this would have significance for New Zealand's marine archaeology, so five years ago we began seeking a Heads of Agreement with the (then) Historic Places Trust people.

"A diver may have to spend many hours in decompression (five-to-seven hours) and have only, say, 25 minutes to work at depth on a wreck.

"Currently they are unsure if they can remove items from a wreck they came across as it may or not be pre 1900. We believe it makes sense for he or she to be able to remove objects to help identify an unknown wreck. At present, as the law reads, the diver is suppose to surface and apply for a permit to do this, which could take months/years.

"You may need many thousands of dollars to launch these kinds of expeditions. You have to find the wreck, whose position may not have been recorded adequately. And objects can get covered by debris, or swept away by trawlers, so - though you may now have a permit to do so - you can't always return and retrieve them."

Gordon says the NZUHG felt they were close to concluding a Heads of Agreement with the former Historic Places people, but following staff changes negotiations were almost forgotten at the Heritage end.

Lost to history

"With limited staff and resources at Heritage NZ, dealing with wrecks often gets pushed into the too hard basket.

"That's understandable but for us it is also quite unsatisfactory. But there's also a problem with shipwreck divers being perceived by many archaeologists and bureaucrats as looters, whereas we'd hoped to be of assistance to Heritage NZ.

"Rather than work with us to ensure that these stories get told, as we'd hoped, the message we get from the Heritage people seems to be 'thanks for finding the wreck now we'll take over'."

But the organisations requesting the changes, NZUHG and the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand, include many divers passionate about maritime history.
"Our memberships include historians and archaeologists, I believe Heritage NZ needs to recognise the contribution we could make. The alternative is that they prevent items being retrieved, which will often be lost to history."

However the situation does not stop with pre-1900 shipwrecks.

The recent reported discovery of the SS Ventnor, which sank in 1902 and therefore outside the period that would see it automatically protected, as an archaeological site, is an interesting case. Heritage NZ declared it an archaeological site, which forbids "damage or modification of the site" (taking items) after approaches from the public that the wreck was of cultural significance to local Chinese.

"The Ventnor is an interesting precedent in my view," says Gordon.

"The Rena is arguably also a wreck of future historical interest and cultural significance, as it created such a stir when it sank. Does this then mean somebody can go to Historical NZ and argue that it cannot be touched for historical and cultural reasons and therefore needs to be declared as an archaeological site."

Maritime museum

Wrecks Moran and Gordon have dived on over many years have been of interest to people for many reasons.

They assisted a Wellington woman to locate the far north wreck site of a ship on which her grand father was the captain and went down with his ship.

German tourists are fascinated with the story of the Niagara and other ships sunk by German mines during the two World Wars.

"French tourists are fascinated by French ships which have come to grief on our shores, and so forth," says Gordon.

"Many people we meet relish the opportunity of visiting a museum and viewing items from these historic wrecks and the stories they tell.

"Perhaps part of the reluctance the Heritage NZ people have for allowing objects to be taken is the cost this entails. With preservation, storage, curating and so forth, they therefore prefer to leave them to the elements of the sea.

"Although New Zealand may not have as many wrecks as a country such as England, ours do certainly record a volatile maritime history going back over 200 years.

"We need a dedicated maritime museum and we're hopeful that efforts to establish one on the Wellington City Waterfront will be successful.

"In my view the authorities need to keep an open mind about retrieving objects from these wrecks. Who knows, one day a wreck may be found in New Zealand waters that could re-write the history books.

"There's the remote possibility that ships from Europe or Asia got here before Abel Tasman's expedition in 1642.

"As it stands, if a diver discovered, say, the wreck of a Portuguese Caravel on the ocean floor, they wouldn't be able to bring up so much as a plate to support the find."

Heritage replies
Response from Pam Bain, Senior Archaeologist, Heritage New Zealand:
Heritage New Zealand acknowledges the interest of the diving community in the shipwreck heritage of our country. There are many people involved in diving and much potential to work together to further our knowledge of New Zealand's maritime heritage within the appropriate legislation.

Heritage New Zealand has received a draft agreement from the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group and Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand and after discussions with other parties we hope to be able to meet and discuss this with the maritime community of New Zealand.

There are a number of issues that need to be carefully considered as part of any agreement - most importantly, the requirements of the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act which makes it illegal to modify or destroy shipwrecks where the wreck pre-dates 1900 - as well as archaeological sites on land, without a consent.

There are also issues associated with the need for protection for such sites.

Shipwrecks are a special kind of archaeological site as they are effectively a time capsule representing that particular moment in history when the ship was lost. Many wrecks hold important archaeological information about the circumstances surrounding the wreck and the lives - and sometimes the deaths - of the people on board.

People wanting more information on the archaeological provisions of the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act regarding shipwrecks can contact their nearest Heritage New Zealand office or visit
For more on archaeological provisions of the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act regarding shipwrecks contact Heritage New Zealand, or visit

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