Story: Diving and snorkelling

Page 4. Diving for a purpose

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Many divers enjoy diving for seafood, such as crayfish, and underwater spearfishing. From 1956 ‘spearos’ vied annually for the Mudgway Trophy in club competitions to catch the heaviest individual fish and greatest quantity of fish. In 1962 national championships began, and by the mid-1960s New Zealand teams were entering international competitions.

Other events, including fin swimming (surface and underwater swimming using a monofin and snorkel), distance races, and diving for treasure, gained fans. Depth freediving (diving to great depths without breathing equipment) has also had some Kiwi exponents. In December 2010 New Zealander William Trubridge becane the first freediver to reach a depth of 100 metres unassisted. But the most popular alternative sport was underwater hockey, introduced in 1974. New Zealand teams have been successful internationally, the women’s team winning gold at the World Championship in the Netherlands in 1988 and the men winning gold twice, in 2004 at Christchurch and in 2006 at Sheffield, England.

Commercial diving

From the 1950s onwards, commercial divers have been employed building large structures like the Auckland Harbour Bridge, installing harbour equipment and underwater cables, and maintaining dams.

Divers also work in the growing aquaculture industry and in New Zealand Customs Service operations.

Commercial divers have helped salvage sunken craft, for instance the inter-island ferry Wahine which sank in Wellington Harbour on 10 April 1968, and an Australian F-111 fighter-bomber which crashed into the Hauraki Gulf in 1979. Another delicate operation was damage assessment and pollution control after the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986.

Police and military diving

During the Wahine disaster, divers of the Wellington club rescued more than 30 passengers. This achievement, and a later effort by police divers to recover a radio log from the bridge of the submerged vessel, led to the formal recognition of the police diving squad. The squad now carries out forensic searches and body recovery. There is also a Royal New Zealand Navy Operational Diving Team, which has its own support ship, HMNZS Manawanui.

Diving into the past

In 1969 Wade Doak and Kelly Tarlton opened a museum at Whangaroa to display the relics found on the Boyd, and in 1970, Tarlton’s Museum of Shipwrecks at Waitangi was established. Preservation rather than salvage is now emphasised, and historic wrecks are protected by law. In 1983 a marine salvor was convicted under the Historic Places Act for modifying a wreck which, because it was over 100 years old, was deemed an archaeological site.

Sunken treasure

In the 1950s divers began finding wrecks around New Zealand’s coast. In 1967 the wreck of the Elingamite, which had sunk off the Three Kings Islands in 1902, was rediscovered. The efforts of Kelly Tarlton and Wade Doak to recover its cargo of bullion sparked national interest. They later recovered artefacts from the Boyd, sunk at Whangaroa Harbour in 1809. Tarlton, who gained a world reputation as a marine archaeologist, also salvaged the Rothschild jewels from the Tasmania near Māhia Peninsula in 1975.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Diving and snorkelling - Diving for a purpose', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 12 Jun 2006