Of New Zealand’s more than 2,000 shipwrecks, only about 150 have been accurately located. Some have become places for recreational diving. These include the wrecks of the Mikhail Lermontov and the Rainbow Warrior, which was towed to Matauri Bay in Northland and sunk. Port Jackson in the Marlborough Sounds has the Rangitoto, lost in 1873, and the Lastingham, lost 11 years later. At Great Barrier Island the Wairarapa and the Wiltshire are dive sites.
Maritime archaeology is a relatively recent discipline in New Zealand. Under the Historic Places Act 1993 any wreck that occurred before 1900, whether in marine or fresh water, is protected. Wrecks provide clues to the past. For example, before the steamer Elingamite collided with the Three Kings Islands in 1902, its propeller jammed, not allowing the vessel to reverse out of danger. In the 1960s, divers Wade Doak and Kelly Tarlton discovered the bent propeller, supporting the crew’s account of how the ship went aground.
Maritime archaeologists have investigated the wrecks of the Endeavour (1795, Dusky Sound), HMS Buffalo (1840, Mercury Bay), the Alcmène (1851, Kaipara), and Taupo (1881, Mayor Island).
The passenger steamer Tasmania sank on 29 July 1897 off Māhia. On board was a jeweller – Isadore Jonah Rothschild, who had a suitcase full of jewels. This went to the bottom of the ocean with the ship. But in 1975 the case was recovered by Kelly Tarlton.
The Lure of the General Grant
One of the most famous New Zealand shipwrecks is the General Grant, which sank in the Auckland Islands in 1866. It was loaded with a cargo of wool and skins, 2,576 ounces of gold and 83 passengers and crew. Only 15 people survived the sinking and five died subsequently.
Since 1868 at least 15 attempts have been made to salvage the gold and artefacts, resulting in a number of deaths among the salvagers but no gold. In fact, salvagers have not been able to identify the site of the General Grant, which sank near other shipwrecks.
The most successful expedition was in 1996, when anchors, cannons, crockery, and gold and silver coins were recovered. Even so, the artefacts have not been recognised by maritime archaeologists as being from the General Grant. One of the tales surrounding the vessel is that it was carrying more gold bullion than was declared.