There have been more than 100 – recorded ships wrecked around the often wild and exposed Wellington coastline and harbour. The relentless sea action and strong rip tides that rage between the North and South Island quickly transform wrecks into unrecognizable piles of twisted metal. Timber ships are quickly smashed to pieces, which either wash away in the tide or any remaining timber soon decomposes and disintegrates leaving only the metal fixings. Bronze rivet pins that were used to hold the ship together and postage stamp sized pieces of copper sheathing are often the only visible evidence of an old shipwreck.

More delicate relics are only very rarely discovered, as the wild seas and tides shift the gravel and sand around effectively grinding away even the most abrasion resistant material. Over the years, divers, fascinated by the tales of sea and the bravery of early settlers who risked all coming to this country, have searched for, found, and explored wreck sites. (Ref Dive Tales, from page 118).

Recovery of Subreon CannonInevitably, whenever a diver finds something shiny or interesting lying on the sea floor they usually pick it up and take it home to proudly display. Most of the divers I know have been more than happy to donate desirable relics to interested museums so they can be put on show to the public. I have personally donated artifacts on a ‘permanent loan’ basis to several museums, the most notable being the Maritime museum located on Wellington’s Queens Wharf. But there seems to be little public interest in these relics, as I understand they are no longer on show and may be stored somewhere in the bowels of the museum. Ref picture of cannonades recovered from the Subreon as shown above left.

Over the years many enthusiasts have obtained the rights to salvage from old wrecks and many have even purchased the wrecks from the original owners (usually insurance companies). Because the rules of salvage are so vague and unknown in this country (and are generally unenforceable anyway), the rule of thumb over the years has been, if it is lying on the sea floor getting pummeled by surf and tide, pick it up, take it home, and preserve it.

Dragon PlateMany of our local wrecks even in recent times have been deemed shipping hazards. They have been used for army target practice, E.g. Devon wrecked in 1913. Blasted apart, E.g. the Willie McLaren wrecked in 1889, and or been cut up and removed for scrap e.g. the Wahine wrecked in 1968, the Yung Penn and the Launch Mill Arm. The job of rescuing and preserving interesting relics has fallen to the dedicated amateur enthusiasts. Many divers have spent immeasurable time and money on the recovery, preservation and display of these “treasures” recovered of the sea floor. In most cases the “treasure” is bent, broken, worn away, severely corroded or rotted away and if it were to be bought at an antique shop would be of very little monetary value. But wrecks are a type of time capsule, and many of the things taken from them can therefore be accurately dated. Ref Dive Tales page 149 “The Dragon Plate” as shown above left.

Wonderful treasures such as the wreck ‘Vasa’ in Stockholm or the ‘Mary Rose’ in England lead the uninitiated to believe wrecks lay undisturbed and intact on the ocean floor until some organization arrives with untold money and equipment to refloat them. Unfortunately this is a romantic dream. Wrecks such as the Vasa and Mary Rose have only survived under very rare and unusual conditions.

Unfortunately new age archaeologist and Historic Places Trust authorities find there are can be money to be made from tourist divers and have begun making threatening noises of prosecuting people removing anything off a wreck. The result is that now many collections are kept well away from the public eye.

Over the past 40 years or so the late Kelly Tarlton, New Zealand’s most renown and successful wreck diver, gathered artifacts from wrecks all over New Zealand. These he preserved, restored and displayed in his museum in the Bay of Islands. It is indeed interesting to see that when many of these beautifully preserved and restored artifacts were put up for auction in Auckland on November 25th and 26th 2002, the people from the Archeological and Historic Places Trusts did not appear to have even bothered to attend. Most of the items auctioned were photographed and had the correct wreck details with them when sold. They were all sold at very reasonable prices and have now vanished into private collections, if not overseas. If the Historical Places Trusts were truly interested and passionate about the conservation of these relics they could have bought the whole collection for a price infinitely less than it would have cost them to go out there and collect them. Within the next couple of years a new ‘wreck’ is planned. She will be scuttled in a newly created marine reserve on the Wellington Southern Coast.

The aptly named Wellington, is an old naval ship. But this ‘wreck’ is not a real wreck, she is an old rusty hulk ready for the wreckers yard, a jungle gym for beginner divers. There is no Romance, no story of hardship, bravery and loss with her. Anything of any value will have been removed and I cannot help but wonder how long it will take our Cook Strait seas and surf to tear her to pieces. Ref ‘Dive Tales’ page 119 an old diary written on the way to New Zealand in 1879.

Also read “How it could have been.” About the hardships suffered by the survivors and the terrible loss of their shipmates, just 24 hours from their destination after a trip of almost six months on the ship Lastingham in 1884. Ref Dive Tales page 132.


Significant wrecks include :

The Devon went aground on Pencarrow Head in 1931. It was used as Target practice during the war.

The Willie McLaren was deemed to be a shipping hazard and blasted leaving just a pile of coal on the sea floor.

In 1968 the Wahine hit Barretts Reef at he entrance to Wellington Harbour and sunk in the harbour entrance. Removed at a cost of more than the original price to build the ship.
Ref Dive Tales Too – yet to be published.

Barque Cyrus and ship Wellington, both wrecked on almost exactly the same spot on the same day in Ohiro Bay in 1874. There is little to be found of either of these wrecks. However quite a few gold coins have been recovered from under the gravel, as recently as 2002. The Steamer Progress was wrecked in the same little bay as the Cyrus and Wellington about 60 years later in 1931. And the Yung Pen, a Taiwanese fishing trawler ended up again in the same spot. Four wrecks with wreckage from each mixed with the others. Much of the Yung Penn was later cut up and removed!

Mill_Arm_launchMill Arm launch removed – shown left.

The Lady Elizabeth Police launch was ripped to pieces by the sea and scattered over the length and breadth of Barretts Reef.

The South Seas is the only accessible, intact wreck in the Wellington Harbour and South coast. She was a fishing trawler converted into an mine sweeper during the war and hit an interisland ferry. She sank in the middle on Wellington Harbour where there is little ocean swell and tidal currents. She is sitting upright and although in a very rusty condition, is one wreck that could be salvaged!
Ref Dive Tales Too – yet to be published.

The salvage of the Pacific Charger. Ref Dive Tales Too – yet to be published.

The Defender, in 1918, while unloading a cargo of cans of petrol at Kings wharf caught fire. It is suspected that someone was smoking a cigarette, a can of petrol had leaked, FIRE! She was abandoned and towed away from the wharf where the wind blew her onto Leper Island, where she exploded in a very spectacular manner, and sank.


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