SS Ventnor – New Zealand’s deepest dived shipwreck

By Keith Gordon & Dave Moran

As the last incantations of the Maori karakia carried across the ocean swell the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) was launched into the depths. It was an occasion that demanded this cultural respect, to honour the ghosts of those whose remains were thought to reside in the shipwreck below.

Down through the diminishing light, the ROV powered into the twilight zone of the deep, finally coming to rest on the seabed at 150 metres. The ROV camera panned across a slope of scattered coal and iron plating to the remains of a ship’s hull that was silhouetted against the upper luminescence of the ocean. To those on the surface observing in real-time the images on the ROV’s monitor screen, there was no mistaking the remains below were of the SS Ventnor.  Lost off Hokianga on the North Island’s west coast on the night of 28 October 1902.

The wreck had become known as the ghost ship to local Maori, when coffins with human remains washed ashore. In addition to a cargo of 5357 tons of coal destined for Hong Kong, the Ventnor had been chartered by Chinese interests to carry the exhumed remains of 499 Chinese for reburial in China. For the Chinese community, it’s their belief if they die in a foreign land their spirit will not rest until the remains are returned to their place of birth. The remains of their countrymen lost on the Ventnor were now hungry ghosts, seeking their final resting place. The Project Ventnor Group included New Zealanders (Pakeha), Maori and Chinese. It was accepted from the beginning that the wreck deserved to be culturally and spiritually respected. Until the underwater investigation was complete, a decision for secrecy from media was made. A joint statement by New Zealand and Chinese governments would announce the exploration findings; unfortunately this was not to be. 

The 3961 ton SS Ventnor, built in 1901 for Gow, Harrison & Co, Glasgow and operated by the Ventnor Steamship Company, under the command of Capt. Henry Ferry. The SS Ventnor arrived in Auckland delivering a cargo of sugar on 22 October 1902. Following the loading of coal and human remains the Ventnor sailed from Wellington on 26 October bound for Hong Kong, Early the next morning, it struck a rock south of Cape Egmont. Taking on water, Capt. Ferry decided to attempt to sail around the top of the North Island to Auckland on the east coast for repairs. However, the pumps were unable to cope with the rising water. On the evening of the 29th, when she was 10.5nm off Hokianga, all hands were ordered to the lifeboats when it was evident there was little time left. Unfortunately the lifeboat with Capt. Ferry and 12-crew did not clear the sinking vessel in time and were lost.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the Ventnor. The New Zealand Chinese community, on learning of the early recovery of some floating coffins in 1902 and the burial of the remains by Maori, have erected local memorials and observed religious rites. Following the initial ROV survey, the Project Ventnor Group decided to carry out further underwater surveys to conclusively confirm that the wreck was that of the Ventnor. If so, to also investigate if human remains might still exist on the wreck. To do this the Project Ventnor Group, contacted the technical diving fraternity to find divers with the ability, experience and technology to dive to a depth of 150 metres.

The First Dive – January 2014

It’s a long way down 150 metres! How far down became abundantly clear to the support team when the shot line was laid out on land prior to the dive.

We were preparing the systems that the divers’ dive profile required to execute as safe as possible a dive to that depth and return to a floating decompression platform before they staggered back on board the dive boat.

From the images obtained from our earlier ROV dive, we were excited and apprehensive about what was to take place. For the first time in 112 years, humans would physically touch and wander the decks of this once proud ship.

Project manager John Albert had whetted the interests of three non-commercial Australian deep technical divers who had vast experience of investigating wrecks at such extreme depths.

To observe Sandy Varin, Dave Bardi and Dave Hurst preparing their diving equipment, was like watching poetry in motion.

They had prepared their rebreathers, assembled mixed gas cylinders, checked their dive computers, scooters and lighting many times before but each went into a world of their own as they meticulously went over their equipment that would be their life support during the dive and their long decompression.

Their planned bottom dive time of 20 minutes included the four minutes it takes their scooters to deliver them to the wreck with minimal exertion. After just 15-minutes on the wreck, they would begin to PAY for the privilege of being at such an extreme depth.

It would be five to six hours before they would breathe the sun-drenched air above.

The goal of these first dives was to investigate the condition of the wreck and to if possible, ascertain if there could be any possibility of human remains. Maybe there could be a possibility of the remains returning home to their motherland, China!

To find an almost intact wreck such as the Ventnor resting on the seabed and sitting up-right is a divers dream. It rarely happens. Her 105-metre broken body rests on a sandy bottom; now an oasis full of marine life in an otherwise barren desert-like landscape.

Unfortunately, the vast number of hapuka (grouper) that once lived on the wreck have now been fished to oblivion!

As with many wrecks in the open ocean, fishing trawlers were the first to discover her. Nets still drape their killing arms around the stern and shattered bow section.

There is a strong possibility, over a period of time, that trawler’s nets have caused much damage to the wreck, ripping off the ship’s crumbling, decaying wooden superstructure and scattered these across a vast area of the west-coast seabed. Were the Chinese remains also scattered over this area?

Divers return from the first dive

On board the dive vessel there is a white board that has various details about the dive including the expected time the divers will commence their ascent. It is always reassuring when cruising above when their images can be seen on the depth sounder—–all three are at 80 metres—-great!

Two support divers dropped in on the three divers at 12 metres as they drift in the open ocean completing their decompression commitment on the decompression station.

The deep divers delivered a smile and a thumbs up—-all ok. The support divers then relieved the three of any equipment that they no longer required such as cameras, lighting, bailout emergency cylinders etc in an attempt to make their long wait to reach the surface more bearable.

It takes a very committed diver to carry out these deep dives. They require professional discipline to prepare their minds, bodies and equipment (up to $80,000 per diver including cost of helium) to be in the best possible shape to confidently leave the surface knowing that they cannot return for another five to six hours!

It’s such a great feeling knowing all is well with the three divers, and they have successfully created New Zealand diving history.  It is another chapter in the enthralling and continuing development of the Ventnor’s story/history which embraces communities in mainland China and New Zealand, Maori and also Scottish (Henry Ferry was Scottish as were some of the crew).

The documentary that John Albert is working on will help to bring some form of closure to the descendants of the lost souls.

As one Chinese descendant with tears in her eyes after viewing a video of the ship’s remains and being able to hold a recovered porthole: The ghost ship had been brought to life. It was no longer a legend that had been handed down over the years by family members.

The Ventnor is still a living ship with an ongoing history, both to all who have an interest in her and to those descendants of the ghosts who reside in her.

The Project Ventnor Group is very proud of what they have achieved and the joy their efforts have brought to so many.

Aftermath

Unfortunately following the dives, incomplete and unsubstantiated accusations concerning the Ventnor survey were sent to Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) and the media, by persons who have vested interests in Ventnor. This resulted in HNZ, without substantiating the accusations being made or meeting with the Project Ventnor Group, declaring the 1902 wreck an archaeological site. This action is unprecedented on a post 1900 shipwreck. These false accusations continue being made to HNZ. Media reports have brought into question the integrity of wreck divers in general. There has been little media acknowledgement regarding the Ventnor being the deepest dived New Zealand shipwreck or the diver’s skill and expertise required to successfully dive these depths.

Some artefacts were recovered from the wreck prior to it becoming a protected archaeological site. The intention being that following lengthy conservation treatment the artefacts would be offered to appropriate museums both in New Zealand and China. The Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH) declared they were objects of great cultural importance and in accordance with the Maritime Transport Act 1994, Section 105 (1) (b) must be delivered to the Police. However it is questionable that the Act be used in this manner by MCH on a recorded and previously known shipwreck. It could now be deemed that any object recovered from any shipwreck must by law be delivered to the Police! The wreck site is not protected from fishing activities thus exposed fragile artefacts are in danger of being destroyed by anchors and fishing equipment. The exploration and survey of the Ventnor is not yet complete, further dives are planned. The Project Ventnor Group hope that they can work with HNZ to rescue artefacts for Chinese and New Zealand’s cultural /maritime history before they are lost forever.   

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Selwyn Pryor a highly respected Kaumatua, church minister blessing the wreck site before the deployment of the ROV.

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Diver arriving on the wreck at 150 metres.

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Trawlers nets wrapped around the ship’s propeller.

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Sandy Varin about to dive to 150 metres

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Two dismantled rebreathers

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Inspecting the wreck

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The first divers to explore the wreck holding the Chinese Imperial flag that was flown on the Ventnor in 1902. L –R: Dave Bardi, Dave Hurst and Sandy Varin

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Laying out the shot-line and decompression stage.

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