Underwater excitement in Whitianga as dive team explores historic shipwreck

  • 13/03/2021

While in Auckland all the action is on the water, in Whitianga the excitement is underwater.

More than 180 years after HMS Buffalo sank in Mercury Bay, a team of archaeologists and divers are to explore the wreck.

"Having a wreck like this close to the shore, so complete, is pretty fantastic," says maritime archaeologist Matt Gainsford.

"It lies in line with direction of the easterly swell, so it actually runs down the ship and I think that's made it survive so long and that's why it's a pretty exceptional example."

The water looks inviting but it's beneath the surface that's most exciting. It's a protected archaeological site, but in recent years the sea has scoured away the sand surrounding the ship.

"It's scoured out on the inside as well as around the outside so you're looking almost down to the keel," says maritime archaeologist Kurt Bennett.

This enables researchers to take samples and measurements.

"We have very few examples of this type of ship in New Zealand so it's our responsibility to preserve this for research," Bennett says.

"We can get an understanding how shipwrights were constructing these boats or these ships back in the early 19th century and that's information that we don't currently have.

"By recording the materials here we can start to interpret how they are putting the ship together, what timbers they were selecting."

The ship was built in 1813 and was used to transport immigrants and convicts to Australia.

It was also used as a quarantine ship during the European cholera pandemic in 1831 before a storm in 1840 brought it here to its final resting place. All but two of the 46 onboard survived.

The wreck is just 200 metres offshore, or as little as 50 metres at low tide, and it's really shallow, just two or three metres below the surface.

Working alongside Ngati Hei iwi and the Mercury Bay Museum, researchers will collect thousands of photographs over the weekend which will be stitched together by specialist computer software to create a 3D digital image.

"This is really detailed underwater shots for us and it just builds that whole picture of the ship," Mercury Bay Museum manager Rebecca Cox says.

Unlocking the secrets hidden beneath the waves.