A Northland man making a documentary about a ship that sank with the remains of 499 Chinese goldminers on board says the remaining artefacts should be salvaged before part of New Zealand history is lost forever.
The Ventnor sank off Hokianga Harbour in 1902 with the loss of 13 lives. Also lost were the miners' remains, which had been exhumed from South Island goldfields and were to have been buried in their home villages in China.
The wreck's location in 140m of water was pinpointed in 2012 by the Ventnor Project Group led by John Albert, a Hokianga man now living in Auckland.
However, when the group's divers salvaged a number of objects from the wreck - including a porthole, a ship's bell and a plate - Northland's Chinese community, and some of the miners' descendants, were upset by what they saw as interference with a mass grave.
They approached Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) which rushed through legal protection. It is now illegal to damage or modify the wreck or remove anything within 500m of the sunken vessel.
However, Mr Albert said there was only a limited time to save the artefacts still on the wreck for future generations. The ship had been "ripped to pieces" by bottom trawlers - as evidenced by nets caught on the wreck - and the remaining objects were disintegrating.
"If we don't hurry up and do something they'll be lost forever. Then there'll be nothing to fight over because there'll be nothing left," he said.
If local iwi, the Chinese community and other parties agreed, his group was willing to help salvage the artefacts. Mr Albert said he would like to see the objects put on display, possibly as part of a travelling exhibition. Some could also be displayed in China where the miners came from.
Deep-water divers working for the Ventnor Project Group returned to the wreck earlier this month for what Mr Albert said was likely the last time.
They had hoped to spend 10 days filming but poor conditions meant they only managed one day of diving - and lost the footage when two diving helmets, with cameras attached, sank to the bottom in the rough weather.
The group had planned to search the sea bed between ship and shore to see if any of the miners' remains had ended up there.
It is known that remains, many of them in lead-lined caskets, washed up as far away as Mitimiti in North Hokianga and Kawerua in Waipoua Forest - where Maori had dragged them ashore and buried them, in some cases in their own cemeteries - but it is not known if any are still on the sea bed.
Mr Albert believed some had washed up as far south as Kaipara and as far north as Ahipara, the focus of his current research. None had been seen on the wreck itself, he said.
HNZ can give permission to salvage objects from a protected site but only after consultation with all affected parties, including the miners' descendants.
Bottom trawling is not illegal in the area, and HNZ could impose an exclusion zone but only if it had the wreck's GPS co-ordinates. At present only the Ventnor Project Group has them.
The five objects salvaged from the wreck before legal protection came into force were handed to the Police Museum in Porirua for safekeeping. Last year the Ministry of Culture and Heritage called for submissions about their future care.
- The group's latest visit to the shipwreck sparked a complaint to Far North police. Senior Sergeant Brian Swann, of Kaikohe, however, believed the divers were filming a documentary, which was permitted. The complaints had been referred to HNZ. Given the wreck's depth and remote location it was difficult for police to investigate, Mr Swann added.