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In the third worst shipwreck disaster in New Zealand waters, 121 lives were lost when the Union Steam Ship Company steamer Wairarapa struck Miners Head, on the northern tip of Great Barrier Island, 90 km north-east of Auckland.
In thickening fog, Captain J.S. McIntosh maintained 13 knots (24 kph), nearly at full speed heading towards what he believed was the safety of the port. Shortly after midnight on 29th Oct 1894 the steamer slammed against the cliffs of Great Barrier Island. As water began to flood in through a hole in the hull, the Wairarapa listed to one side. Many of those on board slid off the deck into the sea; others were swept away by heavy seas. Horses, sheep and other cargo were also swept overboard, adding to the confusion and risk for those in the water. Two lifeboats rescued 50 people from the sea, but other boats were smashed or swamped when they hit the water.
The passengers and crew left on board clung to the rigging or climbed to the bridge. When daylight arrived a steward swam ashore with a line. Passengers were then hauled through the water. The survivors huddled on the rocks for more than 30 hours before being rescued by local Māori. As the islands only contact with the outside world was via a weekly steamer, news of the shipwreck took three days to reach Auckland.
Today the shipwreck provides a stunning dive and an imposing sight for one of New Zealand’s most famous maritime disasters. The wreck is now lying against the steep cliff in a depth of 15-20m of water. The Wairarapa remains a broken wreck, spread across the bay but still provides a beautiful site to dive and has become, in time, a living reef covered with kelp and marine life. The cove in which she now rests is impressive to say the least and you can clearly see how a ship trapped with a raging storm behind her, would have little chance of escape!
On a normal day the sheltered bay provides clear water with visibility in excess of 20m. A gentle swell guides you to the back of the bay where wreckage and artefacts still lay hidden in the cracks or under kelp. Her boiler is easy to find on the sands along with bollards and anchor chains. Large sections of hull point away from the cliffs & out to sea, providing a safe haven for the marine life she now hides.
The journey out to the Wairarapa is certainly long, taking up to 1.5 hours from Omaha but certainly worth the effort. You are seldom without the company of dolphin or other marine mammals on your trip.
Surrounding bays also provide excellent grounds for those wishing to hunt or to just explore the prolific life at Great Barrier. You will need to bring with you plenty of food, water & warm clothing as there are no ports in easy reach of this location. You will be indeed at the remote edge of Great Barrier Island
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