Diving in the blood

Bill Shortt talks to Mahia bach owner Willie Bullock about some of his professional diving exploits, including to the famous shipwreck the SS Tasmania searching for the Rothschild jewels that sank with her.

Bill Shortt talks to Mahia bach owner Willie Bullock about some of his professional diving exploits, including to the famous shipwreck the SS Tasmania searching for the Rothschild jewels that sank with her.

TREASURE TROVE: The SS Tasmania, which sank near the Whangawehi Stream after striking rocks off Mahia’s Table Cape. Onboard was a suitcase of jewels.
Isadore Rothschild, a Wellington jeweller who survived the sinking of SS Tasmania. He had a suitcase of jewels on board that went down with the ship. Some of the jewels have been recovered and valued at $300,000.
Kelly Tarlton and Willie Bullock in earlier days.
The General Grant, which sank near the Auckland Islands. Willie was involved in the search for this ship.
Willie Bullock, a Mahia bach owner and associate of Kelly Tarlton who searched for the jewels that went down with the SS Tasmania. About half of the cache has been recovered.
A boat with divers coming out of a cave where the General Grant is believed to have sunk.

A LARGE number of Mahia property owners live outside the district, paying homage to the area mainly in summer.

One of these bach owners is Willie Bullock, who has had an adventurous life through his professional diving exploits over 50 years on shipwrecks off New Zealand shores and around the world.

Willie was an associate of the legendary Kelly Tarlton, who made famous the shipwreck ‘SS Tasmania’ which sank three miles nor' east of the Whangawehi Stream after striking rocks off Table Cape in gale conditions and high seas on July 29, 1897.

Of the 11 deaths resulting from lifeboat fatalities after departing from the sinking ship, two who drowned were New Zealanders, one from Christchurch and one from Dunedin.

On board the ship was a Wellington jeweller who survived the sinking. He was Isadore Rothschild, who had a suitcase of jewels on board that went down with the ship.

Isadore Rothschild had an idea to float the ship to the surface with balloons as its masts were showing above water after the sinking, but this was abandoned because of cost.

He survived the sinking but lost his jewels. He died in 1941 at the age of 92.

Willie Bullock says little was known about the Tasmania or the jewels until 1973, when Gisborne divers mentioned it at a diving convention. This was the start of a 10-year treasure hunt, he said.

After meticulous research into the layout of the ship’s plan, and then diving down near 100 feet to measure it, Kelly Tarlton ascertained where Rothschild’s cabin was.

At the start it was a herculean effort to clear four metres of sand with venture dredges, only to find that the cabin had broken up. But the floor was intact and five pieces of jewellery were found. This was the start of a decade-long search.

Willie estimates that probably only half of the cache was brought to the surface during the time he spent with the Tarlton syndicate, and without doubt much more is hidden in sand and mud in the bowels of the Tasmania wreck.

In latter years the salvaged jewellery, valued at $300,000, was displayed at Kelly Tarlton’s Shipwreck Museum, along with gold sovereigns from the ‘SS Elingamite’ that sank off the Three Kings Islands in 1902.

The cache was stolen in 2000. The thief, an employee, was caught and jailed for 7½ years but never divulged where the cache was, telling police that his life was worth more than the jewels. The museum was forced to close in 2002 as insurance did not include employee theft.

Willie’s overseas shipwreck diving included the ‘HMS Lutine’ which foundered in a gale off the coast of The Netherlands in October 1799, with the loss of 200 lives.

The ‘Lutine’ was reported to be carrying a large consignment of gold bars. As the wreck sank in comparatively shallow water, much of the gold was recovered by other syndicates, but it was reckoned that more than 900 bars worth over $NZ25 million in 1970 values, was still at the bottom of the ocean. This expedition turned out to be unsuccessful but was a learning curve, diving in dangerous shallow waters.

Willie was also involved in the search for one of the world’s most mysterious wrecks that, once again, was carrying an immense quantity of gold.

The ‘General Grant’, a three-masted American barque of 1100 tons foundered in the Auckland Islands, 465 kilometres south of Bluff Harbour, in May 1866. Unfavourable seas pushed it into a cave as it attempted to circumnavigate the island. Sixty-eight people lost their lives, and more died after surviving the wreck, but after 18 months living in intolerable conditions just 10, including one woman, were rescued by the whaling brig ‘Amherst’.

Willie said two years after the sinking one of the survivors went back with a syndicate attempting to recover the gold. After 150 years the mystery of the ship has never been solved, including Kelly Tarlton’s attempt in 1975.

Willie was down there in the summer of 1985-86 with a syndicate and they worked a wreck found by a previous expedition, thought to be "The Anjou", a French sailing ship that also foundered there. They found another wreck, which proved to be the “Rifleman”.

Willie said the "General Grant" is there somewhere, but on the western coast over 30km dozens of huge caves and gulches are dotted below towering cliffs along a treacherous coastline. Some of the world’s biggest seas roll in there, which make it a challenge even getting to the area.

The Auckland Islands' inshore waters have an abundance of green-lip mussels, crayfish and paua. Rocks on the sea floor are massive and it is rarely flat calm.

He owns the rights to the ‘Tararua’, a 563-ton steamer that sank off Waipapa Point, Southland in 1881.

Mahia is the place for relaxation he said, and a dive now and again suffices along with a bit of fishing.

• The writer acknowledges Willie Bullock, Tarlton Memoirs and Papers Past.

A LARGE number of Mahia property owners live outside the district, paying homage to the area mainly in summer.

One of these bach owners is Willie Bullock, who has had an adventurous life through his professional diving exploits over 50 years on shipwrecks off New Zealand shores and around the world.

Willie was an associate of the legendary Kelly Tarlton, who made famous the shipwreck ‘SS Tasmania’ which sank three miles nor' east of the Whangawehi Stream after striking rocks off Table Cape in gale conditions and high seas on July 29, 1897.

Of the 11 deaths resulting from lifeboat fatalities after departing from the sinking ship, two who drowned were New Zealanders, one from Christchurch and one from Dunedin.

On board the ship was a Wellington jeweller who survived the sinking. He was Isadore Rothschild, who had a suitcase of jewels on board that went down with the ship.

Isadore Rothschild had an idea to float the ship to the surface with balloons as its masts were showing above water after the sinking, but this was abandoned because of cost.

He survived the sinking but lost his jewels. He died in 1941 at the age of 92.

Willie Bullock says little was known about the Tasmania or the jewels until 1973, when Gisborne divers mentioned it at a diving convention. This was the start of a 10-year treasure hunt, he said.

After meticulous research into the layout of the ship’s plan, and then diving down near 100 feet to measure it, Kelly Tarlton ascertained where Rothschild’s cabin was.

At the start it was a herculean effort to clear four metres of sand with venture dredges, only to find that the cabin had broken up. But the floor was intact and five pieces of jewellery were found. This was the start of a decade-long search.

Willie estimates that probably only half of the cache was brought to the surface during the time he spent with the Tarlton syndicate, and without doubt much more is hidden in sand and mud in the bowels of the Tasmania wreck.

In latter years the salvaged jewellery, valued at $300,000, was displayed at Kelly Tarlton’s Shipwreck Museum, along with gold sovereigns from the ‘SS Elingamite’ that sank off the Three Kings Islands in 1902.

The cache was stolen in 2000. The thief, an employee, was caught and jailed for 7½ years but never divulged where the cache was, telling police that his life was worth more than the jewels. The museum was forced to close in 2002 as insurance did not include employee theft.

Willie’s overseas shipwreck diving included the ‘HMS Lutine’ which foundered in a gale off the coast of The Netherlands in October 1799, with the loss of 200 lives.

The ‘Lutine’ was reported to be carrying a large consignment of gold bars. As the wreck sank in comparatively shallow water, much of the gold was recovered by other syndicates, but it was reckoned that more than 900 bars worth over $NZ25 million in 1970 values, was still at the bottom of the ocean. This expedition turned out to be unsuccessful but was a learning curve, diving in dangerous shallow waters.

Willie was also involved in the search for one of the world’s most mysterious wrecks that, once again, was carrying an immense quantity of gold.

The ‘General Grant’, a three-masted American barque of 1100 tons foundered in the Auckland Islands, 465 kilometres south of Bluff Harbour, in May 1866. Unfavourable seas pushed it into a cave as it attempted to circumnavigate the island. Sixty-eight people lost their lives, and more died after surviving the wreck, but after 18 months living in intolerable conditions just 10, including one woman, were rescued by the whaling brig ‘Amherst’.

Willie said two years after the sinking one of the survivors went back with a syndicate attempting to recover the gold. After 150 years the mystery of the ship has never been solved, including Kelly Tarlton’s attempt in 1975.

Willie was down there in the summer of 1985-86 with a syndicate and they worked a wreck found by a previous expedition, thought to be "The Anjou", a French sailing ship that also foundered there. They found another wreck, which proved to be the “Rifleman”.

Willie said the "General Grant" is there somewhere, but on the western coast over 30km dozens of huge caves and gulches are dotted below towering cliffs along a treacherous coastline. Some of the world’s biggest seas roll in there, which make it a challenge even getting to the area.

The Auckland Islands' inshore waters have an abundance of green-lip mussels, crayfish and paua. Rocks on the sea floor are massive and it is rarely flat calm.

He owns the rights to the ‘Tararua’, a 563-ton steamer that sank off Waipapa Point, Southland in 1881.

Mahia is the place for relaxation he said, and a dive now and again suffices along with a bit of fishing.

• The writer acknowledges Willie Bullock, Tarlton Memoirs and Papers Past.

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