Wade doak was 45 metres down, in water “cold as fish blood”, finning from rock to rock through shoals of red perch, when, in the dim light, his eye caught a scattering of encrusted discs in the sand. Coins. He knew that strewn amid the mangled remains of the Victorian single-screw steamer Elingamite lay many more. The vessel had been carrying one-and-a-half tonnes of silver coins and some 6000 gold half-sovereigns from an Australian bank to its branches in Lyttelton and Dunedin when it struck a rock and foundered.
Doak signalled to his diving mates, but time had run out. It was January 1966 and he, fellow South Islander Kelly Tarlton and the others had come to the Three Kings Islands, off the northern tip of New Zealand, to spearfish. They stumbled on the coins almost by chance on their final day and even now were sucking the last of the air in their tanks. It was a reprise of the previous year when they had belatedly come across the first evidence of the wreck itself while hunting kingfish and hapuku.
The 2626-tonne Elingamite struck West King in thick fog on the morning of November 9, 1902, while attempting to round North Cape on its way to Auckland. It had left Sydney four days earlier carrying timber, fruit, cases of spirits, mail, 194 passengers and crew—and the consignment of bullion. In a twist of fate,the freshly minted gold coins bore the head of King Edward VII, whose birthday it was the very day the ship came to grief.
The Elingamite had been travelling at half speed due to the fog when towering rocks suddenly broke through the gloom. Captain Ernest Attwood was said to have telegraphed for ‘full astern’ but if the propeller had been reversed, the steamer was already on the reef. Twenty minutes later it foundered, sliding stern first beneath the waves.
Boats and rafts were launched with difficulty, one drifting away to the north and vanishing, others fetching up on the inhospitable Three Kings. One boat, with 52 people on board, made land near Houhora 24 hours later and raised the alarm. In all, 28 passengers and 17 of the ship’s crew perished.
A flurry of attempts were made to recover treasure from the wreck. One of the country’s most experienced divers, Edward Harper, succeeded in bringing up some bullion using primitive equipment before dying of decompression sickness at the site in January 1907. Another death followed and interest in the wreck faded.
By the time Doak and Tarlton came onto the scene, the science of diving had developed—indeed, the very year Harper died, physicist John Haldane had published diving tables showing the limits of what was possible underwater. Doak and Tarlton returned to lift more bullion and went on to popularise recreational diving and introduce generations of New Zealanders to the world below the tideline.