25 May 2013

The creatures beyond the Devil's Gate

Actually, it's not as melodramatic and Lovecraftian as it sounds. The creatures at Devil's Gate are in fact New Zealand fur seals, who congregate on the coast just past a cleft in the rock known as Devil's Gate. This in turn is just past the rather more commonly known site, Red Rocks, so named for the burgundy-hued stones deposited here by geological processes best left unexplained. The seals are usually present from May to August, and having seen one swimming happily along the Wellington waterfront earlier this week, I decided to make only my second expedition to the Rocks. Unlike the last time about 10 years ago, this time I aimed to spot the seals in situ.

This morning was calm and still in the capital. Setting off this morning from the carpark at the bottom of Happy Valley at 9 o'clock, perhaps half of the walk was bathed in sunlight despite the north-facing cliffs. I reached Red Rocks after 50 minutes, and spotted my first seal a short while after that. You're required to keep a healthy 20 metres from the animals at all times, and never get between them and the sea, but it's still easy to get a good view because the rocks where the seals haul themselves out of the water to bask in the sunlight are close to the trail. There's little danger of surprising the seals, because the beach stones are noisy underfoot - they generally look up briefly from their doze when they hear you, and then go straight back to sleep. (Click photos to enlarge)

The vicinity of Red Rocks is also the location of a famous marine tragedy, which is hardly surprising because the south coast of Wellington is notoriously rugged and unforgiving. On 12 February 1909 the 45-year-old steamer Penguin was travelling with a crew of 41 plus 64 passengers from Picton to Wellington in seas that were described as dangerous. At about 9.45pm the Penguin struck on Tom's Rock, and gashed open its starboard side with 'the sound of the ship striking being described as like the rending of a giant piece of calico'. Many lives were lost when lifeboats carrying women and children capsized in the violent surf shortly after being launched from the sinking ship, and in all 75 lives were lost. This was New Zealand's worst maritime disaster of the 20th century; by way of comparison, around 50 people died in the Wahine disaster in April 1968. 

The next morning the Dominion had only just heard of the disaster, printing the following message in full:

WRECK OF THE PENGUIN - Reported serious loss of life. At 5.45 this morning a telephone message was received from Mr Kennedy, manager of the Union Company, that the Penguin, on her way from Nelson and Picton to Wellington, had been wrecked at Terawhiti and great loss of life is feared. Mr Kennedy sent a man over the hills on horseback, the weather being too rough to permit a steamer to approach, and the fullest information of the sad occurrence will be posted at the Company's office.

By the time the Evening Post was published later that day Captain Naylor of the Penguin had reached Wellington and had been tracked down for a comprehensive eye witness statement by the reporter. After relating all the grim details of the grounding and sinking, the Evening Post added, 'Captain Naylor, when interviewed, showed unmistakeable signs of his rough usage in the water. Although he did not say so, it was clear that he was the last man to leave the ship'. According to C.W.N. Ingram's New Zealand Shipwrecks,

The Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Penguin found that the cause of the casualty was the presence of an exceptionally strong flood tide [and] contributed to by the master in not putting his vessel's head to sea sooner. The court, on a majority verdict, one of the nautical assessors dissenting, suspended the master's certificate for 12 months.  

The only female survivor from the Penguin, Mrs Hannam, saved a boy named Matthews from drowning and believed she had saved her two-year-old child. She was found underneath an upturned boat on the shore by Mr McMenamin's shepherds the next day, at which point the death of the two-year-old was discovered. Mrs Hannam was feted for her bravery, and lived a long life. She is mentioned in a report from her home in Onehunga in Auckland in 1950, which states that despite losing her husband and all four children in the disaster, she was pregnant at the time and later gave birth to another son, who went on to become an officer in the merchant navy.

Men pull bodies and wreckage from the surf at Cape Terawhiti,
after the wreck of the Penguin (via Te Ara)

See also:
Blog: HMS Orpheus memorial at Greenwich, 1 January 2008
Blog: Highbury to south coast walk, 17 February 2013
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