Saturday, April 9, 2011

A dive at the Port au Prince anchor site.

The Port au Prince was an English private ship of war, a vessel of 500 tons armed with 24 long nine and twelve pound guns as well as 8 twelve pound carronades on the quarter deck. She carried a “letter of marque” and this document permitted her Captain and crew to become pirates against the enemies of England, primarily France and Spain.  In payment for their pirate raids any plunder they seized was to be their own. 

Commanded by Captain Duck she sailed for the New World on February 12th 1805 having been given a twofold commission by her owner, a Mr. Robert Bent of London.  Their primary goal was to attack the Spanish ships of the New World capturing gold and valuables but if she failed in that task her secondary objective was to sail into the Pacific in search of Whales to be rendered for their oil.
The Atlantic crossing was rough but uneventful and she lay off the coast of Brazil by April and then rounded Cape Horn in July before proceeding north in search of Spanish Galleons laden with treasure. They captured a number of ships but most yielded little in the way of valuables and at times the men began to get disgruntled by capturing what they contemptuously referred to as dung barges. The Port au Prince was now also on the lookout for whales as well but, although catching a few, experienced little success in this endeavor.
After leaving Hawaii in September under the command of Mr. Brown, she intended to make port at Tahiti but missed the target and instead sailed westward for the Tonga Islands. She arrived in Ha’apai on November 09th 1806, almost two years since departing England and after numerous engagements, leaking badly and having already witnessing the death of her captain. She was laden with the spoils of war and cargo amounting to approx twelve thousand dollars plus a considerable amount of copper plus silver and gold ore. A large quantity of silver candlesticks, chalices, incense pans, crucifixes and images complimented the treasure.
She weighed anchor for what was destined to be the last time in seven fathoms water off the North West Point of Lifuka Island. A number of chiefs visited the ship on the evening of her arrival and brought with them barbequed hogs, yams and a native of Hawaii who spoke some English informing Captain Brown that the Tongans had only friendly intentions. The Port au Prince also had Hawaiian crew who did not trust the situation and expressed concern to the captain that the Tongans were feigning friendliness while planning attack. Captain Brown choose to ignore the warnings, therein signing his own death warrant and that of many of his crew.
The next day the natives began to swarm the boat until there were around 300 in different parts of the ship. They invited Captain Duck ashore to see the Island and assured of their friendly motives he agreed.  On arrival he was clubbed to death, stripped and left lying in the sand.  Simultaneously the main attack commenced on the Port au Prince. The sailors were outnumbered and overwhelmed easily. The massacre was brutal and swift seeing all but four of the crew members clubbed to death, their heads so badly beaten as to be unrecognizable to the survivors. For the next three days the ship was stripped of her iron, a valuable commodity, and had her guns removed before being burnt to the water line to more readily remove what iron remained.
One of the survivors was a boy by the name of William Mariner and Finau, the King of the Islands, had taken a shining to the lad when they first met aboard the Prince. Will reminded the King of his son who had died of illness and when the attack on the ship was being planned Finau had given instructions that the life of Mariner should be spared if at all possible. He was renamed Toki (Iron Axe) and spent the next four years living amongst the islanders. During this time he would witness the attempted unification of the Kingdom by Finau using the very guns seized from the Prince. One long nine still lies on Ha’anno Island.  After rescue and his return to England Mariner related his story to John Martin who penned the famous book “The Tongan Islands, William Mariners account”.
On the 8th of December 2009, almost two hundred and three years to the day, we were conducting a dive course when a heavy squall forced us to abandon the planned site and make haste for shelter in the lee of Lifuka Island. We dropped anchor directly off Mui Kuku point on the North West tip of Lifuka. I had never dived the reef before and made a descent to 18 meters. Visibility had deteriorated in the squall but upon approaching the bottom I began to discern a shape coming out of the murky green. As the curved arms and huge flukes became clear I realized it was a great anchor.  The 1800’s style, its historically accurate geographical position and depth at 10 fathoms where it lay could mean only one thing and with it my heart began to race, I had discovered the anchor of the Port au Prince. Being the first person to lay eyes on it in two centuries was awe inspiring. It is still intact with one fluke now buried into the reef and all faces beautifully overgrown with encrusting life. We make regular historical dives on the site for those who are interested.
Finding the anchor of the Port au Prince in 2009 was very special but discovering the awesome dive that comes with it was really the icing on the cake. We dropped in there yesterday for another look and passed over two large Queen Conch before getting to the drop off, straight down to 18m landed us on top of the anchor for a refil on maratime history here. A few minutes of appreciation and we started to shallow up towards the main reef, speckled sand perch, lizardfish and scribbled pipefish frequent the silty slope up to the great overhang. Chromodoris nudibranchs can easily be found here too.
We stopped along the way to observe a small anemone playing host to a beautiful transparent shrimp, its pincers quivered and I presented my hand in the hope of a quick manicure but obviously my nails were not up to standard as the little cleaner declined to offer any service. We passed another big conch on the way to the overhang and took another peek at what seems to be an unexploded bomb (wwII?).
On reaching the overhang we shallowed up to around 14 meters to gaze in wonder at the 2 meter wide, blood red, gorgonian fan that hangs from the ceiling, the size of this fan indicates it has probably been here as long as the anchor. The thick main branchs give way to smaller arms and the beautiful lacework of fibres that catch food in the current. There can be quite a brisk current under the overhang but nothing today, perfect to just hang there and appreciate the beauty of this organism. The wall to our left is adorned with pale yellow and white crinoids. Orange and purple anthiase dart up and down from the ceiling like rainbow drops, they live their live upside down with the underside of the overhang their floor. Moving on we pass a 3 meter long whip coral reaching out from the wall with gobies darting up and down its length. Occassionaly I turn to look at the composite of colour on the ceiling created by the many different kinds of fish, coral, encrusting algae, rock oysters, crinoids and delicate sea fans, it is mesmerising but water pouting into my upside down reg brings it to an end once more.
After the overhang we ascend over a small rock outcrop, it is home to a giant clam and the crest of the reef is a field of anemones and clownfish, I count 22 in this one small area. Sabre squirrelfish and soldierfish peer out from a small tunnel in the rock, a bright yellow trumpetfish glides pass and snap at a small blue green chromis, one of a hundred in a single small coral head. Once over the clown fish plateau we descend again into an area of valleys and huge reef bommies. This is a big fish hangout! large red snapper keep their distance higher up in the water column, one must be 20kg at least. Their scowling face and bright yellow eyes can just be made out. Big eye emperors, in a school some thirty strong, cruise up past us from 18m and over the top of the reef at 7m. A few of the fish are very heavy set, old guys, with iridescent electric blue eyes. I can see they are wary and unapproachable. Black drummers dart frantically about up and down in front of us, coming very close to asscertain the threat we pose before turning on a penny and bolting off again. A big spotted sweetlips lingers just off the bottom, seeming unperturbed by our presence but he heads for the cover of the reef when a 2m whitetip reef shark round the corner. The shark turns when it sees us but circles back for a second look before slinking down into the depths of the reef and disapperaing around a bommie. It is always a pleasure to see these magnificent predators.
We make our way out to that same bommie in the hope of another look. This one is covered in leather corals in cram, pink and yellow. Sea whips project from the rock ans branching acropora crowns the scene. Dottybacks and anthiase dance in the swell picking food from the water. With only five minutes no deco left (3rd dive of the day) we turn and head back into the main reef, once again passing all those big fish, passing the large gorgonian again a crack in the leads into a small swimthrough, the walls have been smoothed but burrowing sea urchins cover the surfaces, their sharp spines demanding careful bouyancy. The bright turquoise blue of the pacific ocean looks enchanting from the shadows of this little cave and we ascend up through the exit onto the surface of the reef.
Our guest had expressed an interest in Trochus (Top) shells as these have been decimated in neighbouring islands for the jewellery trade. Please don't buy stuff made from shells as it has a negative impact on the reef as a whole. I knew this reef has plently of them and sure enough found a massive example after only a few minutes searching. He said it was a really big specimen and ones that size could "no longer be found on Tongatapu". Thankfully Ha'apai seems to be doing well as their is only one man making jewellery and he is usually drunk. I indicates time for a safety stop but as I turned my field of vision was filled by one of those huge red snapper only five meters away, I really think this guy was considering a diver for lunch. It hovered there for the most of the safety stop. Thumbs up and it was all smiles at the surface! My buddy, a fellow instructor with over a thousand dives under his weightbelt, siad the dive way awesome. I could only agree, totally awesome!

But what of the treasure? The anchor most probably lies where her cables were cut before the ship was hauled ashore. Artifacts and even treasure may still lie buried in the area but two centuries of growth may see it stay hidden forever. Each time we dive there I am always hoping to see a glint of light bouncing of the captain’s sword. Maybe next time!

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