Discovering, Conserving and Protecting Tonga’s Lost Maritime History

In October 2011, Don McIntyre and Mark Belvedere joined forces to form a Tongan company, Tonga Blue Pty. This represented the culmination of over 12 months planning, to develop a recognised professional wreck hunting and archaeologically responsible operation. This was in line with plans previously discussed with the Tongan Government. We hope this leads to the development of a new Tongan permit process for underwater archaeology.

Tonga Blue’s sole objective is to undertake legitimate, Government endorsed efforts, to recover the hidden maritime past of the ‘Friendly Isles’ and bring to life the many stories lost. McIntyre and Belvedere have a high level of collective experience in this area and a proven track record of managing similar projects. They come prepared and equipped to act and are excited about the opportunities.

 Tonga Blue will never claim any wrecks as it’s own. These wrecks are all legitimately owned by the Kingdom of Tonga and secondly, by the local Tongans in that specific area. A major focus of our activities is to assist and empower the local communities, to take control and ownership of the wrecks in their area. The Government of the Kingdom of Tonga now recognises that the fish surrounding an island should be controlled by and for those living on that island. This principle we believe should carry over to historic wrecks. Tonga Blue will never enter an area to work, unless it receives a written invitation from the people of that area seeking assistance and then, only after Tonga Blue has accepted that invitation in writing so there is no confusion and total transparency.

 As a ‘team’, McIntyre and Belvedere can bring together contacts and known associates in specialist fields. This will ensure all delicate recovery operations are not only ‘responsible and accountable’, but to world’s best practice. If you have a project you would like to discuss with Tonga Blue, your confidential enquiry is welcome.

Tonga Blue Ltd was incorporated in Nuku’alofa in early 2012 as a Tongan company following a review by the Government, with support from the Ministry of Tourism. Thereafter a ‘Foreign Investment Certificate’ was issued and the Company was able to operate and pay tax in Tonga. The Registered office is in Nuku Alofa and there are Three directors and three main shareholders. (Don McIntyre, Suijuian Zhou-Jane, Siua Tai-Joshua). Don McIntyre is recognised as one of Australia’s greatest explorers and adventurers and has had a diverse and successful corporate and business life, with an even more interesting career exploring all corners of the globe. You only need to ‘Google’ his name to find multiple listings. He has received many accolades and awards for his achievements and in 2012 the Australian Geographic Society presented him with it’s most prestigious honor, a Gold medal for ‘A Lifetime of Adventure’, only the 12th time ever it has been awarded. On a previous Government approved ‘Wreck Hunting’ expeditions in the Philippines in 2003, McIntyre used his 36m, 600 tonne, helicopter-equipped ship ‘Sir Hubert Wilkins’. It carried a recompression chamber, ROV, magnetometers, Nitrox, sonar, dredges and could support up to 28 people. McIntyre brings a high level of expertise and experience to this new project in Tonga.
Every activity of Tonga Blue will be carried out in accordance with Tongan law and with the approval of the government of Tongathrough permits issued by them. If a local community believes it needs help managing its wrecks, it can forward a written invitation to Tonga Blue seeking assistance. Meetings then take place to discuss all the issues and suggest a way forward. The community pays no money. All work undertaken is financed completely by Tonga Blue, so there is ‘NO RISK’ for the community. Cultural sensitivities will always take priority and at no time will Tonga Blue ‘claim’ any wrecks as it’s own. The wrecks are owned by all Tongans and also the local community in that area. Regular updates on all work carried out are provided to the Government and the local community. We all work together as partners with a simple objective, to recover, conserve and protect these maritime heritage sites.
The first process is to undertake a marine bio-diversity survey of the underwater environment surrounding the wreck site. Then a full pre-disturbance survey is made which includes a complete photo collage of the site and then detailed mapping of all items. At that point initial investigations and examinations are made, with possible limited excavation and recovery of some items to help with the identification of the wreck. Finally a full work/logistic plan is then written up in relation to the recovery of ‘significant items’ and a more detailed archeological investigation undertaken. Only then can the full task get underway which could take years for each site. At all times the general principle remains, that no disturbance of the site will take place ‘without due cause’, so that it’s integrity is maintained for future use as an archeological site and a managed dive site for tourism.
Current Government salvage permits allow items to be legally ‘pulled’ from wreck sites, with no priority to protect the intrinsic values of the site and the priceless artifacts themselves. Done correctly, an item recovered from a wreck that has had comprehensive surveys and where ‘provenance’ can be proven, increases its value 10 to 100 times. If the Tongan people own those artefacts, they deserve to be valued ‘appropriately’. It is hoped that many of the significant artifacts that may be recovered will add a new dimension to the Maritime History of Tongan culture. Other ‘cargo’ items may return significant funds to the Government and the local communities who own the wrecks. Up to 70% of any financial benefit will remain in Tonga for the people. Tourism may be lifted through the increased global profile of the Tonga Brand following media Interest in ‘wreck discoveries’ by Tonga Blue and the development a Maritime Heritage section in the Tongan Cultural centre and a ‘heritage’ dive trail.
There is a huge amount of work to be done.The directors of Tonga Blue have been working on this project since April 2010 through the expedition and are now commencing the first five years of a 10 year plan. Subject to final Government approval and with the support of HRH Crown Prince Tupouto’u‘Ulukalala, Tonga Blue will establish a seasonal ‘BLUE BASE’ on Nomuka Iki from 1st July 2013 as a centre of operations in support of the Nomuka community. Plans are also being made with the EUA community. Tonga Blue is currently working with other community groups, to assist them secure their wrecks from unnecessary disturbance and damage. Once that is achieved and an invitation for Tonga Blue to assist is received, an orderly work schedule can be organised to carry out effective and ‘appropriate’ surveys. The scope of work is large, with just one wreck of significance requiring a substantial logistic commitment of equipment and manpower. The wrecks have been untouched for hundreds of years, but the task ahead starts now. Tonga Blue stands ready, willing and able to help.
Much of the cultural history of Tongahas been passed down through the generations ‘verbally’, with nothing in writing. Many Tongans know of wrecks and some wonder who should be told or not. If you want to help you, could write down the history you know from your ancestors and if you know of a wreck, discuss your information with your community leaders. There is now a way to share that find and the significance of your information to bring benefit to your local community and all Tongans.