The Tui Turns Two

The Tui Turns Two

By Glenn Edney

In 20 February 1999 HMNZS Tui slipped beneath the powerful Pacific swell two miles north from Tutukaka. This proud little ship, a distinguished and long serving member of the New Zealand Navy fleet, was now destined to perform a very different service, that of an artificial reef and diving attraction. The Tui started life in the United States Navy as the Charles H. Davis and was one of nine Conrad class oceanographic research ships commissioned between 1962 and 1969. In 1970 she was loaned to the New Zealand Navy where she had 28 years of active service before being decommissioned in 1998.

At that time the newly formed Tutukaka Coast Promotions Society were looking for a ship to scuttle off the Tutukaka coast as a diving attraction. After much negotiation and several false starts the ship was eventually bought from the US navy for one American dollar. Many months of lobbying and fundraising were followed by an intense three months of hard work to clean and strip the ship ready for sinking. Finally she was ready for the big day. Hundreds of people turned out to watch the sinking including the US ambassador, local and national politicians as well as numerous seamen who had served on the Tui over the years.

The original plan was for the ship to sink upright and rest in a sandy patch between low lying reefs at a depth of 32 metres. Unfortunately the strong easterly swells on the day moved the ship so that she eventually came to rest right on the edge of the reef. This caused her to roll onto her port side and lie beam on to the prevailing easterly swells, rather than sitting with her bow pointing towards the distant Poor Knights Islands. While this decreased the access to the inside of the ship it did have the effect of making her seem more like a real shipwreck.

So, what changes have been wrought on the sturdy little ship by two years under the Pacific swell? Gone now are the harsh, man-made lines and cold, hard steel, replaced instead by the soft and fluid outlines of an ever increasing and diverse living community. From the vertical walls of the hull and decks to the swim throughs, overhangs and caverns created by the super structure and internal areas, marine life is thriving in every part of this new environment. Fish life teems around the wreck; to date over 50 species have been identified. Schools of demoiselles, sweep and blue maomao swarm above the ship, while near the stern a school of 30 golden snapper have taken up residence. Scores of leather jackets continuously graze the hull, often joined by red moki and porae. Inside the wreck, schools of bigeyes and slender roughy lurk in the shadows waiting for nightfall and their chance to feast on the plankton soup flowing over the wreck.

Encrusting life covers every surface with many of the rails becoming festooned with colourful jewel anemones while adult ecklonia kelp plants are becoming well established.

Two years of El Nino and La Nina weather patterns have taken their toll on the Tui. Violent storms in July 2000 produced sustained wind gusts of 70 knots and 12 metre swells (recorded at the Mokihinau islands by scientists from the Leigh marine laboratory). During this month long onslaught the Tui was moulded further into the reef and the 25 tonne funnel was ripped from the deck and hurled 15 metres from the ship. If anything, this damage has actually enhanced the Tui as a dive, making it seem even more like a true shipwreck. The funnel now makes an excellent swim through and the engine room is now very open allowing easy access with several exits.

The next two years will no doubt see many more changes as the ocean claims the Tui as its own.

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