HMNZS Canterbury up for grabs

It’s our last chance for a frigate! Let the scramble begin!

Text and images by Roger Grace

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland

And begin it has. At least 10 groups have shown an interest in acquiring the last of the New Zealand Navy’s Leander class frigates, HMNZS Canterbury, for a range of purposes, including cutting her up for scrap, a floating restaurant, a museum, an international sale, or sinking her as an artificial reef for a tourist attraction.

Following the successful sinking of the sister ship HMNZS Waikato off the Tutukaka coast on 25 November 2000, the next frigate to become available was the Wellington. Appropriately this vessel went to Wellington, where she is now docked near Te Papa Museum and open to the public during the weekends and for various functions. There is a wealth of information on their website

www.divewreck.co.nz

. You can even buy bits of the ship on TradeMe, and new stuff is becoming available all the time as they dismantle parts of the ship to raise funds for preparing the vessel for sinking off the Wellington south coast in November.

But what should happen to the Canterbury? It would be a real shame if it was sold for scrap, for a mere $600,000 or so. Perhaps this may give the Government a quick and tidy sale, but this is neither appropriate nor a good return on a 35 year investment by the people of New Zealand. After all, we, the tax payers, bought the vessel in the first place, and paid for its maintenance for three decades. The ship has cost us a lot, but its role in defence, patrols, naval training and international cooperative operations was money well spent. The ship has outlived its useful life as a working naval vessel, but there is still plenty of ‘life’ in the old girl yet. Now it is time to get a different sort of return on our investment.

Of all the organisations interested in the ship probably Tutukaka Coast Promotions are furthest down the track as far as preparations and experience are concerned. They already have the wrecks of the Tui and the Waikato in place. They are promoting the aggregation of ships as New Zealand’s naval graveyard and are keen to sink the Canterbury alongside the Waikato. With the sinking of two ships under their belt, proceedings should be well-oiled for a third.

Should the ship go to Canterbury province? Well, it might work as a restaurant or museum, but is not likely to be a ‘goer’ as a diving wreck. Underwater visibility is usually so bad in Canterbury that it would not normally be a safe or enjoyable dive. Mad keen wreck diving enthusiasts would be happy to grovel around in the murk, but it would not attract enough tourists to make the exercise worthwhile.

Selling the ship overseas, or as scrap, would be a one-off sale and a gross squandering of a valuable resource. The ship is worth far more as a long-term tourist attraction in the right place, and would bring in many millions of dollars to the New Zealand economy over a long time period – in excess of 50 years. The ship must stay in New Zealand and be used in a virtually intact form.

So what seems a logical choice? Some would argue that Northland already has several good wreck dives. The ex-Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior at the Cavalli Islands is a very popular dive, with a lot of associated history. The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French Government-sponsored terrorists in Auckland Harbour in 1985 was an outrage New Zealanders will never forget. The wreck is regularly dived by locals and overseas tourists, mainly cruising up from Paihia in the Bay of Islands. After 18 years on the bottom it is covered with spectacular marine life and is a good example of what more recently-sunk diving wrecks will become (see Dive New Zealand magazine, issue 88).

Tutukaka already has the navy ships Tui and Waikato, and together with the world-renowned Poor Knights Marine Reserve the area is flush with excellent diving opportunities. The local economy has benefited greatly from all these attractions. On a good day up to 150 dives per day are carried out on the two wrecks, boosting the local economy and raising the profile of New Zealand diving to numerous overseas visitors.

There is a group wanting to sink the ship off Tairua on the Coromandel east coast (see

www.coromandeldivewreck.co.nz

). This is where the Rainbow Warrior was planned to go after the bombing, but local iwi could not agree so the ship went to Northland. Currently a full projects committee has been established to present their case to the government.

Gisborne is keen to scuttle the ship in their area. This seems a long way away to attract many visitors, and from a diving point of view visibility is normally quite poor.

What has Auckland got? Two large wrecks at Great Barrier Island, substantially demolished by salvors many years ago, and really a long way away. The long-liner Minato Maru which in 1983 sank in 30 metres of water north of the Noises Islands is close to Auckland, but the visibility is usually so poor not many divers go there. And a few small shoreline wrecks at Okoromai and Moturekareka north of Auckland. But nothing that is accessible, well placed, still looking like a ship, and useful as a tourist attraction.

The potential long-term benefit to the nation is probably greatest if the Canterbury is sunk as a tourist attraction somewhere reasonably close to Auckland. For the taxpayers this would provide ‘more bang for our buck’ than any other choice for this vessel.

An enthusiastic group is promoting the concept of sinking the Canterbury in nearly 30 metres of water in Omaha Bay, about an hours drive north of Auckland (see www. divecanterbury.co.nz). Underwater visibility is frequently around 10 metres and sometimes 15 or 20. Diving is very popular as it is a short trip from Auckland City, minimizing fuel use.

The wave climate is certainly less boisterous than the Tutukaka coast or Wellington south coast. Currents are gentle enough for safe diving, but sufficient to maintain and promote exciting marine life. There would be negligible negative environmental effects.

The intention is to make the ship a no-take zone from the day it goes down. This would improve diver safety by avoiding invisible nylon fishing line and hooks on the vessel, but more importantly it would allow the marine life on the wreck to reach its spectacular full potential – something that has not happened on other wrecks because of even a small amount of fishing pressure and removal of crayfish as they arrive.

The potential benefits to diving and tourism nationwide are staggering. The wreck could become an important link on a diving wreck trail of New Zealand, from the Rainbow Warrior, Tui and Waikato, the Niagara (for crazy tech divers), the Canterbury at Omaha, the Taioma off Tauranga, the Wellington at Wellington, the Mikhail Lermontov in the Marlborough Sounds, and several smaller South Island wrecks.

Not only divers would benefit, but for non-divers there is the prospect of viewing the wreck in real time on TV screens while a diver swims around with an underwater cable video camera. All the businesses associated with tourism, such as motels, restaurants, travel businesses, and a host of service providers would gain a massive and long-lasting boost.

If the vessel goes to Omaha it is planned to dock the ship near downtown Auckland for six months during preparations for sinking, so all Aucklanders and divers will have a chance to get to know the vessel before she is towed to Omaha Bay.

Lobbying for the vessel is likely to be quite competitive. The ultimate choice for disposal is up to the Government. What criteria they will use for the decision is hard to guess. Will they decide to get the best long-term economic return on the ship for all taxpayers? Or try to boost the economy of a smaller region even though the site may not be ideal? Or go for the easy option of a quick sale for scrap?

Time will tell, but the Navy wants it gone by the end of the year so a decision will have to be made soon.