By Dave Moran, Images as credited.
The kelp swayed in the current like a Tahitian maiden seducing the admiring tourists. It was all rather hypnotic as schools of fish also danced to the vibrant current’s movements.
Then, as if out of nowhere, like a well-planned ambush a mass of jagged and distorted figures emerged as we descended deeper past the swaying dancers. The structure was in some weird way beckoning me to come closer. Closer – closer – my mind snapped back to reality. Oh yes, that’s why I was here!
I was with commercial diver Clay Stoutenburg who was escorting me to view the scattered, crumpled bodily remains of the Rena! I was on an educational trip facilitated by the Rena project team on behalf of the owners to learn more about the state of Astrolabe Reef with the wreck remains on it.
When the container ship MV Rena slammed into Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty New Zealand, in the early hours of 5 October 2011, it started a chain of events that have continued to the present time.
Diving and fishing on the Astrolabe immediately stopped as an exclusion zone was placed around the reef to allow salvage experts to assess the wreck site. This led to four-and-a-half years of salvage operations to remove the ship’s hull and her remaining cargo.
Early this year there was much speculation as to when the exclusion zone would be lifted. Divers were dreaming of the day when they could explore what remained of the 37,230-tonne ship. At 8am on the 5th of April, the exclusion zone was lifted by the Bay of Plenty Harbour Master and Astrolabe Reef is again open to recreational diving and fishing. Commercial vessels under 500 tonnes are also able to commence fishing and cray potting the Reef.
My trip to Astrolabe Reef in March 2016 was prior to the exclusion zone being lifted. It was a great opportunity to see and appreciate what the salvage team had achieved and also how Mother Nature had transformed the mangled steel plates of the remaining hull sections into a landscape of marine vegetation that concealed a labyrinth of habitats for fish, crays and invertebrates, allowing them to flourish protected from the marauding pelagic schools looking for an easy dinner! The wreck has, as if by magic, naturally become part of the Reef’s marine ecosystem, just as wrecks worldwide have, including the hundreds around our coastline.
Interestingly, the Rena occupies only about 2% of the Reef.
Diving at Astrolabe Reef
Over half a billion dollars has been spent salvaging and cleaning up the wreck site plus numerous meetings held and studies done to help formulate systems and plans to make diving on the Reef and the wreck as safe as possible.
The outcome of these discussions has resulted in the development of the Astrolabe Reef Access Plan. Various sections of the remaining wreckage have been identified by four large mooring buoys marking three dive sites.
Astrolabe Reef has always been regarded as an advanced dive site, therefore divers wanting to inspect the wreck are encouraged to dive Sites 1 and 2 – marked by the orange buoys. These two dive trails around the remaining sections of bow structure are already proving very popular with recreational divers and allow visitors to experience both the wreck and the Reef’s vibrant living marine ecosystem.
Dive Site 1: A rectangular trail with a maximum depth of 18 metres. It is in an area subject to less surge as it is in a sheltered section of the reef. Divers can explore the separated bow pieces, which includes the bow thruster, by descending down the buoy’s shotline.
Dive Site 2: The trail is in the shape of a clover leaf with a maximum depth of 14 metres. Due to its location near the peak of the reef, it is in an area subject to surge that divers should be aware of. It is set in to three loops, with each beginning and ending at the surface buoy’s shotline. Divers are encouraged to follow the order of the trails; 2A: The Wall, which is the deepest section of the trail, then 2B: Double Bottom and finally 2C: Bow Structure. Please note that you may not be able to complete all three trails in one dive.
Two yellow buoys mark the wreck’s stern section, where diving is not recommended unless you are experienced and trained to dive these depths, as you will most likely be required to do decompression stops to complete a safe dive. The most northern buoy marks a hull section starting at 26 metres. It mainly consists of the remains of empty cargo bays that straddle the reef down to a depth of 36 metres. At this depth the second yellow buoy is attached.
The stern continues further down the reef face to where the reef meets the seabed at around 70 metres, which is obviously way off-limits for safe recreational air diving.
During the opening months when weather conditions allow, and again in the second summer period of 2016/17, the Maketu Coastguard’s vessel Reef Watch will be based at the reef in their in their role of onsite monitor. The purpose of the role is to provide information about accessing the site, monitor activities and assist visitors as needed. This monitoring is being funded as part of the conditions of the resource consent that was granted.
To assist the Maketu Coastguard in this role and to help in avoiding overcrowding on the reef, it is recommended you contact Maketu Coastguard’s Reef Watch either on 027 431 7113 or channel 81 prior to setting out to the Reef. By doing this you can adjust your diving plans for the day so that you hopefully dive the site when there is less boating activity.
Tips for Accessing Astrolabe Reef
Having dived the Reef a number times before the Rena, I am aware of the currents that swirl around the Reef and the constant movement of runabouts.
At the moment, the Reef is being fished hard after its virtual Marine Reserve status was lifted, with reports of up to 20 boats over the site on a good day. In recent weeks this initial interest seems to have subsided.
A voluntary dive zone extends 200 metres around the buoys. Boats are encouraged not to anchor or fish in this area or exceed five knots. This also applies to boats displaying a diving flag (Flag A). With these facts and the current in mind, all divers should plan their dive carefully so that they return to the surface up one of the buoy shotlines and not just pop up all over the place like mushrooms in a farmer’s field! The day I dived the wreck a strong current was running and I’m sure if I did not use a buoy’s shotline to surface I would have been a few hundred metres away from the buoy after doing a safety stop. Boat movements that far away from the buoys is anyone’s guess!
All divers are seriously advised to carry a whistle, safety sausage, surface marker buoy (SMB) or other communication device such as a Nautilus Lifeline diver’s VHF radio. If visibility is bad and you’re not familiar with the wreck I strongly suggest you clip a flashing strobe light near the bottom of the buoy’s shotline. This is particularly relevant for Dive Site 1 and 2 as they are mainly full-circuit trail dives. If diving the stern section (yellow buoys) I would also recommend you consider clipping on a strobe if you intend to use the same shotline for surfacing, as it is paramount that you do a controlled ascent from these depths. There is no safer way than up a shotline!
Astrolabe Reef offers an excellent dive with some vibrant fish life to observe. How long this density of fish life and crays remain is anyone guess! It’s not every dive that you have the opportunity to see what’s left of a wreck that is now part of New Zealand’s maritime history.
Plan your dive, make sure those remaining on your support vessel are aware of your planned dive and expected surfacing time. If surfacing away from the buoys listen out for moving boats and if unsure and you are carrying a SMB – pop it.
Enjoy diving what is now one of New Zealand’s iconic dives – enjoy!
To get the maximum experience from your visit to Astrolabe Reef, I highly recommend you check out: www.astrolabereef.co.nz
This site has heaps of information about diving and boating on this very exposed reef and how to ensure all visitors, divers and fishermen have an enjoyable experience.