By Monty Halls, Images Dan Burton

Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov 2

top: Mikhail Lermontov

above: Octopus’…

below: And whales!

Mikhail Lermontov whales

In a continuance of the theme of espionage and intrigue that seems to run through our New Zealand wrecks, the sinking of the Lermontov is wrapped in mystery.

The scenery at French Pass on the north coast of New Zealand’s South Island was so beautiful it made us want to burst into song but satisfied ourselves instead by standing in a wordless line gaping at the view before us. Mighty green hills plunged into blue fjords, absurdly fluffy sheep peered from dark crags, and impeccably white clouds slipped across a sapphire blue sky. The only sound to break the silence was a skylark in full lung-bursting song overhead, and the steady whirr of motordrives on expensive cameras.

We had been brought to this place by Terry Sage of Dive Tours New Zealand. A jocular Englishman, Terry has been in New Zealand for 12 years, much of which has been spent organising tours around the best dive spots in the country for groups of visiting Poms. Although we had the option of diving the wreck of the Lermontov from the nearby port of Picton, Terry had waxed lyrical about the beauties of French Pass, and after a three hour drive over twisting track with precipitous drops a mere slip of the steering wheel away, we had arrived.

We were staying at a charming lodge perched in the midst of a tiny hamlet clinging to the golden edge of the sea shore. Our skipper for the week was Danny, who looked after our diving needs whilst his wife Lynn produced an endless stream of local delicacies for our perpetually growling stomachs.

French Pass is so named due to the ridiculously narrow stretch of water through which the contents of not one but two ocean basins rushes as the tide ebbs and flows. Slack water lasts 12 minutes, and anyone unwise enough to be in the water after this is advised to have some rather large legs, lungs like leather bellows and fins the size of a ping pong table. Several years ago seven divers were caught in this maelstrom, and hurled down to 100 metres in an instant. Amazingly four of them survived, however three did not, with one of the bodies still not located to this day.

We were here to dive the wreck of the Mikhail Lermontov, about an hour’s steaming away from our beach. In a continuance of the theme of espionage and intrigue that seems to run through our New Zealand wrecks, the sinking of the Lermontov is wrapped in mystery. Tales of sabotage abound, as well as rumours of the sinking being a deliberate act by the Russians to provide a navigation marker for patrolling submarines. Such speculation is still circulating, prompting several books and unofficial investigations. We had only the facts – that on 16 February 1986 an experienced pilot steamed a luxury liner through a suicidally narrow gap at close to full speed. The resultant 12 metre gash in the hull was a mortal wound, and should have prompted frantic calls for assistance from the skipper. Instead, aside from one curt broadcast to Leningrad, the radios remained silent, even turning down offers of assistance from passing merchant vessels. Without the timely and heroic efforts of the locals who turned out in a flotilla of tiny boats to ferry passengers ashore, the loss of life could have been catastrophic. As it was only one crew member died, and even that loss was in the first moments of striking the reef.

The wreck of the Lermontov lies in the bay of Port Gore, on her starboard side in 37 metres of water. She is a huge vessel, just under 600 feet long and over 20,000 tonnes. Any similarity to the Coolidge ends there, as this is a very different style of diving. Whereas the Coolidge is a shore dive in crystal visibility, this is a distinctly gnarly diving experience. Visibility is limited – indeed on the day we dived the wreck Terry was raving about the five metre soup that covered the hull. The rest of us, ruined forever by an endless series of tropical wrecks, looked faintly stunned. This is also a fairly recent wreck – she has after all only been on the sea bed for 17 years – and the silty corridors and open spaces are still gently caving in, creating a whole series of elaborate means by which a diver can meet his unseemly end.

Steaming home from the wreck, the sun setting behind the amphitheatre of the hills towering above us, a laconic Kiwi drawl came over the radio. ‘Danny mate, perhaps you might like to show the fellas in your boat the killer whales in the bay.’

‘You chaps fancy that?’ Danny turned to ask, only to be faced by eight divers wearing complete kit and expressions of child-like excitement.

The next hour was simply unforgettable. Within 10 minutes we were idling towards a pod of six whales making their sedate way through the wide sweep of the sound opposite the lodge. Led by a majestic male with a crooked five foot dorsal fin, the group seemed to consist of a mixture of young whales and mature females. Stilling the engine to stop the boat in the path of the whales, we all held our breath as the group moved in our direction.

Danny bellowed to the assembled team that they should get ready to enter the water. It just so happened that I was standing at the stern at the time, fins clutched in one hand, camera in the other, ready to pounce. Alongside me was Crann, the grand old man of the team, resplendent in a sky blue wetsuit. Danny positioned the boat in the path of the whales once again, and cut the engine. Everything was perfect, with the gigantic fin of the male dipping beneath the surface 20 feet away about to pass under the boat. And do you know what? Suddenly I didn’t want to get in. Glancing across at Crann, he too looked faintly perturbed at the proximity of this master apex predator. The catcalls and abuse of the remainder of the team finally drove us from the platform, and the boat quickly drifted away from us leaving us treading murky water feet away from six hunting killer whales. It was at this time I developed a strategy, surreptitiously positioning Crann between me and the pod. This was based on the theory that although I was certain I couldn’t outswim them, I was fairly confident I could outswim him. Reassured, I began to enjoy myself.

We spent an hour of exhausting twisting and turning, finning and diving, as the team and whales danced rings around each other. Finally we dragged our weary bodies back onto the boat as the sun dipped beneath the green amphitheatre of the bay and the boat engine coughed into life. Behind us the whales rolled and turned, bathed in the remnants of the sun’s rays as they too turned for the open sea, two groups of mammals with new memories of a golden bay in New Zealand.

Of interest:

Death of a Cruise Ship

book, video and dvd on the Mikhail Lermontov – check them out in our

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