NIAGARA 2003

NIAGARA 2003

text and pictures by Keith Gordon

Titanic of the Pacific, the RMS Niagara was first visited by free-swimming divers, Dave Apperley and Tim Cashman in 1999. Since then Dave and Tim have each carried out a further four dives on the veteran Pacific liner which lies in a depth of 121 metres off New Zealand’s Northland’s east coast. Recently they planned a further expedition to explore the wreck bringing with them a team of expert deep-water wreck divers. The team planned to carry out an extensive survey of the wreck and perhaps, even to discover the remaining gold ingots left from the two early salvage ventures. They also hoped to recover some artefacts from the wreck for the Dive Museum being established at Tutukaka.

With this goal, Sydney based Dave (the expedition coordinator) set about the daunting task of organizing the logistics for the expedition – Niagara 2003.

Arriving early March, Dave set about assembling the team’s equipment. This included supplies of helium and oxygen gases, a large quantity of soda lime for the closed circuit rebreather (CCR) systems and an assembly of the dive lines, buoys etc which are required by the divers for their long decompression schedules.

With knowledge of the wreck from my Remote Control Vehicle (ROV) explorations and participation in earlier Niagara explorations, I joined the expedition and assisted Dave. As I am the holder of a salvage agreement with the British Government the owners of the wreck, I arranged the necessary clearances and permits required to dive the wreck.

The dive team comprised:

Australian cave divers Craig Challan and Karl Hall arrived from Perth with their Prism CCR systems and two deep rated scooters to assist their explorations. They have made extensive discoveries in the Nullarbor cave system.

The four divers from the UK included Tim Cashman, who was eager to renew his acquaintance with the wreck.

Keiran Hulme who bought his Inspiration CCR which is similar to Tim and Dave’s units. Keiran and Tim had dived the Egypt, the ship that had been the focus of treasure salvage back in the early 1930s. Lying in a similar depth to the Niagara, the salvage methods used by the Italians was also used in 1941 by Captain Williams and his team to salvage 555 gold ingots from the Niagara.

Christina Campbell and Chris Hutchison are the team leaders of the UK based Starfish Enterprise team, considered one of the world’s most experienced deep wreck exploration teams. They brought with them new Megladon CCR systems.

With the planned programme over the two-week period, four of the dive team had elected to use 10/90 heliox as their main gas rather than trimix to eliminate nitrogen from their gas mix. The other three divers had chosen 8/62 trimix.

Emergency staging decompression gas supplies were set up on the drop lines. Each diver had their own staging line of EANx 32 at 50m, EANx 50/50 at 21m and oxygen at 6m. The divers also carried on-board open circuit (OC) bailout gas in the event of a CCR failure. An example of the three gases they carried was 8/62 trimix for deep bailout, air for shallower depths and oxygen.

Day one was fine and clear and following some searching by our skipper Gareth Jones aboard the Tutukaka based Pacific Hideaway, the wreck was finally located. With the day half gone, the dive line was hooked into the wreck however with the haste to get divers into the water problems occurred. Tim and Keiran were the first divers down and on reaching the seabed at 120 metres were confronted by sediment and broken shells, no wreck! A furrow in the seabed pointed in the direction from whence the grapnel had come. Tim clipped his reel line to the dive line and the two divers set off swimming across the bottom in search of the wreck that lay obscured in the darkness. After 15 minutes it was clear the tidal current had carried the grapnel some distance from the wreck and the dive was aborted.

To ensure we would not have problems re-locating the wreck (we were suspicious that the US was playing around with the GPS satellites during the Iraq war) we set a heavy mooring onto the wreck and also another dive line before returning to Tutukaka.

Then the weather Gods dealt their cards. A series of lows and a tropical cyclone to the north tied us up in port for the next week.

Day 9, the seas had abated and the forecast predicted dropping winds so back to the wreck site. The tempest over the past week had carried away the buoys we had left, so once more a dive line was hooked into the wreck.

Conditions were marginal however, the forecast was for dropping winds and improved weather. Karl and Craig headed for the bottom riding their scooters only to find – mud bottom and no wreck. The two divers rode their scooters around the bottom in the storm-reduced five metre visibility before giving up the search.

Day 10 – we arrived back on the wreck site. The weather had improved and we were armed with a heavy grapnel and chain.

Dave and Tim dived to ensure the dive line was secure; the others would follow when their signal buoy hit the surface. Thick sediment greeted Tim at the bottom. Above, at around 100m, Dave could see Tim’s torch below. He knew the wreck must be close. Tying off his line to the dive line he swam ahead three metres and came upon a vertical flat steel wall covered in marine growth. Tim videoed Dave dragging the dive line across the seabed to seek a tie in point on the hull. They swam 15m up the wall of the ship’s bottom to the bilge keel (the Niagara is lying on her port side at an angle of around 80 degrees) in search of a tie-in point. After a struggle Dave finally managed to tie in the 100m of dive line onto the wreck, however his efforts would later have consequences.

On the surface we waited for the signal from below, the delay looked ominous and we couldn’t believe that once again there were problems with placing the dive line onto the wreck. Finally the signal buoy broke the surface and Chris, Christina and Keiran descended to the wreck.

Down on the wreck Dave and Tim had spent 20 minutes of their dive time tying in the dive line and were finally free to explore. They swam to deck level and dropped down into the slot formed by the promenade deck. Square brass-framed windows reflected their dive lights but the interior secrets they masked remained hidden from view. Portholes lay loose on ledges where they had fallen from the decaying superstructure. Exercising care so as not to stir the sediment, the divers carefully swam forward brushing past growths of black coral. Corridors leading off the walkway descended into the depths providing avenues that Dave noted for possible future penetration dives.

The second team followed a similar route with Chris documenting the dive on video. Below in the confines of the exposed decks, rubble and wreckage lay where it had fallen, no doubt hiding some interesting artefacts. However time was limited and this was the first dive and no time for collecting artefacts. The divers wanted to absorb as much of the wreck as possible in the limited bottom time of 25 minutes, the goodies would have to wait for another day.

Dave was first to surface after some four hours in the water. Back on board a pain developed in his right shoulder giving him some concern. He went onto oxygen, which provided some relief.

Keiran surfaced excited by the wreck below. His first impression was of the rows of portholes that stretched into the distance below him. A wreckie’s dream.

Chris and Christina remained below extending their decompression time; there was a discrepancy between the dive computers they carried. Finally after over five hours they surfaced. Christina, the first woman to dive the Niagara, staggered aboard showing signs of her long ordeal underwater. All divers were excited and awed by the Niagara; Chris said the wreck far exceeded the Lusitania and other famous wrecks he had dived.

Dave had come off the oxygen as the pain in his shoulder had diminished and he joined in the lively post dive discussions. However on our return to Tutukaka he felt the pain returning and dived on oxygen below the marina in an effort to cure the problem. Later in the night with the pain increasing Dave was evacuated by helicopter to Auckland’s Devonport Naval Base chamber. He underwent five hours of treatment for a stage one bend. The effort expended on dragging the down line to the wreck and tying in had added stress to his dive for which he had not calculated on his decompression schedule. He was to miss the final day’s dive on the wreck.

On the last day the weather remained docile. It was Karl and Craig’s last chance to see the wreck and they dived first with their scooters. With Dave still at Devonport, Tim took the role of surface support and as Keiran was diving on tables he had to forego the dive, as he would have been restricted on repetitive tables. With the dive line still tied into the wreck Christina and Chris did not need to wait for a signal from below. With the twin tanks of their CCR units and three bailout tanks, they required assistance to enter the water. The Megladon CCR units provided them with over six hours endurance and the OC systems strapped to their sides were backup in the unlikely event of a CCR failure. An innovative head up light display flashed a sequence signalling the CCR was functioning correctly.

With the aid of their scooters Craig and Karl explored the area around the starboard wing propeller supported on its strut in midwater. They then headed forward along the hull. They peered into the number two hold area through the opening blasted by the German mine that sank the ship and then scootered around the bow which was damaged from the early salvage operations. Returning to the stern area they had made history by being the first divers to circumnavigate the wreck. In one dive they covered more ground than all the previous explorations, unfortunately they did not have a camera with them.

Christina and Chris restricted to using muscle power, confined their exploration to the deck area forward of the stern. Again Chris obtained some fine video that also highlighted the silence of CCR diving. The camera recorded the clear sounds of the divers communicating and the silence of the dive, which attracted myriads of fish to the divers.

Although the weather had disrupted the dive programme, much was achieved on the two days the wreck was dived. The video documentation adds further to the record of the wreck and when compared with ROV video I took in 1998, it reveals the deterioration that has occurred in that time.

Since 1999 when Tim and Dave first dived the Niagara, nine divers have carried out 23 dives on the wreck. No doubt more will follow.

‘Niagara 2003’ acknowledges and thanks the following sponsors for their support:

BOC Gases, Hot n Dry Drysuits, Dive Rite Australasia and TDI Australia and New Zealand.




>

text and pictures by Keith Gordon

Titanic of the Pacific, the RMS Niagara was first visited by free-swimming divers, Dave Apperley and Tim Cashman in 1999. Since then Dave and Tim have each carried out a further four dives on the veteran Pacific liner which lies in a depth of 121 metres off New Zealand’s Northland’s east coast. Recently they planned a further expedition to explore the wreck bringing with them a team of expert deep-water wreck divers. The team planned to carry out an extensive survey of the wreck and perhaps, even to discover the remaining gold ingots left from the two early salvage ventures. They also hoped to recover some artefacts from the wreck for the Dive Museum being established at Tutukaka.

With this goal, Sydney based Dave (the expedition coordinator) set about the daunting task of organizing the logistics for the expedition – Niagara 2003.

Arriving early March, Dave set about assembling the team’s equipment. This included supplies of helium and oxygen gases, a large quantity of soda lime for the closed circuit rebreather (CCR) systems and an assembly of the dive lines, buoys etc which are required by the divers for their long decompression schedules.

With knowledge of the wreck from my Remote Control Vehicle (ROV) explorations and participation in earlier Niagara explorations, I joined the expedition and assisted Dave. As I am the holder of a salvage agreement with the British Government the owners of the wreck, I arranged the necessary clearances and permits required to dive the wreck.

The dive team comprised:

Australian cave divers Craig Challan and Karl Hall arrived from Perth with their Prism CCR systems and two deep rated scooters to assist their explorations. They have made extensive discoveries in the Nullarbor cave system.

The four divers from the UK included Tim Cashman, who was eager to renew his acquaintance with the wreck.

Keiran Hulme who bought his Inspiration CCR which is similar to Tim and Dave’s units. Keiran and Tim had dived the Egypt, the ship that had been the focus of treasure salvage back in the early 1930s. Lying in a similar depth to the Niagara, the salvage methods used by the Italians was also used in 1941 by Captain Williams and his team to salvage 555 gold ingots from the Niagara.

Christina Campbell and Chris Hutchison are the team leaders of the UK based Starfish Enterprise team, considered one of the world’s most experienced deep wreck exploration teams. They brought with them new Megladon CCR systems.

With the planned programme over the two-week period, four of the dive team had elected to use 10/90 heliox as their main gas rather than trimix to eliminate nitrogen from their gas mix. The other three divers had chosen 8/62 trimix.

Emergency staging decompression gas supplies were set up on the drop lines. Each diver had their own staging line of EANx 32 at 50m, EANx 50/50 at 21m and oxygen at 6m. The divers also carried on-board open circuit (OC) bailout gas in the event of a CCR failure. An example of the three gases they carried was 8/62 trimix for deep bailout, air for shallower depths and oxygen.

Day one was fine and clear and following some searching by our skipper Gareth Jones aboard the Tutukaka based Pacific Hideaway, the wreck was finally located. With the day half gone, the dive line was hooked into the wreck however with the haste to get divers into the water problems occurred. Tim and Keiran were the first divers down and on reaching the seabed at 120 metres were confronted by sediment and broken shells, no wreck! A furrow in the seabed pointed in the direction from whence the grapnel had come. Tim clipped his reel line to the dive line and the two divers set off swimming across the bottom in search of the wreck that lay obscured in the darkness. After 15 minutes it was clear the tidal current had carried the grapnel some distance from the wreck and the dive was aborted.

To ensure we would not have problems re-locating the wreck (we were suspicious that the US was playing around with the GPS satellites during the Iraq war) we set a heavy mooring onto the wreck and also another dive line before returning to Tutukaka.

Then the weather Gods dealt their cards. A series of lows and a tropical cyclone to the north tied us up in port for the next week.

Day 9, the seas had abated and the forecast predicted dropping winds so back to the wreck site. The tempest over the past week had carried away the buoys we had left, so once more a dive line was hooked into the wreck.

Conditions were marginal however, the forecast was for dropping winds and improved weather. Karl and Craig headed for the bottom riding their scooters only to find – mud bottom and no wreck. The two divers rode their scooters around the bottom in the storm-reduced five metre visibility before giving up the search.

Day 10 – we arrived back on the wreck site. The weather had improved and we were armed with a heavy grapnel and chain.

Dave and Tim dived to ensure the dive line was secure; the others would follow when their signal buoy hit the surface. Thick sediment greeted Tim at the bottom. Above, at around 100m, Dave could see Tim’s torch below. He knew the wreck must be close. Tying off his line to the dive line he swam ahead three metres and came upon a vertical flat steel wall covered in marine growth. Tim videoed Dave dragging the dive line across the seabed to seek a tie in point on the hull. They swam 15m up the wall of the ship’s bottom to the bilge keel (the Niagara is lying on her port side at an angle of around 80 degrees) in search of a tie-in point. After a struggle Dave finally managed to tie in the 100m of dive line onto the wreck, however his efforts would later have consequences.

On the surface we waited for the signal from below, the delay looked ominous and we couldn’t believe that once again there were problems with placing the dive line onto the wreck. Finally the signal buoy broke the surface and Chris, Christina and Keiran descended to the wreck.

Down on the wreck Dave and Tim had spent 20 minutes of their dive time tying in the dive line and were finally free to explore. They swam to deck level and dropped down into the slot formed by the promenade deck. Square brass-framed windows reflected their dive lights but the interior secrets they masked remained hidden from view. Portholes lay loose on ledges where they had fallen from the decaying superstructure. Exercising care so as not to stir the sediment, the divers carefully swam forward brushing past growths of black coral. Corridors leading off the walkway descended into the depths providing avenues that Dave noted for possible future penetration dives.

The second team followed a similar route with Chris documenting the dive on video. Below in the confines of the exposed decks, rubble and wreckage lay where it had fallen, no doubt hiding some interesting artefacts. However time was limited and this was the first dive and no time for collecting artefacts. The divers wanted to absorb as much of the wreck as possible in the limited bottom time of 25 minutes, the goodies would have to wait for another day.

Dave was first to surface after some four hours in the water. Back on board a pain developed in his right shoulder giving him some concern. He went onto oxygen, which provided some relief.

Keiran surfaced excited by the wreck below. His first impression was of the rows of portholes that stretched into the distance below him. A wreckie’s dream.

Chris and Christina remained below extending their decompression time; there was a discrepancy between the dive computers they carried. Finally after over five hours they surfaced. Christina, the first woman to dive the Niagara, staggered aboard showing signs of her long ordeal underwater. All divers were excited and awed by the Niagara; Chris said the wreck far exceeded the Lusitania and other famous wrecks he had dived.

Dave had come off the oxygen as the pain in his shoulder had diminished and he joined in the lively post dive discussions. However on our return to Tutukaka he felt the pain returning and dived on oxygen below the marina in an effort to cure the problem. Later in the night with the pain increasing Dave was evacuated by helicopter to Auckland’s Devonport Naval Base chamber. He underwent five hours of treatment for a stage one bend. The effort expended on dragging the down line to the wreck and tying in had added stress to his dive for which he had not calculated on his decompression schedule. He was to miss the final day’s dive on the wreck.

On the last day the weather remained docile. It was Karl and Craig’s last chance to see the wreck and they dived first with their scooters. With Dave still at Devonport, Tim took the role of surface support and as Keiran was diving on tables he had to forego the dive, as he would have been restricted on repetitive tables. With the dive line still tied into the wreck Christina and Chris did not need to wait for a signal from below. With the twin tanks of their CCR units and three bailout tanks, they required assistance to enter the water. The Megladon CCR units provided them with over six hours endurance and the OC systems strapped to their sides were backup in the unlikely event of a CCR failure. An innovative head up light display flashed a sequence signalling the CCR was functioning correctly.

With the aid of their scooters Craig and Karl explored the area around the starboard wing propeller supported on its strut in midwater. They then headed forward along the hull. They peered into the number two hold area through the opening blasted by the German mine that sank the ship and then scootered around the bow which was damaged from the early salvage operations. Returning to the stern area they had made history by being the first divers to circumnavigate the wreck. In one dive they covered more ground than all the previous explorations, unfortunately they did not have a camera with them.

Christina and Chris restricted to using muscle power, confined their exploration to the deck area forward of the stern. Again Chris obtained some fine video that also highlighted the silence of CCR diving. The camera recorded the clear sounds of the divers communicating and the silence of the dive, which attracted myriads of fish to the divers.

Although the weather had disrupted the dive programme, much was achieved on the two days the wreck was dived. The video documentation adds further to the record of the wreck and when compared with ROV video I took in 1998, it reveals the deterioration that has occurred in that time.

Since 1999 when Tim and Dave first dived the Niagara, nine divers have carried out 23 dives on the wreck. No doubt more will follow.

‘Niagara 2003’ acknowledges and thanks the following sponsors for their support:

BOC Gases, Hot n Dry Drysuits, Dive Rite Australasia and TDI Australia and New Zealand.




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