Diving the HMNZS Waikato

A dive adventure on the Waikato

by Lynn Taylor (PhD)

My first dive on the Waikato could aptly be described as an enchanting underwater journey of discovery and adventure! A journey through open doorways into long passageways and tunnels, under sturdy over-hangs; peering around corners to see what surprises await you in the next room. This metal maze with carefully positioned entry and exit holes make this probably one of the most versatile wrecks for diving in New Zealand. Sitting on sand in 30 metres of water, with five below decks (No.1-5) and two above deck levels (No.01-02), rising to eight metres from the surface, there really is something of interest for every diver.

There are hundreds of metres of well-lit and accessible tunnels and passageways to explore, each room revealing an array of dials and switches, bunks and sinks, drawers and cupboards. Each discovered image giving the diver a tiny glimpse of life aboard ship – you can’t help but let your imagination take over. You can easily find yourself sitting at the controls inside the bridge flicking the switches, or squeezing into the control chairs by the gun turrets. For those that want a more challenging dive, then perhaps a penetration dive (with proper training and the right equipment) exploring the deep dark passageways leading from the engine room is more your idea of an exciting dive into adventure.
The Waikato is even an interesting dive if you’re not really into wrecks at all! There is plenty to see just cruising around the outside of this enormous super structure. The whole ship is quickly becoming an artificial reef – a continually evolving ecosystem with more and more algae, weed and fish making a home on the wreck each day.
Already, the wreck is beginning her new life. There is a soft fur-like growth covering the pipes and wires, jewel anemones are strewn on the flat surfaces as if scattered from an open jewel-box, purple crabs have nestled in the creases and folds, little blennies and tiny baby leatherjackets have claimed their territory on the funnel, and a lone blue sweep fish can be seen checking out the real estate (as well as any invading divers). Life is moving in to town at a pretty fast rate of knots. Join me now on a tour around the parts of the ship I explored on a recent two-day trip. All dives were within the no-decompression limits of my dive computer, ascent rates were slow <12m/min with safety stops at five metres for 3 minutes.
Dive 1 (Max depth=30.2m, 36 mins):

The plan for this dive was to orient ourselves to the general layout of the ship, explore some of the easy access holes and get an idea of the areas we wanted to explore on subsequent dives. The water was quite murky but as soon as you reached the wreck the limited visibility didn’t matter. We first dropped down to the sand at the stern to view the starboard propeller shaft, encrusted with barnacles and crabs. My depth gauge read 30.2m as I scanned the area looking at the debris of cupboard doors, drawer fronts, shelves and even a ladder, scattered across the sand where she had come to rest. From there we came back up to the stern of No1 deck and entered the wide open helicopter hanger, shining our torch along the walls of electric boxes, wires and dials. At the back, to the port side, we were attracted to the glow of greenish light from the outside world and followed the glow through the torpedo body room. From there we could see shafts of light entering from several purpose made access holes and swam from opening to opening, past several cabins, always having at least one clear exit point in view. Towards mid-ship we crossed the 12.5m beam to an access area on the starboard side of the ship and found ourselves emerge near the twin 4.5in gun turrets. At this depth, around 14 to18 metres, there was plenty to explore as we slowly made our way back along the outside of the starboard side to our ascent line, taking a mental note of the external view of the bridge and the funnel structures, areas definitely worth an internal inspection later. Leaving the wreck for our safety stop my mind was working overtime, images of things I had seen, the quest for finding things I hadn’t yet seen. Before I knew it I was sitting at Schnappa Rock Café enjoying a fresh fruit smoothie and relaxing between dives.

Dive 2 (SI=2hr:54min, max depth 21.3m, 36 mins)

I could hardly wait. We knew where we wanted to go and the crew obliged by picking up the mooring line by the gun turrets. From the base of the rope we had a closer look at the crease in the deck caused when she hit the sand nose first before coming to settle. We then swam into the Chief Officers day room, a short swim along a corridor and up some stairs into the bridge. There were so many meters to read, switches to play with, communication systems to understand and details to become fascinated with that it would have been easy to miss the sheer awe of standing in an immersed bridge of a huge naval ship.

Exit from the bridge was easy, via a huge hole cut in the roof. It was back to Schnappa Rock for a beer in the garden and an entrée whilst the sun went down. The perfect end to a perfect days diving.

Dive 3: (Max depth=30.2m, 36 mins)

We decided to take a look at deck No2 via the hole on the face of the stern. The inside of the wreck was especially clear. After another quick look at the prop, we called in to the laundry and checked out the steam press, then onward down a passageway which runs almost the length of the starboard side of the ship, past the bathroom with numerous toilets, bunk rooms and the Senior Ratings dining hall, then up two flights of stairs into the bridge again. Having already explored that area we headed down the stairs again, this time down the port side, past a large cabin on the right and out onto the deck area again back to the ascent line.

Dive 4 (SI=3hr:3mins, max depth=25.3m, 37 mins)

Sadly the last dive of this trip. We entered via the helicopter hanger and went down a hole in the floors to deck no.2. Swimming down the port side, we explored the engineering workshop, wardroom, junior officer’s gunroom, around the gun bay, past the gunners store and more toilets, finally emerging out of a purpose made hole in the foredeck of the bow. We spent the final stages of our last dive taking a close look at the growths on the funnel and foremast structures, right up to about eight metres from the surface. As we headed for the rope and looked down, I knew I’d be back again soon. There was still more to explore on deck No.2 and I hadn’t even peeked at the deeper decks No.3 and No.4.

As I lay on my pillow that night, I drifted off into an underwater dream world with images of bright greenish blue light shining through port holes and doorways, and silhouetted divers with starburst torch-lights following behind me ….

On a calm day, the dive is suitable for a range of abilities. To swim around the outside you should be a confident and competent diver with good buoyancy control, and with additional deep dive training or experience if you intend to go below 18 metres. To penetrate the wreck you will need to have evidence of wreck diver training and certification and carry the right equipment. Entry into an overhead environment should not be taken lightly. Whilst it seems easy if everything goes smoothly, you need to have the appropriate skills and knowledge to respond safely in the unlikely event that an emergency situation arises. Appropriate training is easily accessible through the major training agencies and is well worth the investment.
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