Diving the Mikhail Lermontov (New Zealand)

By Pete Mesley

All adventures begin with drama and this was no different. While Wellington is well known for a lot of things this weekend it was famous for five metre swells and 40 knot winds.

All the ferries were cancelled and we were tied to the hard. Such were the small mountains one has to scale to get out to the infamous jewel of the Marlborough Sounds – the Mikhail Lermontov.

Our charter for the weekend – Sweet Georgia – was nothing less than pure luxury. Having dived from many different dive boats over the years this certainly took my breath away. Not only was it one of the best platforms I have dived off but also the most comfortable to live on.

The adventures of Secret Squirrel started with a reorientation to the wreck and funnily enough everything was where I remembered it. The viz wasn’t that good but once inside the wreck it was like old times. The adventure was to progress further into the wreck and learn more about this ‘Rusty Rusky’. The viz was becoming progressively worse and with the overcast day ambient light was at a minimum.

Starboard Promenade Deck

The dive started in the pool area – a familiar place. My dive buddy Gary and I descended past Neptune’s Bar towards the starboard doorway. We found the double doors caked in a foot of silt so entry into the prom deck was a tricky exercise.

Using a rebreather has huge advantages and not dislodging the silt on the ceiling was one of them! I squeezed through the doorway and tied off. I have never experienced darkness like this before. Three head-mounted torches and the Greenforce HID light lit the way. Armed with a reel in one hand and the video camera in the other I made my way down the corridor. My eyes focused on an object in the silt. It was a hand! A doll’s hand. Then I looked around and shone my light directly into the faces of small people … more dolls. They were evil looking things much like ‘Chukky’ in the horror movies. No wonder the Russian kids had issues – it stemmed from childhood. Here was a store room with loads of little bodies suspended all round the room.

Moving on, I came to the end of the deck and above my head was a doorway which led into the lobby. Immediately to my left was the barber shop. A rectangular glass door with etched patterns and a carved handle prevented entry. The hinges were at the highest point meaning that the weight of the door was pulling directly on them. Not a good idea to try and open and squeeze through! I backtracked and headed to the entry point where Gary was waiting for me. This was a different penetration technique used. Normally two people enter a wreck and reel off. The front person will let the line out and the second person will come shortly behind. Personally in these situations when I enter an unfamiliar area I communicate to my buddy that I will spend no more than a certain amount of time in the area. He will then wait at the opening giving light while I reel off inside alone. This might seem reckless and unsafe to some. Far from it. When diving in such dangerous environments silt-outs are the biggest danger. Even the most experienced diver kicks up some sort of silt and if there are two of you there is double the amount. Also if you need to hightail it out of there you only have to worry about yourself. I have been in silt-out situations with people in the middle of a wreck and it has not been pretty. The time agreed upon must be strictly adhered to. If this time expires then the second diver will come in along the line to see if anything is wrong. These techniques were adopted on the trip.

Shopping Arcade

This was a great dive and coming into the main lobby was really neat. We entered the ship around amidships, sneaking down and around a set of stairs leading to the winter garden. Right the way down to the bottom of the lobby, passing a staircase leading down into the Leningrad restaurant and for the more lazy passengers – a lift across from the stairwell. Here once again the blackness engulfed us. The same glass etched doors came in view leading into the shopping arcade. The top door was also still attached but the bottom one had fallen open. Slipping through easily I made my way into the arcade. It was almost impossible to imagine that once it was a bustling place with keen shoppers. Now – silt city. All that can be seen are bottles of hand lotion resting on the ceiling in the Matreshka shop. I saw a set of empty shelves as I passed through the main arcade floor. All I could hear was my heart beat and the air rushing past the one way valves of my rebreather. It was very quiet! Not having enough time to pass fully through the arcade I would have to leave until next time to explore the club bar Sadko positioned at the far end of the arcade. A well placed watering hole for the thirsty shoppers. On the way out I spent time looking round a little corner shop the ‘Jasmine’. At the entrance an ‘opening hours’ sign came into view There was not much left in the way of decipherable objects except for a glass but a quaint little impulse shop none the less in its time!

We ascended through and out of the lobby heading boward into the Bar Nevsky. Here, hidden away in the depths of the silt, are many bottles. I came across bottles of champagne, bourbon, and gin! Still many little bits and pieces to find on this once gracious ship!

Interesting viewing and reading available through the Dive New Zealand store:

DVD Mikhail Lermontov: Historic video of New Zealand’s biggest wreck dive. Filmed as it happened by salvage divers shortly after the cruise liner sank amid the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds. See them remove oil and valuables using underwater decompression chambers and robots. 48 minutes

Book Death of a Cruise Ship by O’Connor. Mystery, suspense, danger, courage. A modern shipwreck which could have taken hundreds to their death. The author presents a cross-section of the passengers, entertainers and crew. Journalists’ questions of who, what, when, where and how are followed through in this highly charged and gripping story of the Mikhail Lermontov.

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