by Tim Cashman
The wreck of RMS Niagara is a diverâs dream. She is a luxury liner with a magnificent service record which dramatically ended with her sinking in the Hauraki Gulf while transporting eight tons of gold bullion. Her story then evolves into an incredible salvage project conducted in 1941 when the majority of the gold was recovered. A second salvage in 1953 recovered further gold but since then RMS Niagara has slipped from the limelight to lie undisturbed under our noses for nearly 50 years.
In January 1999 Keith Gordon and I organised a diving and ROV survey expedition to explore and video RMS Niagara for the first time. Weather restricted us to only one dive, but what a tremendous experience it was! We were hooked and vowed to return.
In January 2000 we chartered Lady Jess owned by Peter Saul. âBase Campâ was an anchorage at the Mokohinau Islands, which is supurb diving in its own right and is very close to the Niagara.
Peter Saul (skipper) and Peter Diamond (support diver) had spent time earlier that week practising our support procedures, which involved staging cylinders on the main shot line, plus deploying drifting decompression lines should they be required.
Wednesday dawned fair and calm. Our window of opportunity had presented itself. Pete Saul expertly cruised over the wreck surveying with the echo sounder. Pete took the time to carefully position our shot line on the forward section of the wreck then we deployed our stage cylinders.
Dave Apperley and I were using Closed Circuit Rebreathers or CCRâs (Buddy Inspirations) for these dives. We conducted our predive checks calibrated our units and clipped on extra stage cylinders. Dave also had a video to record the dive.
We descended into the deepening blue void, injecting diluent to maintain the breathing gas volume in the rebreather loop. The descent was rapid at 30 metres per minute, but it would still take at least four minutes to reach the bottom. Constant monitoring of the ppO2 (partial pressure of oxygen) displays was necessary to ensure our breathing gas remained within our acceptable oxygen setpoint range. During depth changes, vigilance is especially important when using a Closed Circuit Rebreather as the unit blends gas to adjust for the new depth.
At 90 metres I heard a deep thud! I turned round to see Dave behind me pointing at his helmet mounted torch. It had imploded, unable to withstand the pressure at this depth!
The wreck was in view lying on her port side facing south. We settled on the upturned hull at 105 metres. Visibility was excellent at 10 metres with plenty of natural light to provide a twilight view of the wreck. We were on the hull very close to where the bridge used to be. To our left were the square framed windows of the first level of superstructure. The decks above that (including the bridge) had collapsed to the seabed below. To our right lay an expanse of hull plating with rows of portholes. Beyond them (out of sight) would be the opening made by the gold bullion salvage 60 years ago. Forward was the mast, now pointing horizontally east towards the Mokohinau Islands.
We had seen a tantalising glimpse of the mast last year with the ROV. I opted to swim forward, then left and down, over the gunwhale towards the mast. Dave videoed as we went. (Fortunately there was sufficient natural light to capture some images). We descended to the mast base at 115 metres. The scene was surreal with the wreckage transformed into a recognisable ship. A wall of steel punctuated by the familiar square framed windows was all that remained of the superstructure and bridge. On closer inspection I realised that the mast was also the central tower of the loading crane. This explained its structural integrity as we had been surprised it had not collapsed. Black coral trees grew off it at various points and the crows nest still afforded a panoramic view over the forward deck. The view now was a scrapyard of jumbled wreckage, and alongside us a vast wall of timber decking. Our bottom time of 20 minutes was coming to an end all too soon so we began our ascent and completed two and a half hours of decompression.
This dive was an excellent orientation so now we knew exactly where our shot line was positioned. We left it in place ready for a second dive to explore the strongroom on Friday!
Dave had broken the handset of his rebreather some months before when caving in Australia, but he had repaired it. On a cray dive at the Mokes on Thursday the repair failed. Dave spent Thursday night repairing the repair. On Friday our strongroom dive began. As we reached 60 metres Dave indicated the repair had failed again and he could not continue the dive. I signalled to abort the dive but Dave suggested I go on. After a minuteâs consideration I continued the dive alone.
I arrived at the wreck and saw the âstrongroom craterâ clearly. The shipâs hull was ripped to smitherines. There was evidence of
the use of explosives as many beams and girders were grotesquely twisted and bent. The carnage was incredible. I expected to see some sort of strongroom structure at the centre of the crater but nothing was intact. Twisted girders, sheets of steel plating, rust scale, pipes and other debris littered the area. I cruised over the site searching for anything regular in shape (especially if it was shiny!) but the devastation was monumental. It would take forever to sift through the debris to find any gold bars amongst that lot. No wonder the salvors classed further work as unviable!
I had looked inside the âstrongroomâ and now knew there was no easy fortune waiting for some lucky diver to stumble upon. If the missing bars are still in there somewhere they will only be found by a hell of a lot of very hard work. My brief bout of gold fever was cured so I turned my attention back to exploring. In some places I could see inside the wreck, beyond the damage, to large halls and rooms but now was not the time to penetrate the wreck.
I moved across the crater back onto the shipâs intact hull. Here an avalanche of debris cascaded down the hull to the seabed at 120 metres. Obviously the salvors had grabbed debris from the crater and deposited it over here, clear of their working area. Perhaps I could find some artifacts as momentos of our dives. Lots of verdigris coloured fittings indicated brass or copper items amongst the trash. I picked up many small items most of which were smashed (probably by the grab). I was surprised not to find anything substantial amongst this debris but finally opted for a rather battered tablespoon as my souvenir. Once again my time was up so I ascended up the crater wall onto the hull plates, then unhooked our grapnel and began my ascent.
My first decompression stop was at 84 metres. From there I was surprised to see Dave way above me (itâs really good viz here) still at 60 metres breathing open circuit. He had opted to wait for me as deep support diver. Thanks Dave.
My ascent was uneventful but slow. At 30 metres Pete Diamond came down to check I was OK and whether I wanted anything. The only thing I would have liked was to shorten the decompression time but that was not possible. My run time for this dive was 194 minutes, just over three hours, and I was glad to get out for a pee after a magnificent weeks diving! Thanks to Pete Saul of Lady Jess Charters (I strongly recommend Pete as a first class dive boat skipper), Pete Diamond for his support diver work, and Dave Apperley for his continued assistance with this expedition.