The Union Steamship liner RMS Niagara sank off Bream Head, Whangarei, New Zealand in June 1940, loaded with gold ingots worth over NZD$100 million at today’s rates. Immediately after the sinking an incredible salvage operation began and a large part of the treasure was recovered. Now an international deep-diving team has dived and photographed the wreck, which lies at 121m depth.
Here’s a lot to think about when you’re dropping to a depth of over 120m into the Pacific Ocean, down to the decks of one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world, the Royal Mail Steamship Niagara. While tremendously excited about the wonders waiting below, my mind must still concentrate on making a safe descent using my closed circuit rebreather. Whether using revolutionary closed-circuit rebreathers or the plain old-fashioned open-circuit approach, the key tool when diving to such depths is mixed gas. For this dive I am breathing a mixture consisting of 7% oxygen, 67% Helium and 26% Nitrogen, known as a HeliAir mixture. It basically means that 120m is equivalent to diving a wreck at 33m with traditional compressed air.
At 30m down my on board computer automatically adjusts my oxygen control set point to a higher partial pressure of oxygen and I can hear the solenoid kick in and fire the correct amount of gas into my breathing system. Dropping deeper through a thermocline, unpredicted Pacific tidal currents around Bream Head and over the wreck make swimming a little difficult and as I drop beyond the 100m depth mark I fire up 100 watts of light as the wreck comes into view.
Weighing 13,415 tons and with a length of 165m Niagara is no small wreck and I land on the bow tip where our anchor line has hooked close into the seabed. Clearly the teak decking is evident and well preserved, mooring bollards appear out of the deep water gloom as do capstan winches, anchor chains and cargo booms. The wreck is lying completely over on her starboard side with a light covering of typical marine growth unique to the area, swimming along the bow deck I see a broken mast overhanging and disappearing across the seabed at a right angle. In the distance I see flashing lights of other divers and calling noises of unknown activity. A number of minutes pass as I make my way past the bridge superstructure where wonderful square Georgian windows are silhouetted by the contrast of the blue ocean behind. As I drop down to seabed level my gauge reads 121m depth and it’s here that I begin to photograph the remains of the bridge navigational equipment that has fallen from above. I can’t help thinking at the back of my mind that somewhere in and amongst this wreckage I am looking at are bars of gold that Niagara was secretly carrying 67 years ago back in WW2 when she sank. After some 35 minutess photographing I return via my tracks and arrive back at the anchor line, ahead of me some six hours of decompression which begins at 90m depth, a vast penalty to pay for the privilege of swimming the decks of the once proud ocean liner known as the ‘Queen of the Pacific’. At 60m depth I reach a line junction where I now leave the anchor line and proceed up to a decompression station that is released from the main down line and allowed to free float with any current, thus making a far more comfortable decompression phase for myself and the other divers.
Ship’s Bell Located
Calling noises from above attract my attention, divers Craig Howell and Richard Harris are waving their arms and appear somewhat triumphant, indeed they should be as on this dive Craig has located the ship’s main mast or bridge bell, the heart of the Niagara. For 67 years this ornate bell had laid silently on the seabed, now the divers had carefully sent it back to the surface from 70 fathoms below. Above on the decks of Perfect Day Keith Gordon, Dave Moran and the Dive Tutukaka crew look on in disbelief! They are the first people to see this ornate artefact in almost seven decades; this really was a perfect day! It was Friday 30 March 2007.
Tales of shipwrecks with hidden treasure, shipments of gold and silver are enough to conjure the imagination of even the casual diver. Technically speaking there is perhaps no lost treasure that remains inaccessible to man for all time, there are, however, treasures that take vast reserves of courage and ingenuity to recover. It was just so with the gold that sank along with the Niagara. Browse almost any book
written on treasure and you are sure to find a section on the Niagara’s gold recovery!
A Queen is Born
Niagara was designed by Coll McDonald of New Zealand’s ‘Union Shipping Line’ and built by John Brown & Co on the Clydebank, Scotland. At the time she was built as a luxury liner to the very highest of standards equal to the great ocean liners of her time such as Lusitania and Mauritania. Her route of passage was the Sydney to Vancouver run, thus each voyage would encounter a vast contrast between winter conditions and those of summer with tropical humidity between. With this route in mind passenger comfort was of high importance and she was fitted out with a revolutionary air conditioning system of its day ensuring warmth during the freezing temperatures and cooling in the tropics. She was also one of the first ‘duel fuel’ driven steam ships giving her the option to burn oil or coal. Launched in Glasgow Scotland in 1912 she was soon dubbed the Titanic of the Pacific, however when tragedy struck Titanic the name was dropped, she was relabelled the ‘Queen of the Pacific’. Her maiden voyage in 1913 saw her make passage between Sydney and Auckland via the Pacific islands and then to Vancouver. She enjoyed a 27 year career covering a distance of over 2,295,000 nautical miles a record for any ocean liner that still stands.
A record career ends!
On 19 June 1940, after leaving the port of Auckland, Captain Bill Martin aboard Niagara had just brought his ship North of Bream Head before retiring to his cabin for the night, unknown to him his ship was heading directly in the path of a mine field laid by the German raider Orion. Europe was at war and because New Zealand was part of the Commonwealth it was an enemy to Germany. This was no ordinary voyage for the captain or his crew for aboard his ship, unknown to many aboard was a consignment of eight tons of gold bullion destined for Vancouver. The bullion would pay for arms in Britain’s struggle against the uprising of the Nazis in Europe. At 3.30am there was a huge blast; Niagara mortally damaged by a mine began to settle by the head developing a list to port. As the ship began to sink amazingly all 148 passengers and 203 crew members successfully transferred to the lifeboats and by 5.30am they watched in disbelief as their ship finally slipped beneath the waves.
Like thousands of other ships she perhaps would have long since been forgotten had she not been carrying the gold bars valued in 1940 at NZD 6,732,352.68, a fortune estimated at over NZD 100 million at today’s price, needless to say the bank of England wanted their gold back!
What followed was one of the most famous gold salvages in history. A salvage crew led by Captain JP Williams assembled aboard a decrepit old coaster the Claymore and spent the next two months amongst the mine field locating the wreck. Once the wreck had finally been located they began to search for the gold using a purpose built observation chamber that was lowered to the wreck with a diver who could communicate with the surface crew who in turn would manoeuvre a grab in place according to the diver’s guidance. The gold was locked deep inside a reinforced steel strong room within the bowels of the wreck. The ship was systematically dissected exposing the bullion room then the grab began to recover the gold. All but a few bars were recovered during the 1940s setting new records of gold recovered from depth and of course the remaining gold has been the subject of conversation around the port of Tutukaka for many years. The entire story is told in Keith Gordon’s book ‘Deep Water Gold’ (order page 92). Keith himself a resident of Tutukaka has been involved with the wreck of Niagara for many years and joined the NZTEK07 dive team to assist historically and with remote operated vehicles should they be utilised.
Early Technical divers
The technical diving on the Niagara all began when Tim Cashman a Welshman living in New Zealand made a routine weekend dive trip to the Poor Knights Islands. Whilst having lunch at Tutukaka he noticed several pictures on the wall of the gold recovery from the 1940s. Intrigued he then set about locating the wreck in his small sailing boat. On 26 January 1999 Cashman and Australian dive partner Dave Apperley left Tutukaka aboard Reel Passion and headed out to the wreck. Apperley and Cashman became the first men to physically swim the decks of the old liner, later they were joined by New Zealand Tek diver Peter Mesley for further dives. Since those first days both Cashman and Apperley have been members of most expeditions to the wreck and were keen to join the month long New Zealand expedition named NZTEK07; its mission first to explore deep into the Pearse Resurgence cave system in New Zealand’s South Island then move their focus to the Niagara.
For the NZTEK07 divers a scuba exploration attempt on the wreck of the Niagara at such depth was considered a serious team undertaking. The very success of previous expeditions lies very much at the centre of team effort with its core point being that of safety. With such facts high on the list expedition leader Craig Howell had plenty to think about.
The team’s first dive of the expedition was aboard Pacific Hideaway a vessel that many previous expeditions to Niagara have operated from. After the Pacific Hideaway experienced engine problems the team operated from Dive! Tutukaka’s new dive platform Perfect Day. During this expedition 23 man dives to the wreck would be carried out, the equivalent to the total amount of dives that had previously been carried out over the years since the wreck was first dived by Cashman and Apperley back in 1999 making this expedition the most successful to date.
Expedition dives begin
The first dive of the expedition was somewhat of a let down to say the least in that the visibility had dropped to conditions unexpected of the area, this didn’t however prevent the nine man dive team from undertaking a full exploration. As I arrived at the wreck at a depth of aproximately 110m I could see that the anchor line had dropped off the side of the underside hull and was lying with the current across the bulk of the hull and securely fixed in place by the first team down. In actual fact the location was just aft of the bridge on the upper most starboard side, after adjusting the arms of my strobes and the settings on my deep camera system I dropped deeper and across an open deck hatch with its intact combing obvious. The low visibility was not helping navigation so I took a steady swim down to the seabed and made my way alone towards the bow section. It was here and directly below where the wooden construction of the ship’s bridge would have been that I now discover her complete navigational instrumentation lying amongst the wreckage at seabed level. I counted five reasonably large telegraphs that once sent indications of requested ship’s movements to the engine rooms as well as the stern of the ship. I also see here the ship’s telemotor the huge hydraulic steering system that powered the rudder when the ship was at speed, there is also an annunciator an instrument that indicates information of the turbine engines to the bridge staff. In fact this area is of amazing interest and the remainder of the short bottom time is absorbed in photographing before making my way to the shallower most upper sections of the wreck. Here divers are able to see more of those Georgian style windows previously mentioned silhouetted against the sunlight from above. These windows shadow what remains of once stately rooms. With rays of light pouring though porthole windows, I soon realise how privileged I am to see this wreck having travelled across the world all the way from England. Again a dive of 35 minutes at this depth gives me an all in water inclusive time including decompression of some six hours, a beer that night at Snapper Rock Restaurant was more than welcomed to say the least.
After the initial dive on the wreck at the beginning of the expedition the traditional bad weather hampered deep diving operations so the team prepared for the next dive in advance and enjoyed the delights of the Poor Knights with Dive! Tutukaka. Then came the torrential storm with over 48 hours of rain and land slides cutting off Tutukaka from Whangarei and surrounding towns, the most amount of rain fall in New Zealand for the last 20 years, which needless to say put stop to any further diving on Niagara.
As the weather improves the last two dives of the expedition were exceptional and as previously stated expedition team leader Craig Howell had recovered the most prestigious of shipwreck finds, the bell, making national news headlines. Alongside the bell Richard Harris had recovered a bridge telegraph and John Dalla-Zuanna, had recovered the Walker’s log, an instrument that once gave an indication of speed and distance that the ship made. All of these artifacts are being preserved and are expected to go on permanent display in New Zealand museums.
By the last dive the team really had a feel for the wreck and had begun to make a true survey photographically of her present day condition. The anchor line remained in a position towards the bow tip from the previous day’s dive when the bell was discovered. From this point and on this last dive I made a hasty swim to a position beyond and aft of the bridge where my last exploration had terminated. I could see the entire amidships section of the wreckage, here lifeboat davits lay across the seabed as do hatch covers and fallen portholes and square windows. I discovered the area where the forward funnel once lay across the seabed and it is here that I discover the ship’s huge chime steam whistle, a whistle that was once the calling sound of Niagara as she entered ports around the world. The entire dive experience as one swim’s the decks of Niagara is a very special one indeed as all of the NZTEK07 dive team discovered for themselves. Niagara was once again left to lay alone in the depths of the Pacific with her ‘five unaccounted for’ bars of gold hidden somewhere amongst the wreckage until the next team of divers take on the challenging dive for themselves and make the find of a lifetime.
The NZTEK07 team divers were: Craig Howell and Dave Apperley (expedition leaders) John Dalla-Zuanna, Tim Cashman, Andrew McIntosh, Craig Challen, Photographers Dean Chamberlain, Richard Harris and Leigh Bishop. Surface team consisted of Keith Gordon, Dave Moran and the Dive! Tutukaka staff team.
The team would like to thank all their sponsors (visit the official website at:
) in particular Tony Davis from Dive Rite Australia, Richard Taylor of TDI Australia, Daryl Waters and Simon Hadwin from DiveTek Australia, Otter Dry suits, Typhoon International, Pelican cases.
Leigh Bishop, world renowned deep shipwreck photographer and technical diver, has been on expeditions to the ‘gold ship’ Egypt, Transylvania, Titanic, Britannic Lusitania and the Nazi Liner Wilhelm Gustloff, he has also explored over 400 virgin shipwrecks in the last 20 years. He is a full time fire-fighter and lives North of London with his family.
Niagara Gas and Decompression Logistics
by Leigh Bishop (pictured)
The Niagara lies on its port side on a sandy seabed in 121m depth. Most dives would have an average depth between 105 and 121m, bottom times from 25 up to 48 minutes and total in water times of 5 to 6.5 hours. The dives would be conducted some distance, but most importantly time, away from the nearest chamber so getting the decompression logistics right was essential. The primary aim was to ensure as clean as decompression as possible, with much less emphasis on getting out of the water quickly.
For logistical and support reasons it was decided that the whole team would be diving closed circuit using a common set of gases, set-points and decompression tables. Since the primary aim of the expedition was filming and exploration penetrations into the interior of the wreck it was essential that the divers would experience low narcosis.
The gases ed were as follows:
â¢ HeliAir 6/72 CCR bottom diluent: (18-26m END for 90-120m)
â¢ Trimix 13/60 sidemounted bottom bailout: (24-34m END for 90-120m)
â¢ Trimix 20/30 sidemounted intermediate bailout (34-19m END for 60-36m)
â¢ Trimix 35/15 staged intermediate bailout (19-10m END for 36-21m)
â¢ Nitrox 57 staged shallow bailout (5-2m END for 18-9m)
â¢ Oxygen staged final bailout (for the 6m, 4.5m and 3m stops).
â¢ Air at 6-3m for low PO2 breaks
The descent was done using the HeliAir 6/72 diluent with a set-point of 0.7 bar until hitting the wreck at 100m or a computer controlled automatic switch at a pre-determined depth at which point it was increased to 1.2 bar. On the ascent at the 45m stop the CCR loop was flushed with the Trimix 20/30 and the CCR set-point was increased to 1.4 bar. This diluent flush typically reduced the total decompression time by about an hour and was designed to minimize nitrogen counter diffusion problems.
At approximately 150-180 minutes into the dive when the CNS would approach 100%, 5 minute low PO2 breaks were done on either open circuit Trimix 20/30 or air to reduce the risk of an oxygen CNS seizure. During the later stages of decompression all the divers were Jon lined to the decompression station for safety and comfort due to the high wind induced currents that could develop in the area.
The initial ascent and deep stop part of the decompression was generated using a VPM-B bubble model and then the shallow stops were padded using a conventional Buhlmann model. Relative to Buhlmann, the VPM-B model has a slower initial ascent and a much slower middle section but is scarily fast in the latter stages. Typically the Buhlmann model would start padding the stops between 24-18m and would add 50-80 minutes of extra decompression in the shallows. All the divers were equipped with two Delta-P VR3 decompression computers (
). The decompression stops computed by the VR3s typically matched the proprietary tables within minutes in the later stages of the dive once the Buhlmann padding dominated. The VR3 also proved an excellent tool in helping estimate the total amount of on-gassing during the very multi-level bottom profile and helped the divers in ing the appropriate ascent to from their laminated proprietary tables.
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