Niagara by ROV


Niagara by ROV

by Keith Gordon

The sweep of the sonar cycled slowly across the screen, painting a narrow red target in midwater ahead. Our concentration switched to the video monitors as images from the ROV camera transported us into the depths below. I flew the ROV slowly ahead, the camera searching the twilight blue. Suddenly, fish appeared, golden snapper; their bodies shone in the reflection of our lights, their numbers signalling the proximity of a shipwreck. A dark shadow materialised on the screen, transforming into the upper section of a ship’s mast as we approached. The crow’s nest appeared, a silent sentinel cloaked with black coral trees and small cup corals. After ten years we had returned to the grave of the Niagara. I had first explored the Niagara with the ROV in 1988 from Phil Bendle’s dive charter boat Norseman, recording video around the stern section. The sight of this magnificent ship from a bygone era had captivated all those present.

Over the following years those impressions stayed constantly in my mind, fuelling plans to return and explore her further. Through my company, SeaROV Technologies, I contacted the British treasury, who are the owners of the gold that remains on the

Niagara

. A salvage agreement was signed and permits obtained to anchor on the

wreck site

. Because anchoring and fishing there is prohibited due to nearby trans-Pacific communications cables, I also had to obtain permits from Telecom NZ and the Maritime Safety Authority. Some time later, with technical diving growing in popularity, I was approached by Tim Cashman, who had aspirations to dive the Niagara. As I was planning further ROV exploration, it was decided we would combine the two technologies for Project Niagara ’99.

Tim assembled a dive and support team, and my old diving buddies Wyn Christie, Jaan Voot, Wade Doak and Jim White joined my ROV team. Peter Thompson arrived to assist with video documentation. A fast trip on the catamaran Reel Passion soon had us on the site. Skipper Bob Ash carried out a survey of the wreck with depth sounder and sonar before setting his anchor. Conditions were ideal. For this first dive, the ROV and divers would explore different sections of the liner. The view of the crow’s nest suspended in midwater is a sight to remember. It is now the domain of golden snapper and a haven for marine life. A hapuka, attracted by our lights, led us along with the aloofness of a butler.

The Niagara is lying nearly fully on her port side; the deck is vertical and appeared as a dark wall ahead. Features materialized as shadows in the low light, taking on form as the ROV approached. Visibility was good, and with the lights switched off we could see 15 metres or more. Looking up across the deck, a solitary cruciform shape stood out against the blue, like a cross standing over a grave. Our lights revealed a multitude of colours from the marine growth shrouding it. Hapuka lines entwined the outstretched arms like a spider’s web to snare the unwary. Beneath the marine growth we could discern shapes of pulley wheels and other fittings; later we identified the cross as part of the cargo handling system.

Closer to the deck, other features were examined. A skylight to the third class dining and smoking saloons now has broken panes and a frame twisted upwards, possibly from the mine’s blast. We passed cargo lifting equipment and deck machinery as we proceeded towards the forward superstructure. Deck timbers have rotted away, leaving lines of caulking to mark their former location. Large square Georgian windows, more suited to a manor house than a ship, were ghostly in the blue light. A door onto the forward deck was open, and alongside it one of the square windows also hung open, a steel beam piercing one of its panes. This door once opened into the first class library and writing room. Now, only blue water greeted us; the upper cabins have collapsed onto the sea floor. Trawl nets also had contributed to their demise. It will be interesting to survey the sea floor here, as there will be many relics among the debris. We hope to recover relics for the National Maritime Museum.

We flew up onto the starboard side of the ship, now horizontal and coated with light sediment, a platform for cup corals and other marine growths. Black coral shrubs sprout from the steel plates, inquisitive fish inhabitants of this giant oasis on the plains of the Gulf swarm about us, hapuka glide through the light beams, while kingfish schools patrol overhead. Proceeding slowly towards the stern, we were halted by a hapuka line caught around the ROV’s umbilical cable. The number of lines entangled around the wreckage testified to its popularity as a fishing location, and pose a problem for tech divers and ROV pilots.

Passing over portholes and the side windows of the forward promenade deck, we arrived at the forward area of the past salvage operation. Here, hull plates and superstructure were ripped apart by the explosives and mechanical grab used in the 1941 salvage. Objects from the ship’s interior littered the adjacent hull where they came to rest after falling from the grab during its quest for riches. We were now in gold country. Records indicate one or two gold bars slipped from the maw of the grab, and are possibly lying among the debris on this side of the hull. As we watched the images on the monitor, comments from the team members took on a different tune as gold fever swept among us! Jim was certain the ROV had passed over a gold bar. However, the coating of sediment transforms many objects into whatever the observer wishes to perceive. If there are any gold bars lying around, it will require a lot of luck to come across one. It is an added incentive to return and explore this area further. Reluctantly, we terminated our exploration for the day and returned to the surface without the decompression requirements Tim and Dave were now undergoing.

Telepresence through the ROV had taken us all down to the Niagara to share a unique dive. Now we waited impatiently for the divers to surface and tell of their experiences. I flew the ROV across to the shot line. Tim and Dave appeared on the screens; the grins on their faces told all. We all had our own impressions of this magnificent shipwreck, but that first sight of the mainmast materializing out of the depths will stay with us all. Project Niagara ’99 will continue through 1999. There is much to explore and discover. Our aims are to document the many fascinating features of the Niagara, including her marine life; attempt to recover artefacts for museum display; and perhaps … do a little gold prospecting. One possible serious aspect of the Niagara also needs to be investigated further. Fuel oil has been sighted surfacing, sometimes in large quantities. She was probably fully stocked before her departure from Auckland on the long voyage to Vancouver. How much oil lies trapped in the deteriorating hull of the ship? Do we have a time bomb ticking away in the Hauraki Gulf, a new legacy of wartime aggression waiting to invade the nearby marine reserves? Only further exploration will answer these questions.

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