By Dave Abbott
Northern Wrecks Tour
Lightly brushing either side of the narrow steel passageway, cocooned in comfortable darkness and with an eerie green glow up ahead of me from the next porthole to the outside world I was enjoying the sensation of drifting through the bowels of a ship in a place ships werenât designed to be – at the bottom of the sea!
I was exploring my local wreck the HMNZ Waikato, but here in the north-east of New Zealand we are fortunate in having a variety of easily accessible and world-class wreck dives within a relatively small region stretching from Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty up to Matauri Bay in the north.
Within this area there are five shipwrecks for the keen diver to explore close to the coast and within recreational dive limits, and for the experienced technical diver, a sixth wreck at triple the recreational depth limit! Here is a quick guide to diving these artificial reefs starting from the furthest north and moving south. There are other wrecks within the region outlined, but these are the best and most accessible!
Rainbow Warrior – âJewel of the Northâ
A shipwreck with special appeal, boasting a compelling story prior to its sinking that has become part of New Zealandâs history. Sabotaged by French agents in 1985 the ensuing bomb blast resulted in the death of one crew member and the arrest and deportation of the French agents involved. Three years later the Warrior was sunk off Motutapere Island in the Cavalli group near Matauri Bay, and is now a mecca for divers.
Two of us recently had an awesome dive on this wreck and upon reaching the hull were blown away by the profusion of colour; layer upon layer of multi-coloured jewel anemones â from fluro pink and purple to more subtle shades; clusters of bright yellow zoanthids, spiky white Solendaria trees festooned with pink Jasonâs nudibranchs, soft corals in pastel hues of mauve, pink and orange – a smorgasbord of encrusting life that transforms this steel structure into a beautiful living reef. Luxuriant kelp forest covers the upper decks patrolled by red moki, snapper, leatherjackets and the occasional John dory, while on the clean sand around the base of the wreck goatfish forage like small animated vacuum cleaners. It is still possible to penetrate the wreck, and inside the hull countless bigeye swirl aimlessly, waiting for night to fall before spreading out into open water. Nudibranchs abound on every surface, trevally schools breeze through at frequent intervals and hungry kingfish regularly patrol looking for baitfish to bomb; -the Warrior definitely deserves its iconic reputation and is a âmust-seeâ for any diver visiting the far north!
Dive details: the Warrior is 18m on the top deck and 25m on the sand at the bottom of the hull so a good long dive is possible. There is only one ascent/descent line on the wreck; down to a mooring block just off the stern.
The Tui was sunk in February 1999 as an âartificial reefâ for divers, less than a kilometre off the Northland coast and only a few minutes by boat from the Tutukaka Harbour. A minesweeper built in the 1960s, this 63m/1000 tonne vessel sits in 32m on her port side and is a great dive for the wreckie into fish life. After five years and several big easterly storms the aft section of the wreck is now quite broken up, although the front of the hull is still relatively intact. Twenty metres to the port side the wreckage of the funnel and bridge make an interesting swimthrough, and penetration is still possible into the main hull; however care is required as there is a lot of twisted debris to snag gear on. The hull is chock-a-bloc with bigeyes, and the shadowy parts of the wreck are home to schools of golden snapper, while sweep, John dory, and red moki roam the upper decks. Purple jewel anemones encrust the port-side rails and Jasonâs nudibranchs can often be seen grazing on the small Solendaria trees growing on the hull. More jewel anemones form a thick mauve cushion around the line, making even the trip back to the surface a colourful experience!
The top of the Tui (starboard side of hull) is around 25m and the deepest point 32-33m, so this is a deepish and relatively short dive. There are two lines on the wreck; at the bow and stern.
Built in the 1960s the Waikato is a Leander class frigate, and at 113m is nearly twice as long as the Tui, but only a metre wider. When operational she could drag an impressive top speed of 30 knots from her 30,000 hp twin steam turbines, not bad for such a large vessel!
She was sunk in November 2000 by Tutukaka Coast promotions in 28m of water off the Ngunguru coast, only a 10-minute boat trip from Tutukaka and 30-minutes south of the Tui. One of the best penetration wreck dives in New Zealand, there is good access to most of the five decks through the many holes cut into the hull, unhindered passageways and plenty of rooms to explore. Some areas like the engine room are very cluttered and are advanced penetrations only, but there are also several uncomplicated swim-throughs like the bridge and helicopter hangar.
The front of the Waikato has become separated from the aft section and the two âhalvesâ now lie about 20m apart, allowing divers to look right into all the decks
One propeller still remains (starboard side), two huge 4.5 inch guns dominate the front deck and on the back deck the helicopter hangar makes a good starting point for your dive, (unfortunately the chopper wasnât sunk with the wreck!).
Again, this wreck has good fish life with large schools of sweep and âratâ kingis, goatfish, small snapper, the ubiquitous leatherjackets and the occasional giant boarfish or John dory. Small crayfish hide in nooks and crannies below decks and around the hull, octopus are seen from time to time and the rails are thick with anemones and barnacles feeding in the current.
Dive details: The main deck of the Waikato is around 24m, bridge 17m, highest point (funnel) 10m, and it is 28m on the bottom. There are three lines on the wreck; at the bow, helicopter hangar and stern.
RMS Niagara…deep deep deep!
Beyond the scope of all but experienced technical divers the Niagara still warrants mention as it is an iconic wreck with an interesting history, and is being dived more frequently as tech diving catches on in New Zealand. Down 120m and lying on her port side this 160m long passenger liner went down in 1940 after hitting a mine between the Hen and Chickens and the Mokohinau Islands. Despite having 338 passengers onboard there was no loss of life, however the Niagara was also carrying a fortune in gold bars, 590 ingots worth somewhere around $170 million at todayâs rate! Almost all of the gold was recovered in an ensuing salvage operation, but there are still a couple of bars unaccounted for to tempt the keen technical diver!
Keith Gordon has filmed the wreck using his ROV (Remote operated vehicle) and has footage of large hapuka, schools of golden snapper and ghostly black coral trees, while âtechiesâ Dave Apperly, Pete Mesley and Tim Cashman have dived the Niagara twice in recent years, rating it as one of their best ever wreck dives.
This is a tricky wreck to find but is a great dive! Sitting on the sand at 32m the Taupo sank in 1881 and is not readily recognisable as a ship, now appearing as a half-buried jumble of tangled wreckage draped in the remnants of an old trawl net. The large boiler can still be seen complete with inspection hatches; poke your head inside and you will see some huge conger eels coiled up like fat grey snakes! There is good fish life hanging around the wreckage, from small snapper and goatfish to leatherjackets and the odd tarakihi and kingi.
32m on the bottom, no significant high points. There are no marker buoys or lines on the wreck, local knowledge required!
Sunk off Motiti Island in the Bay of Plenty in March 2000 as an artificial dive reef the Taioma is a 30m long tug originating from Scotland and built in the 1940s. Brought to Wellington in 1947, her claim to fame is being one of the first tugs on the scene when the Wahine ran aground in 1968. She was bought in 1979 at the end of her life for a token $2 to be put on display at the Tauranga Museum, and then finally âtaken overâ by the Taioma Reef Society to be turned into an artificial reef; a much better use for her! The Society has also set-up an annual scholarship to fund a different student each year to monitor and document changes on the wreck for the first 10 years of its underwater life, a great concept!
Sitting on a flat sandy bottom at 27m the Taioma is a fantastic dive for all experience levels, and because she is in a âcradleâ is still upright and largely intact. There are a couple of easy swimthroughs from side to side of the hull, the wheel still remains in the wheelhouse, and it is also possible to swim down the funnel and into the engine room.
This wreck is teeming with life:
Goatfish, blue cod and octopus on the sand around the base, anemones blanket the hull, snapper, terakihi and blue maomao patrol the decks, small crayfish lurk in the boiler, and beautiful tiger shells and clown nudibranchs can often be found amongst the profuse encrusting life.
The main deck of the Taioma is around 22m, base of the wreck at 27m and the funnel at 17m. There is only one ascent/descent line which leads down to the stern.
Code of Conduct:
It is worth noting that most of these wrecks share a similar voluntary code of conduct put in place to ensure they remain great dives; no anchoring within 50m of the wreck, one hour time limits on moorings, no overboard discharge in the vicinity, and a (voluntary) no take policy in regard to both artefacts and marine life.
Wreck Diving Operators:
If you are planning to dive some of the wrecks described here are a few of the dive charter operators who run out to these wrecks – there are additional operators of course but these are the ones I know well and can recommend.
Rainbow Warrior: Matauri Kat Charters (Matauri beach), Dive North (Paihia), Paihia Dive (Paihia)
Tui and Waikato: Yukon Charters, Pacific Hideaway, Dive Tutukaka, Poor Knights Dive Liveaboards to name a few. These wrecks can both be done in the same day quite easily.
Taioma and Taupo: Tauranga Underwater runs trips out to the Taioma and also has the marks for the Taupo. Other Tauranga dive shops such as Adventure Education and Dive HQ Tauranga can arrange dives on these two wrecks also.
The Niagara: This is not a wreck on which regular diving charters are run for obvious reasons! However there are a couple of boats operating out of Tutukaka that have taken tech divers out to the wreck in the past who can be contacted if you are planning a Niagara expedition: Pacific Hideaway, and the Norseman.
(for full contact information also check the boat directories on pages 72-76).