Gold & Oil: The legacy and menace of Niagara

Many of you who are regular readers of Dive will be aware of the watery grave of the 159m luxury liner RMS Niagara which was a casualty of mines laid by the German Raider Orion in the Hauraki Gulf during WWII. Her sinking just north of the Mokohinau Islands in the early hours of the 18th June 1940 was the beginning of various successful attempts to salvage most of the over eight tons of gold bullion on board.

For the voyage to Vancouver, Canada, it is conservatively estimated that between 9–15 tons of fuel oil was on board. The blast from the mine released tons of oil that smothered many kilometres of New Zealand’s North Island coastline, mainly from Whangarei harbour southwards.

It is believed that the amount of oil on the coast was larger than what was deposited on the beaches in the Bay of Plenty when the MV Rena grounded on Astrolabe Reef, south of the city of Tauranga on 5th October 2011.

Interestingly, you can still find remains of Niagara’s oil along the coast today!

On the 10th February 2018 at the Mangawhai Artists Gallery, artist Nicola Everett opened to the public her year-long work titled ‘Gold & Oil – The Legacy and Menace of the Niagara’.

Her obvious passion and commitment to bring to life what occurred 78 years ago off the coast of Mangawhai and the possible environmental ticking time bomb within the wreck can only be loudly applauded.

Her work is stunningly creative and her message to her local community and the New Zealand Government was very clear! We need to act now, not wait until we have to clean up the suffocating oil deposited along our coast.

Her collection of woodblock and collagraphic prints tell the story of the mines being laid, Niagara striking

Many of you who are regular readers of Dive will be aware of the watery grave of the 159m luxury liner RMS Niagara which was a casualty of mines laid by the German Raider Orion in the Hauraki Gulf during WWII.

Her sinking just north of the Mokohinau Islands in the early hours of the 18th June 1940 was the beginning of various successful attempts to salvage most of the over eight tons of gold bullion on board.

For the voyage to Vancouver, Canada, it is conservatively estimated that between 9–15 tons of fuel oil was on board.

The blast from the mine released tons of oil that smothered many kilometres of New Zealand’s North Island coastline, mainly from Whangarei harbour southwards.

It is believed that the amount of oil on the coast was larger than what was deposited on the beaches in the Bay of Plenty when the MV Rena grounded on Astrolabe Reef, south of the city of Tauranga on 5th October 2011.

Interestingly, you can still find remains of Niagara’s oil along the coast today!

On the 10th February 2018 at the Mangawhai Artists Gallery, artist Nicola Everett opened to the public her year-long work titled ‘Gold & Oil – The Legacy and Menace of the Niagara’.

Her obvious passion and commitment to bring to life what occurred 78 years ago off the coast of Mangawhai and the possible environmental ticking time bomb within the wreck can only be loudly applauded.

Her work is stunningly creative and her message to her local community and the New Zealand Government was very clear! We need to act now, not wait until we have to clean up the suffocating oil deposited along our coast.

Her collection of woodblock and collagraphic prints tell the story of the mines being laid, Niagara strikingthe mine and sinking, as well as the recovery of the gold and the death of marine and bird life as the result of the oil that was released at the sinking. The artwork that made a strong statement to those who attended was a visual representation of what you could expect from a new release of oil from the wreck.

Hanging from the ceiling over a patch of oil-impregnated sand were the real remains of birds and fish covered in black oil!

Nicola is creative enough to know she needed something that really confronts people in an artistic form of what may happen.

Over a period of a year she had collected dead sea birds and fish skeletons from the shoreline. She then slowly dried these remains in an oven and then coated them in black bitumen which represented the Niagara’s thick smothering bunker oil.

This very visual artwork clearly shows Nicola’s commitment to awakening people’s awareness of the results of an oil spill.

Councillor Mike Lee expresses his concerns re the possible environmental risk that the wreck represents

Guests included Kaipara’s deputy mayor, Peter Wethey and author Keith Gordon, whose book, Deep Water Gold, details the history of the Niagara’s sinking, the gold recovery and the subsequent first dives by remote operated vehicles (ROVs), followed by the first modern day technical mixed gas divers exploring the wreck in 120 metres of water.

Two contrasting speeches were delivered; Mike Lee the Waitemata and Gulf Ward Councillor, and Belinda Vernon from Maritime New Zealand.

Mike Lee is absolutely passionate about the Gulf’s marine environment and has actively been notifying Government departments, as Keith Gordon has also over many years, re the necessity to survey the fuel tanks’ condition and the amount of fuel oil remaining in the wreck. This means being able to evaluate the possible environmental hazard that the ship’s oil represents. The response to their warnings have largely been ignored by Government departments.

Belinda Vernon from Maritime New Zealand explaining it’s all under control

Belinda Vernon’s speech for me, and I’m sure others in the gathering, made it clear just how much Maritime New Zealand have their heads in the sand. Oil-free sand, of course! We were informed that they are fully capable and prepared to take care of any major oil spill from the wreck! Well, unless Maritime New Zealand has invested millions of dollars in vessels capable of containing and removing the oil since the Rena disaster, I would say “you must be dreaming!”

I got the impression they are fully aware of the situation but just want it to go away. Why? My guess is money!

Artist Nicola Everett and Keith Gordon finally meet. Keith’s book was a valuable reference tool for Nicola

There is a realisation that what needs to be done in the first instance is a non-intrusive investigation of the ship’s fuel tanks to calculate how much oil remains.

This can most likely be done with a combination of ROVs and divers.

Once this is done, the Government will know 100% how big the environmental threat is. What we do know 100% is the wreck is steadily decaying and it is not a matter of WILL the oil be released but WHEN.

Let’s hope the Government heeds the warnings and advice from experts and opens its cheque book to have the required investigations done. As we go to press I understand that Conservation Minister the Honourable Eugenie Sage is considering a meeting with Mike Lee & Keith Gordon.

The oil’s time bomb is ticking 24/7.

Dave Moran
Editor at Large


Nicola Everett’s art work is for sale

Contact her: nicolaeverettartist@outlook.com.

Or via the Mangawhai Artists Gallery: www.mangawhaiartists.co.nz

The Mangawhai Museum has an excellent display of items recovered from the Niagara, courtesy of Keith Gordon.

On display is the ship’s bell, telegraph, speed log and even a replica of the diving bell used to recover the gold. You can step inside and watch a video.

A recovered mine is also on display.

The quality of the museum’s display is world class and I strongly
recommend a visit.

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