By Dave Moran
I slowly turned and glanced back to where we had come from – utter blackness! A blackness that you rarely see – there is normally always some light coming from somewhere – this blanket of complete darkness could smother you.
I turned again and was reassured by the healthy white beam from Brent McFadden’s torch that all was well and that this dive into the abyss of the three storey high engine room was just another routine dive for him. We weren’t on a suicide mission after all!
As our lights danced across the huge silent cylinder heads of this drowned passenger liner’s engines I could not help but feel a sadness that her life had ended so dramatically 20 years ago.
Brent pointed up, a steel shaft encased a beam of light that would free us from the blackness’ grip. As we emerged out into the open I turned and shook Brent’s hand … that was one hell of a dive!
Brent, who runs Dive Marlborough which is based adjacent to the Picton Marina in the Marlborough Sounds, was the organizer of a diver’s mini convention for the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the 155 metres long, 23.4 metres wide, 20,000 tonnes Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov.
On that calm still night of 16 February 1986 this flagship of the Russian Government’s cruise ships tried to squeeze through the narrow gap between Cape Jackson and its offshore lighthouse. The reef’s stretching fingers sliced open her port-side hull plating in a series of gashes, one running for over 20 metres.
On the ship’s bridge at the time was Picton’s harbourmaster and pilot, Captain Don Jamison, who had advised the crew that it was okay to pass through this eye in the needle!
The crippled ship eventually limped into Port Gore and finally succumbed to her mortal injuries and crashed to the muddy sea bed 37 metres below to finally rest on her starboard side.
Only one crew member, an engineer, was lost in the sinking and 736 crew and passengers were safely rescued during the night by numerous craft that had raced to the assistance of the sinking liner.
Some Kiwis say it was New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster because 408 Australians survived!
It was great to have Brent as my guardian angel as I swam over this massive landscape of steel at 18 metres. The visibility on the outside of the wreck was minimal at a dusty four metres.
He seemed to have a built-in GPS system as he navigated up and down passage ways, past the swimming pool and God knows where else he took us, talk about the blind leading the blindâ€”except Brent knew exactly where he was! I did know at one point that we were at the sternâ€”a massive propeller gave me a clue!
The visibility dramatically improves once you venture into the ship’s inner compartments. Visibility in the engine room was well over 10 metres and divers reported the same in the Bolshoi Lounge and a little less in the bridge area.
Most divers using single tanks only ventured a little way into the wreck and others using twin cylinders or rebreathers did a little more adventurous exploring as they desperately tried to picture in their minds where they were on the wreck.
It is always difficult to figure out when a ship is lying on its side – the decks and ceilings become walls and doorways are either above you, now your ceiling or below you – all very confusing especially in limited visibility.
It would take a lifetime to explore this wreck safely. The good news is, because she’s in fairly sheltered waters, she will not buckle and crack like wrecks in less favourable locations. She will maintain her stateliness for many many years as the world’s third largest diveable wreck.
It is a credit to diver training that only three divers have been lost over the 20 years in which thousands of divers have swum her passageways.
Saturday afternoon the divers returned to their base at Furneaux Lodge to enjoy a few quiet drinks on the Lodge’s decks while soaking up the warmth of the afternoon rays of sunshine before the orange ball slipped below Queen Charlotte Sound.
This was my first visit to the Lodge, which is cradled amongst 2000 acres of virgin forest at the foot of Mount Furneaux in the outer reaches of the Sound. The Lodge, which is set on three acres, was built in the early 1900s and has been extensively up-graded over the years to offer excellent accommodation from self contained chalets to a large stone walled backpackers hut.
In the evening Bill Day, who was on the original oil salvage job aboard the Little Mermaid, and myself entertained the 30 plus divers while they tucked into a world class buffet dinner – it was yummy!
If you wish to escape the troubles of the world and reflect on life, I recommend you treat yourself to a stay at this historic lodge. There is no road access, so your worries soon fade as your water taxi motors out into the Sounds.
For the wreck enthusiast Cape Jackson also offers two historic wrecks that are worth diving. The Rangitoto (1873) and the Lastingham (1884) both are in shallow water and there is still a heap of the ship’s bones to explore. They are well worth a splash on your return trip back to Picton or Blenheim after diving the Mikhail Lermontov.
Diving the Sounds is always an adventure and the above-water scenery is stunning plus if your timing is right I believe the succulent scallops are to die for!