Port Kembla wreck dive

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SS Port Kembla

By Mike Fraser

When the First World War broke out in 1914 it didnt take long to clear the Germans out of the Pacific, New Zealand invaded German Samoa, Australia took New Guinea and the Japanese took Tsingtao and the Marshall and Caroline Islands. The German Navy left the Pacific heading back to Germany but was destroyed at the Falkland Islands.For the next three years New Zealand troops headed off to Europe and the Middle East, while New Zealand and Australia became the breadbasket of Britain, with thousands of tonnes of food and supplies. Germany tried to starve Britain to submission using unrestricted submarine warfare. In a continuation of that policy Germany sent out raiders, disguised, armed cargo ships to take the war to the source of those materials, and so in June 1917 the SM. Wolf found herself steaming down the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand heading for the entrance of Cook Strait to lay mines.On the night of 27/28 June 1917 she laid a string of 35 mines in nearly 100 metres of water off Cape Farewell with the mines set at four metres below the surface, deep enough for large ships, but too deep for smaller vessels of shallow draft. For nearly three months, no ship arriving from or leaving to go to Australia, hit one. But then in the early hours of 18 September, the Port Kembla, arriving from Australia with a full load of cargo heading for Britain, hit one on the very edge of the minefield, blowing a hole in her starboard side. She sank in less than half an hour. All aboard survived the sinking and were picked up by the Regulus later that day and taken to Nelson.Many people in the Nelson area have known of a shipwreck off Cape Farewell, and some wreckage has been pulled up from time to time, but nothing to indicate which ship it was. With the help of a minefield map drawn up by the Captain of the Wolf, retrieved from the German Archives, we were able to decide which location was the most likely for the Port Kembla.Using the Aari out of Takaka we left early morning with a three and a half hour cruise so we would arrive on site just before the slack tide, picking up some scallops for dinner on the way. Once over the wreck site a shot line was dropped, which ended up between the foremast and bridge. The planned bottom time was 20 minutes which would give a total dive time of nearly three and a half hours.During descent the divers passed a slightly murky layer of water near the surface but visibility quickly opened up to 30 metres plus. Also being a cloudless day, the amount of ambient light reaching down 96 metres to the wreck was phenomenal. Five minutes to get to the bottom, so with the remaining 15 minutes, it was time for a good look. Huge numbers of fish were living on the wreck, common roughy, southern bastard cod and tarakihi mostly, while massive crayfish sat out in the open as if they owned the place. The main thing we had to do was to find something to positively identify the wreck, and that didnt take long. Within 10 minutes some dinner plates with the Commonwealth and Dominion Line logo were found. This was the company that the Port Kembla belonged to. Amongst the wreckage was a large number of portholes, glass still intact and hundreds of bottles from part of the cargo of foodstuffs she was carrying to Britain. Over the 90 years she had been on the bottom the entire ships structure had collapsed in on itself and she was a tangle of metal. Surprising then to find a toilet, sitting out in the open ready for someone to use. Twenty minutes had passed and now it was time to surface.The night was spent in Whanganui Inlet as it became too choppy to stay over the wreck that night. That night we poured over the video footage, wondering where some of the cargo might be, maybe where the ships bell was, and discussing the next days dive while scoffing down scallops for dinner – lifes tough.We were out of Whanganui and to the site early next day as slack tide was mid morning. Today a drop line was placed on the stern but conditions werent as good; a bit windier and the sea rougher. The forecast for the following day was better but a decision to dive was made. It took longer to get down onto the wreck, about seven to eight minutes so there was less time to search. More remains of cargo were seen around the stern area and then Simon spotted a bell amongst the wreckage. Pete was close by and noticed Simon very excited and waving his torch and then he too noticed the bell. The whoops of joy heard on the video couldnt be taken seriously as they sounded like a couple of chipmunks due to the helium. Since the bell was so encrusted with growth, it was decided to take it up to be cleaned and hopefully have some identifying marks or inscription to help prove this wreck is indeed the Port Kembla. Time to surface.After the success of the two dives it was agreed to head home, but we will definitely be back. It would be interesting to see if the magical visibility we had is normal out there, or we just struck it lucky?Port KemblaLength 121 metres, beam 16 metres, depth 8 metres.Carrying a cargo of foodstuffs to Britain including jam and frozen rabbits. Also Red Cross parcels, mail and 1200 tonnes of lead for munitions.

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