by Leigh Bishop
In February of 1986 a harbour pilot made a fatal and un-explainable error taking the Russian passenger liner Mikhail Lermontov to the seabed. The events that unfolded became the makings of a classic modern day shipwreck story, a story of intrigue, espionage, conspiracy and speculation. Leigh Bishop travelled from England to photograph the New Zealand wreck only to discover some hair-raising moments deep inside her.
Pete Mesley is a well-known technical diver in the southern hemisphere, he knows the soviet wreck Mikhail Lermontov better than anyone. I’m hoping that’s very much the case because right now I’m deep inside the wreck, my life is held in his hands and I have no idea which way is out. I can just make out Pete’s rebreather in front of me and I’m desperate not to lose sight of him in the silt clouds that are rapidly destroying the visibility. This could make things somewhat more complex, as visibility’s important, whether you’re looking at an underwater vista, or a strong poker hands. But it should be fine if we move carefully and responsibly.For this dive we will make an internal traverse from the indoor swimming pool at the stern of the wreck through several complicated passageways that the crew once used past duty free and make our way up through the wreck to the library and exit aft of the cinema projection room. Pete calls this the ‘dolls run’ as part of his tour includes a storeroom full of childrens dolls so buoyant they are pinned to a wall that now becomes the ceiling. As Pete stops inside a rather less spacious passageway he directs me up and through the now zero visibility roof above, as I feel my way up into the ceiling I can feel switch boxes and cables hanging loose around me. Adjusting my buoyancy I rise some three metres and squeeze my way through an opening where the visibility clears, above, my torch lights up dozens of eerie looking Russian dolls.
These local Kiwi divers that regularly dive the Mikhail Lermontov I’m with tell me they are against using penetration lines. Apparently they could get tangled in them; instead they use their own navigation skills having pieced together the wreck in their own minds over many previous dives. This dive has to count as one of the most nerve racking I have ever made, I’m deep inside a huge wreck with rapidly deteriorating visibility in hope that my guide, Pete, does actually know what he claims to know. The way out! The dolls have an evil look in their eyes, some have no arms or legs and as I feel the hair rise on my back I begin to think this is not the place I want to hang around. Squeezing back through the hole below me I drop down to where I am relieved Pete is still waiting. As we swim along the tight passageway the visibility opens up and my heart slows a pace, above us is a clock frozen in time with its Roman numerals clear. As the walls disappear Pete indicates we are now in the open passage that leads deep down into the duty free area. Duty free was located on the starboard side of the wreck, which is now the deepest point with hundreds of tons of Russian liner above it. As we swim into shallower depths I am relived Pete has not chosen to take me deeper and vodka shopping in duty free. Instead we pass through the library and into the entrance to the cinema where for the first time in the last 45 minutes I can see natural light penetrating through the windows that are now above me. We spend another hour or so inspecting private cabins on the port side of the wreck as well as a look into the cinema, Bolshoi lounge and the wheelhouse.
This was really my first experience of serious wreck penetration but as the week went on I began to discover that the Lermontov is not all about hair razing dives and offers a variety of areas to investigate for all levels of qualified divers alike.
The Mikhail Lermontov was named after a famous Russian Poet, described when launched as 20,000 tons of gleaming white elegance. The Lermontov was one of the bigger vessels to visit the south Island of New Zealand as part of a cruise during February of 1986. She had left Sydney and arrived in Wellington before making her way along Tory Channel to Picton. From here the Picton harbour pilot would take charge on the bridge and in theory see the Russian ship safely through the islands before heading out to sea. On board the 330 predominantly Russian crew entertained over 400 passengers mainly from Australia, at the time the United states and the USSR were still engaged in the cold war, the presence of the Russians was quite something for the New Zealanders. The year 1986 was one of disaster for both the Americans and the Russians with news headlines such as the explosions of the space shuttle Challenger and the Chernobyl nuclear power station. This would also be the year when the Russians would lose one of their cruise ships to an error of events that was unheard of in the annals of Maritime history.
On 16 February Captain Vladislav welcomed Picton harbour pilot Don Jamieson aboard the Lermontov, Jamison was a man who knew the waters better than anyone a trusted man and a man of experience. Jamieson took the Lermontov along Queen Charlotte sound and was adamant that he was going to give the passengers value for money by showing them sights such as where Captain Cook first landed when he discovered New Zealand in 1773. This all made Captain Vladislav very nervous as on a number of occasions Jamieson was told he had taken the vessel far too close to land. Jamieson declared that he knew the waters and everything was okay although Vladislav insisted that Jamieson keep his ship further from shore. As the Soviet ship drew close to cape Jackson lighthouse the watch crew had changed hands and none of the new helmsmen and navigators were aware of earlier near misses. At 5.21pm Jamieson made the first of three incremental course changes to port that would send the ship onto the rocks at Cape Jackson. At 5.34pm the ship was rapidly approaching the lighthouse and Jamieson made a sudden spur of the moment decision and ordered a further turn to port committing the ship to a course through the Cape Jackson passage rather than to starboard and clear of the dangerous reef. A decision that has never ever been explained to this day! The Soviet vessel struck the reef causing the ship to take on so much water she sank a number of hours later. The ship sank in a depth of only 33 metres in nearby Port Gore, a remote bay surrounded by picturesque mountains; visiting divers will reach to top of the wreck at only 13m below the surface. The wreck is permanently marked by three buoys identifying the stern.
The Mikhail Lermontov has to be in the top five wrecks I’ve ever dived, the wreck is fabulous and has much to offer. Lying on her starboard side and in such a shallow depth two or three dives a day are the norm and with the rebreathers we were conducting two-hour dives on the wreck with no decompression.
Much of the port side of the wreck invites shallow penetrations that give access to areas such as the Bolshoi lounge and other bar areas, even today the dacor of 1980’s Russian thinking can still be seen. Spiral staircases can be followed to deck levels above the discotheque and bars remain with their stools still firmly in position. It makes a refreshing change to dive a wreck and identify almost everything you see. The bridge is an excellent dive in itself and a doorway at the starboard side close to the seabed offers access all the way through the entire wheelhouse. It’s in here that an array of all instrumentation can be seen as well as gaining access to the navigation room and officers accommodation.
I had swum through the cinema with its 80’s style seats tightly packed next to one another, the last films that embraced the screen here the week leading up to her sinking were Beverly Hills Cop and Gremlins! On the stern Pete had taken me through the indoor swimming pool before dropping into the vast expanse of the engine room. This area is so vast I’m told that even the local divers dare not enter without a guideline! The only time I have seen the complete top of the huge engine was in a brilliant time exposure picture taken by photographer Mike Wilkinson (Wilco) with the assistance of Dr Simon Mitchell who swam around with a very bright torch.
Fallen from optic stands in areas like the Neptune bar and Atlantic deck we often came across bottles of vodka and in stores behind the bars stacks of cans of Fosters can be seen. Following the ship’s plans divers can tour around duty free, take a look into the barber’s shop, swim the winter garden and drop into the Nevesky bar. For the diehard divers like Pete and Mark Gibson I was with the real challenge is a penetration into the depths of the Leningrad lounge – some often returning with a gold leaf dish displaying the shipping line emblem. Maybe a cave diving course would be recommended before attempting this I thought, I’ll leave Mark and Pete to it.
The Lermontov story has been the subject of several books – a story too deep to cover here. In the aftermath Jamieson was never prosecuted and amazingly his best friend was appointed to head the inquiry. Many questions were asked with much Russian conspiracy surrounding the story. Today the files are still locked away in the national archives and Jamieson has never spoken a word about it since the inquiry!
More photos can be seen on the authors website www.deepimage.co.uk