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The danger of the RMS Niagara

Wade Doak describes a dive to the RMS Niagara, which sank in 1940, but could this rusting wreck devastate the pristine coastline and the Hauraki Gulf?

June 19, 1940: “Like a miniature regatta,” says rescuer Bill Reynolds. After a three-hour dash from Whangarei on a calm midwinter morning, his rescue ship found 18 lifeboats bobbing on gentle swells amid deck chairs, dunnage and other flotsam. Four hundred feet below, lying on its port side, was a huge twin-funnel luxury liner, once nicknamed “the Titanic of the Pacific”.

Built in Scotland in 1912, RMS Niagara was just 55m shorter than the famous iceberg victim. In the bullion room the liner carried to the seabed more than eight tonnes of bright South African gold: 590 bars. Just six weeks earlier the German raider Orion had slipped out of a North Sea port heading for New Zealand on a secret mission. On June 13-14, under cover of darkness, the disguised Q ship sowed 228 moored contact mines in shipping lanes in the northern and eastern approaches to the Hauraki Gulf.

One week elapsed. Then, around midnight, the Royal Mail Ship Niagara, on the second leg of its regular run from Sydney to Vancouver, steamed out of Auckland heading for Suva. Half a world away it was wartime. Consequently, the ship was carrying only a fraction of its passenger capacity: 146 people with 203 crew to pamper them. The bunkers held 4000 tonnes of viscid fuel oil.

As the ship glided at 16 knots between the Hen and Chicken Islands and the wink of the Mokohinau Islands lighthouse, about 50km off Northland’s Bream Head, the hull hit the horn of a mine. A glass tube smashed, acid spilt over metal and a surge of electricity detonated a powerful charge of amatol directly beneath the No 2 hold. At the order of Captain William Martin, crewman Ray Nelson helped the ship’s carpenter sound the bilges.

“Jesus,” he said, “the sounding rod’s gone right through the bottom of the ship.” Within an hour all on board, except the ship’s unlucky cat, which leapt back at the last moment, were safely in the lifeboats. Their warm home listed to port, then slowly stood on end before vanishing. “We felt the cold intensely,” said nurse H Monroe, among the dazed survivors drifting through the early hours, hungry and half dressed – until that welcome bow appeared. By nightfall, all were back in Auckland.

Within six months of Niagara’s sinking, the extraordinary year-long saga of gold recovery began. Encased in a two-tonne diving bell, guiding a one-tonne clamshell grab, diver John Johnstone recovered 555 ingots. This was an incredible feat, pushing the very edge of technology: a heroic crew with a minuscule budget and the formerly derelict support ship Claymore, whose single propeller was missing a blade. Part of a breakwater with wartime exigencies, the ship had to be urgently restored then pressed into service.

Then, in 1953, Johnstone raised a further 30 gold bars. But five remained: a total of 62kg of gold stamped AU (aurum) that still belonged to the Bank of England. Two thousand troy ounces – several million US dollars’ worth at today’s rates.

January 27, 1999. Six decades later: a day of superb calm. We are tethered to Niagara. The ocean is an intense turquoise blue that arouses awe in divers. Occasional blobs of black oil expand on the surface like dark jellyfish, and a small slick trails astern. Our eyes focus on the TV monitors in the cabin. The dancing summer shallows and whirling kingfish schools vanish, and out in the dim purple shadows a solid wall of golden snapper hover: the wreck’s advance guard.

Suddenly, a black mass looms ahead. The ship’s crow’s nest, not quite horizontal, is festooned with coral trees and gorgonian fans and patrolled by a sleek, square-tailed hapuku. Four of my oldest diving mates man this part of this first modern-day Niagara expedition. We were all toddlers or babes in arms when it sank. Jim White and Wyn Christie are paying out cable from the stern of Reel Passion, our charter catamaran. Jaan Voot, armed with recording gear, is crouched beside the instrument panel from which ROV (remotely operated vehicle) pilot Keith Gordon guides his little yellow submarine.

Almost a Niagara’s length below us the high-tech robot glides, hovers and spins in response to Keith’s fingers deftly tweaking the controls. A video eye registers on one TV monitor. Another monitor provides a multi­coloured sonar picture of an ocean liner lying on its port side, bow facing Auckland, keel towards the Whangarei coast. We’re watching at the end of a 460m cable as the sub powers along the mast to a vertical cliff of deck: shrunken timbers; projecting cargo booms; cross-topped derricks like weird religious symbols; bulbous bollards. It moves along the coral-sprigged sponge garden on the hull toward the superstructure. There are five mullioned windows, then a warped door ajar, explosion-twisted. We see gaping holes, with beams and girders awry. All the upper works have fallen away.

“Ship’s bell should be down there,” muses Keith, who has memorised large-scale plans of the gold ship. And then a great yawning hole: the bullion room entrance, its environs littered with torn and twisted steel plates, blasted and ripped asunder by Johnstone to admit his diving bell to the bullion boxes.

Everywhere there are cobwebs of trawl netting, ghostly white coral trees, and fish: cod, wrasses, tarakihi, porae, perch, john dory – even a blundering stingray. “This is fish city!” “There’s a gold bar.” Our sub, with its manipulator claw, closes in. A rectangular yellow sponge fills the screen.

Around midday Keith gives the signal two men have eagerly awaited: “Tim, Dave, like to gear up now?” Ultra-efficient ex-Royal Navy submarine diving officer Brian Oxenham already has their chase boat moored to the stern of Niagara. Six emergency tanks of breathing gas are attached to the shot line at intervals. Oxenham runs this historic pioneer scuba dive to Niagara with impeccable precision. Dave Apperley and Tim Cashman are fully suited and dive-ready in 15 minutes.

Saddled with five cumbersome gas tanks containing varying mixes of helium, nitrogen and oxygen, Tim leaps in. Dave follows, wearing a state-of-the-art mixed-gas rebreather. Old divers watch them disappear with apprehension. The plan is to spend 15 minutes exploring the rear section of Niagara. If all goes well, some three hours will elapse before they return to the “roof”.

The summer sea grows cold and dark. The shot line leads the divers down to a dim outline. Twin torches on their yellow helmets patch to and fro in the twilight. From the perpendicular counter stern, twin rows of handrails curve apart and lead forward along the promenade deck. Beneath the divers are portholes, deck lights, ventilators and brass fittings. They pass the ship’s hospital; they fin beneath the starboard docking bridge with its telegraph column and finally reach a cargo hatchway sloping away into a black void between decks.

After 900 precious seconds at 111m, they must begin their long ascent. Their last glimpse of the stern is a ghost trawl net with a tuna trapped in it. For nearly three hours they flutter gently like washing on the line, wondering about a chunky hammerhead shark they had seen at the outset, circling their chase boat.

“There’s a bit of Niagara in my thumb,” says Tim, as I thrust a recorder into his exultant, mask-imprinted face.
“What was the most poignant thing you remember of the wreck?”
“All those portholes. Rows of portholes facing upwards.”
“Your hand is one of the first to touch Niagara since she went down,” I remark, feeling proud for him.

Tim is delighted: “I suppose it is, yeah! What we need now are deep-water cameras to record it all.” He points at the picture of Niagara on my T-shirt. “We went through that little bit of an archway under the docking bridge. See the handrail leading upwards? That leads to the bridge.” In his sandpapery Aussie drawl, Dave says: “There’s a massive great cargo hold with black corals beside it. I couldn’t believe the size of her. It’s a mighty big ship.”

Tim fiddles with his thumb. He hands me a sliver of Niagara. Our expedition members agreed nothing should be taken from the wreck. Worldwide so many historic wrecks have been plundered and stripped bare. Relics vanish for so little real gain. Niagara is a time capsule of an era when people travelled leisurely and in opulence. (Relics, including the ship’s bell, the telegraph and the steam whistle from the ship’s funnel, were recovered by another dive team in 2007.)

When Niagara sank, people on the nearby coast reported oil slicks up to 7.5cm thick coating the shore. But how many of the ship’s fuel tanks remain intact? Since the Rena released its initial 350 tonnes last month, we have become highly aware of the effects of oil. It is possible the crumbling 70-year-old Niagara retains four times as much oil as that. A ticking time bomb that could spread a black tide down into Hauraki Gulf and, with the inshore drift, along Northland’s pristine coast. Around the Pacific, World War II wrecks are being explored and any oil removed. Will Rena alert New Zealand to this horrible heritage of human combat – or will we awaken one day to the curse of the gold ship?