The Mikhail Lermontov was a 20,000 tonne luxury Russian cruise liner which sank in 1986 after striking submerged rocks on the Northern end of New Zealand’s South Island. Sinking in 36 metres of water, the wreck is not particularly deep, but its enormous size makes it a technical diver’s paradise! Lying on her starboard side, with 12 deck levels, the largest covering 3500 square metres(!) this wreck is simply massive. Behind Titanic and the Andrea Doria, the Lermontov is the third largest ship ever to sink outside of times of war!
In late September three Rusthunter members made the journey across to the land of the long white cloud to dive the wreck. True to its reputation, the NZ weather was damn cold, so it’s easy to understand why the locals like to cuddle up to their woolly friends for warmth! Temperature aside, the trip was fantastic, and an adventure in every sense of the word – from start to finish.
Arriving in Wellington, we boarded Sweet Georgia, our home-on-water for the next five days, and began the 6 hour crossing of the notorious Cook Strait during the night - in some pretty average conditions. A number of the 12 divers on board took turns in praying at the Porcelain Alter during the voyage– and their prayers must have been answered! Upon reaching the Sounds of the South Island, we entered a different world. Majestic high cliffs towered all around, and oily calm water lapped gently at the sides of Sweet Georgia. We anchored for the night and after a massive feed we got some sleep in anticipation of the next day’s dives.
After a short steam through the Sounds the next morning we arrived at Port Gore, a secluded and very isolated little bay which is now home to the wreck of the Mikhail Lermontov. From the very first dive we were blown away. Not only is the size of the wreck startling, it is so intact that many of the curtains still hang down eerily in your way, and the rooms are littered with personal belongings such as suitcases and clothing! After several orientation dives around the superstructure we started to get our bearings, and carefully studying a set of deck plans made some exciting penetrations to some of the lesser visited areas inside the wreck. There are bars, lounges, shopping areas, a restaurant, a barbers, a swimming pool, a library, a cinema, kitchens, a gym, a sauna and literally countless accommodations that make this wreck a literal labyrinth of rooms and passages, not to mention the engine room, which when the ship was upright stood six stories high! On our longest penetration we laid over 600 feet of line at an average depth of 37 metres (actually below the seabed outside the wreck!)
That said, we were very respectful of the potential dangers, and our forays within were gradual in their nature. Once you are off the beaten track, to say this wreck is silty is a gross understatement. A diver’s exhaust bubbles alone can cause the silt to rain down from the ceiling turning the visibility to zero. Add to this the countless wires that hang down in many of the corridors, the huge rolls of carpet which hang precariously from what is now a wall, webs of improperly laid cave line left abandoned in the wreck, and a confusing array of staircases a diver must swim “up” to go “down” into the ship, there are constant reminders to dive well within your limits and exercise caution at every turn!
However it’s not all for the technical minded. There is simply so much to see from the outside as well, and the wreck has something to offer divers of all levels. A casual swim along the winter garden lets you peer into many of the areas mentioned above, natural light flooding in through the myriad of broken windows above. The huge props, lifeboat deck, bridge, deck cranes, and the crack in the ship’s hull where it struck the rocks are all exciting places we visited, and all within reach of divers who prefer open water.
Trips are organised during September and October by Pete Mesley (www.petemesley.com) and I couldn’t say a bad word about the whole trip. Sweet Georgia is super comfortable, and makes an excellent dive platform, food is plentiful and delicious, the crew are friendly and professional, and the diving is brilliant. I guess that’s why we’re already planning next year’s trip…