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When one wreck makes a right

Far from being abandoned relics, our fleet of coastal shipwrecks is teeming with life. Keen diver Hazel Phillips reveals how to see it for yourself.

Imagine a huge shipwreck off the coast of New Zealand. What immediately comes to mind? Probably the Rena, which has been described as New Zealand’s worst maritime environmental disaster. But how about the HMNZS Canterbury, the HMNZS Waikato, the HMNZS Tui, the HMNZS Wellington, or the ill-fated former Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior?

These unlucky ships, once stable, steady, useful and glorious, all sit on the seabed at various places around the country. Scuttled to become artificial reefs, these former frigates (and the Warrior) now teem with underwater life – and they’re almost as much of a magnet for scuba divers as they are for fish.

Wreck-diving enthusiasts have long dreamed about having a similar ship in the Tauranga region, but not even the most enthusiastic would have wished the Rena on the world. While other wrecks went through the process of decommissioning, stripping and scuttling, the Rena had no such preparation before she went to her underwater grave.

The Rainbow Warrior is a similar case – after it was bombed by French terrorists in 1985, it partially sunk while attached to its mooring in Auckland Harbour, but was later taken up north to the Cavalli Islands and scuttled.

It’s estimated that there are more than 3 million shipwrecks in total sitting on the world’s sea floor – including corroding World War II battleships, support vessels and oil tankers, considered by some to be ticking time bombs.

Being allowed to dive wrecks means getting your Open Water ticket, which involves three sessions of theory and two ‘confined water’ dives in a pool, then two weekends of open-water dives. This qualifies you to a depth of 18 metres, but most wrecks sit deeper than that, so you’ll need the advanced qualification too, allowing you to dive to 30 metres. Dive charters also require you to have logged a certain number of dives before you’re allowed down there.

I dived the Waikato frigate as part of my qualification. The instructor got us to undertake a task both on shore and under the water at 28 metres, to show us how impaired you can be from nitrogen narcosis (otherwise known as getting ‘narked’).

We were given a child’s plastic ball with shaped blocks that fit through shaped holes. On land the puzzle takes about 30 seconds to complete. Underwater, and narked out of my tree, I simply laughed and threw the shapes over my shoulder. My instructor wasn’t impressed.

But advanced certification in hand, I set off to investigate the HMNZS Canterbury and the Rainbow Warrior.

The Canterbury is a Leander-class frigate just like the Waikato, and with holes cut into the sides so you can do swim-throughs of the ship. Being a frigate, the spaces are pretty tight, so you have to wriggle through in some places.

As I’m gently drifting, I turn my head to the sides to see huge schools of colourful fish watching my every move. There’s a moray eel nearby (don’t argue with him!) and a couple of nudibranchs. Wreck dives aren’t marine reserves but are generally understood to be no-take zones, so the fish are inquisitive and happy to cruise along with you.

The Rainbow Warrior is much smaller (40 metres to the Canterbury’s 113) but just as full of marine life. There aren’t as many swim-throughs and, having been down there since 1987, the superstructure is gone and it’s more wrecked than ever before.

We even have a French guy, Maxim, on the dive, and he stays quiet while the skipper explains the history behind the wreck – later his nationality is revealed and we tell him all is forgiven.

A shipwreck might be an imposing, impenetrable hunk of metal, but it can represent both disaster and delight. As they say – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Hazel Phillips is the editor of Idealog. When not at her desk, she likes to cuddle sharks. Go to www.good.net.nz/sharks to read more

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