The secret under the Sounds
A mysterious hulk worth exploring lies beneath the Marlborough Sounds, writes Andrew Stafford
Fourteen metres below the surface of the Marlborough Sounds, a mysterious rusting hulk looms out of the water in front of me. The MS Mikhail Lermontov, a Soviet Russian cruise liner, tragically sank here in 1986 and that ship is what I am here to see. As one of the top ten wreck dives in the world and the only cruise liner in recreational diving depths, I am very excited to see what the Lermontov contains. I started in the sunny harbour of Picton with the stunning backdrop of the Marlborough Sounds, the beautiful and dramatic landscape at the top of the South Island. We drove the 21/2 hours to Port Gore and arrived at the wonderfully remote Lermontov Lodge where we will spend the night.
After a spot of fishing, we enjoyed a fantastic dinner of locally caught green lipped mussels with a fresh, crisp sauvignon blanc (two of the most famous specialities of the Marlborough region). Over the meal, we all looked forward to the diving trip the next day while hearing the story of the doomed liner’s demise. The ship struck rocks on a calm summer evening at Cape Jackson and a 12 metre hole was ripped in the side.
The ship was evacuated by a passing ferry the Arahua and local fishing boats sent out from Picton as it listed onto its side, before sinking with the loss of one crew member. It was a huge topic of interest in the local area. Conspiracy rumours even abounded to link supposed KGB agents aboard with spying on the CIA base in nearby Blenheim - a true tale of intrigue. Whether any of that part of the tale is true is up for debate, but it made a fantastic tale for the evening.
The next morning, our guide and renowned local Lermontov expert Brent McFadden, of Go Dive Marlborough, has just completed our pre-dive briefing and we are bobbing up and down on a dive boat just five minutes out from the launching beach in Port Gore, donning our drysuits (it’s certainly not warm water in these parts) and our scuba kit. Out here, away from pretty much any civilisation, there is no sound apart from the waves slapping the side of the boat as we slip under the surface of the iridescent blue water.
We find ourself face to face with the Lermontov, beds of kelp waving eerily along the hull, with schools of reef fish hovering above the wreck..
Completing a quick stop to check trim, buoyancy and lights, we swim around the top of the wreck, taking in the sheer size of the ship. The 176 metre long cruise liner lies on its side in the seabed, at a maximum depth of 37 metres.
Thanks to great visibility, you can see it as soon as you submerge, and it’s hard to keep the excitement at bay as we fin our way into the wreck, Brent guiding us with hand signals and light.
Swimming through a ship has to be experienced and you get a ghostly sense of the opulence that the ship would have had in its heyday, with the evocatively named Bolshoi Lounge, Neptune Suite and Leningrad Restaurant. However, the welldressed tourists enjoying cocktails, and the Russian crew in crisp, pressed uniforms are
no more, instead replaced by a multitude of sealife, including moki, cod, carpet sharks, octopus, tarakihi darting between the rooms, watching us warily as we move through the peaceful interior of the ship. Over the two days we spent at the Lermontov Lodge, we completed four dives on the wreck, seeing the cavernous engine room, the movie theatre and far more throughout the ship. Sadly, we must eventually return to Picton and back into the real world. However, the hauntingly beautiful wreck will always be a fantastic memory for all who have visited her and, as Brent will attest, will keep you coming back to the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. Go Dive, headed by Brent McFadden for over twenty five years, is the only company that can arrange tours between one and five nights out to the MS Mikhail Lermontov, operating from Picton. The best visibility will be found between September and November, but the warmest water is likely to be experienced between December and May. Note: You require full Open Water certification to complete this dive. This can also be pre-arranged via Go Dive.