The se­cret un­der the Sounds

A mys­te­ri­ous hulk worth ex­plor­ing lies be­neath the Marl­bor­ough Sounds, writes An­drew Stafford

Go Travel New Zealand - - Marlborough -

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.

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