I love the sense of vertigo descending into an unknown environment. The knot in my stomach was getting tighter and tighter as I descended onto New Zealand’s newest ship wreck, The Rena, recently open to divers and non-divers in April 2016.
The MV Rena was a 37000 tons cargo ship, owned by a Greek shipping company and operated by Mediterranean Shipping, and sunk in October 2011, after running aground on Astrolabe reef, 22 km off coast of Tauranga harbour.
The ship had 1368 containers on board, 8 of which contained hazardous materials as well as 1,700 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 200 tonnes of marine diesel oil. It was the biggest oil spill and marine disaster in New Zealand to date, and still holds that fateful title.
Thousands of volunteers participated during the cleanup of the area which took years, as well as the monitoring, to avoid what it could have been a catastrophic event for all surrounding marine life.
Almost every diver in New Zealand, for different reasons, wants to kick a fin around it, either for the fun of diving a wreck that is completely new, or for finding some new life on a virgin wreck, where still, not many human beings have been. Isn’t it fascinating the desire we have as humans to visit and explore areas where few have travelled before?
The wreck is located within a huge area, in five different parts, with three different dive sites, where in two of them, you can do two or three different dives, ranging from 12 meters up to 70 meters on the deepest part of the reef. What makes the Rena an advanced dive, is not the depth itself, if you keep it to recreational limits, but the dive site, located in open ocean with no shelters against any wind or incoming swell, on an area of highly variable sea and air conditions, including the possibility of huge currents.
When you descend onto the wreck, no matter from which buoy, after the rigorous few seconds of confusion on a new site, the first impression that you get is that you are facing a vast amount of metal, that has suffered massive environmental forces over the last few years, and you will notice all the stairs, and bent and twisted masts and metal pieces scattered around. You find yourself floating over a pile of rubble until you regain your orientation again and redirect the dive. If you face yourself towards the stern, the most intact part of the wreck, you can still imagine yourself running through the decks of the ship, making your space on the swim troughs and play with the kelp.
Due to the pressure on the hull, the ship cracked into two pieces, now sliding down the side of the reef. Also, parts of the wreck were removed, mainly for safety and for possible contamination reasons, as the painting had Zinc, Copper and Tributyltin, as did the accommodation deck and the port side. It is important to notice that not only fuel and oil are the contaminating substances on a ship wreck. It’s a huge task with all wrecks in the ocean in making sure that they won’t contaminate the environment, and it lasts not only a few months but years of cleaning and surveying.
Not everyday you can see the sinking of a wreck and dive it later, and what is more exciting, the way the wreck has blended with the marine environment and the reefs surrounding it.
It is one of those dives that you can’t do it just once.
The reef remained closed for diving from the demise of the ship until April 2016, that is almost 5 years of no fishing in that area. Diving reports on the first days of diving the wreck, show plenty of life, from Kingfish to Mackerel passing by Demoiselles and Snapper.
What is really impressive as well is that only 5 weeks later, on the same dive site, there was no sign of any of the above, giving a feeling of solitude and devastation to the place.
Two videos, five weeks apart show how the place has changed in such a short time:
April 2016: Count the fish!!!!
May 2016, five weeks later: Count the fish again
The differences are obvious in marine life on the wreck and the reef itself after only a few weeks of opening the fishing in the area. This post doesn’t promote a fight against fishing, but it is a call for a regulation on certain areas and the protection of our marine environment, that we all benefit from.
Marine reserves hold a much larger biodiversity than unprotected areas and combined with the exploration of a wreck what more does a diver want. The consultation for placing a rahui over the wreck site is still in process.
Photos by Rhia Spall and Belen Andres
Written by Belen Andres