Another descent into the unknown, another line that disappears on the blue below my eyes. It could be any dive site in the world, but this time, there was something special behind it: the MS Mikhail Lermontov, a Russian cruise wreck, lying on its side in 38m sea bed.

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The visibility overall didn’t look good since the beginning

There were a fair amount of preparations previous to this trip, compared to my usual “just take the always-ready dive gear” routine, not to mention the excitement of diving on a wreck that I’ve been hearing all about since I arrived to New Zealand. Everyone that has been there keep on commenting how technical and difficult it is: cold water, lots of silt and sometimes not a straightforward exit to the surface.  

It’s been 30 years since the cruise ship MS Mikhail Lermontov crashed in Pelham rock (7 meters deep) in Jackson’s reef, and dragged himself to Port Gore, in the Marlborough sounds, New Zealand. Since that night, there have been some mysteries surrounding it, with hundreds of articles written, and a similar amount of theories.

The history brief

The Lermi entered in service in 1973, after its 4 brothers on the series of writers named for the Russian liners fleet. She spent some years cruising between Russia and the US, moving to Europe after the ban from the US government to Russian vessels to enter their waters, as a punishment for the Afghanistan invasion. It was renewed in 1982 to include top class facilities, becoming a semi-luxury cruise for that time being. It departed Sydney on the 6th of February of 1986 with the promise of a “trip of a lifetime” around New Zealand.

When she was cruising around the Marlborough Sounds, a local experienced captain was on board, with the aim of helping the vessel to cruise around South Island sounds. This didn’t save the Lermi to hit one of the pinnacles, which ended breaching the hull with a 12 meters long gash.  As the Captain gave orders to try to reach the shore of Port Gore, the water penetrated three of the watertight bulkheads, causing the fail of the electrical system, with the consequent engine shut down.

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Jackson’s reef, as seen from a ship about to cross it

After that, the currents on the bay just did the rest. She started sinking by the bow, rising the stern higher until the bow hit the seabed. Then the stern started to sink, rolling at the same time beneath the surface, until the whole vessel was lying on 38 meters of water, at 90 degrees roll. Some of the locals said that the following minutes, they could see bubbles almost two meters above the sea.

Anything loose or buoyant on the ship shoot to the surface, and a mattress of bubbles were seen for days on the area. Locals in New Zealand still have chairs, lifeboats and diverse artefacts from the liner. Divers worked on the boat to make sure no oil spilt was make on the area, emptying the tanks of fuel and lubricants.   

 

 

Technical parameters

Displacement

10.742 net registered tons, 20.027 gross tons

Builders

V.E.B. Mathias-Thesen Werft, Wismar, in the former German Democratic Republic

Launched

18 March, 1972

Length

155 metres

Beam

23.6 metres

Draft

8.3 metres

Machinery

Sulzer Diesels, twin screw

Cruising speed

21 knots

Owners

Baltic Shipping Company

Port of registry

Leningrad

Passengers

700 one class

The diving side

The logistics to dive this wreck require a good amount of planning, as well as travelling. It is not easy to get to Port Gore, especially for someone based in the North Island or out of New Zealand. The two main options are flying into Blenheim, and then catch a ride to the lodge, if you are diving with Go Dive Marlborough, run by Brent McFadden; or, you can jump in the live aboard organised once or twice a year by Pete Mesley, that departs from Picton, after taking the ferry from Wellington and a plane from Auckland.

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Cruising the Marlborough Sounds, the ferry ride Wellington – Picton

 Usually, the conditions on the wreck are quite good, as it is protected from the wind on the Port Gore Bay area. Rare times you can have current on any of the dives, therefore the amount of silt that is on every corner inside the wreck, which makes it an extremely technical playground.

The top of the wreck is found in 14 meters of water, with a large population of blue cod patrolling it. You can descend to it in the main buoy that is installed on the wreck by Go Dive Marlborough. On these depth, you have virtually all decks of the wreck, due to its 90 degrees position on the seabed, nevertheless, not all of them are fully accessible. There are six decks to explore with direct exits, three decks with restricted access and another three that fully closed.

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Curious? blue cod

To get an image of the wreck dimensions, a diver could easily need 2-3 long dives on it, acquiring the awareness on the site and making up their own waypoints in their mind. One of the most confusing things is to swim in horizontal to change decks vertically! Not to mention moving horizontal on a staircase, the first feeling are that the stairs fell down, and remember, only one section to change decks again!   

During the first years, it was ransacked, specially on the easy access areas, leaving just a few artefacts on board, like some Tolstoy (among others) books, tea cups and mugs, some plates and the famous dolls. But this is to come on following reports.

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A view of the main tower

After ten dives on the wreck, my only feeling is that I know less than on the first dive, there’s too much to explore!

Overall diving statistics

  • Total in water time: 587 min
  • Nr of dives: 10 over 4 days
  • Water temperature: 13 degrees
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Wreck plan

References

The New Zealand Maritime Record

maritimeradio.org

New Zealand Geographic

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