Pete Mesley is a regular visitor to the enormous ocean liner Mikhail Lermontov, and here he takes us on a whistlestop tour of New Zealand’s iconic tech-wreck
Sinking of Mikhail Lermontov
On the morning of Saturday 15 February 1986 at midnight, the 508-feet, 20,000-tonne Russian ocean liner Mikhail Lermontov departed Wellington to cross the treacherous Cook Straight for Picton at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound on the northern coast of the South Island. It had been chartered to travel company CTC for a summer cruising season in the South Pacific.
The following day she departed Picton at 3pm for Milford Sound on the southwest coast of the South Island. Captain Don Jamison, a Marlborough Sounds harbor pilot, was to remain aboard the vessel instead of leaving her at Long Island, so that he could be available to pilot the vessel into Milford Sound. There is much to see within the ship.
A total of 743 people were on board. Of the 372 passengers, 327 were Australians, including five children, 36 British, six Americans, two Germans, and one New Zealander. Of the 348 crew members, 330 were Russian, 18 were British, another nine were Australians, and there were 13 British CTC staff members in transit.
The weather was overcast with heavy rain and a 25-knot southerly wind, which was not conducive to sight-seeing, but Captain Jamison continued with taking the huge vessel very close to shore, as he had been doing since coming aboard. This finally proved fateful when the ship struck rocks at Cape Jackson. The situation was further exacerbated by the failure of the Russian Captain Vorobyov to initially accept assistance as the vessel rapidly took on water, and they limped towards Port Gore, where the mighty liner steadily slipped beneath the surface, thankfully with just one fatality among the crew, though the evacuation of all of the guests was rather fraught!
Diving the Lermontov
The lure of the Mikhail Lermontov is becoming far stronger, and more and more people are venturing into the depths of its holds and passageways these days. Dubbed by Richie Kohler as ‘the Andrea Doria of the South Pacific’, the Mikhail Lermontov sits in 118ft of water lying hard to starboard. She rests in Port Gore, off the top of the South Island in New Zealand. The port gunnel of the ship lies in just 39ft of water, and not far from the shotline is a stairwell leading to the ‘Winter Garden’ on the Salon Deck. The Winter Garden plays host to many rooms which are now accessible by the windows, which have been broken to gain access.
In the forward quarter of the Salon Deck is the social area. There are a number of bars onboard. Nevsky Bar is situated on the shallow (port) side of the wreck, while Astoria Bar is on the deeper starboard side. Further forward is the Bolshoi Lounge. This is where the crew entertained the passengers with traditional Russian dancing and music.
Heading aft on the same deck, just past the cinema is the library. There isn’t much in the library, but in the lobby just outside is a set of stairs. Under these stairs, stacked from floor to ceiling, are all the same books – Fundamental Law of the USSR! Some light reading for the passengers!
Swimming further aft you drop down through a double doorway (though the doors have long since gone) into the pool area. There is Neptune’s Bar, where you can enjoy a nice beverage while you cool off in the pool! There are still piles of VB Bitter, a popular Australian beer (only popular to the Aussies!) in the store room just behind the bar.
The Dolls Room Dive
One of the stand-out dives of this massive wreck is what has been dubbed ‘The Dolls Room’ dive. Situated on the starboard side of the Lounge Deck near the stern of the ship, this dive is no walk in the park.
Swimming over the top of the swimming pool conservatory, down past a set of stairs heading towards the Atlantic deck, you are soon at the entrance way. As you enter the deck at mud level, all ambient light is soon lost and the darkness of the wreck engulfs you.
You make your way forward keeping the ceiling (the right wall now) hard to your right side. Soon this becomes apparent as you pass a major danger obstruction – the pool store room bulkhead that is hanging by only one hinge! Once you make your way past that, the signs that you are really close to the dolls is clear – a small pair of feet protrude out of the silt and a single limb makes an attempt to get attention. As you edge forward some more, you will spot something on the floor. Skin coloured. Is that hair? As you get closer, a little face will come into view. Haunting eye open.
Staring. Divers all report the hairs on the back of their neck pricking up. All the hair used on these dolls was made using human hair, which often freaks people out even more! As you push forward, there is an open door above your head, and fabric wallpaper strands hang down from the doorway like a spider’s web waiting to entangle its prey. If you carefully angle yourself up into the opening, you are confronted by hundreds of faces staring down with their perfect blue eyes. It doesn’t matter how many times I do this dive, I can’t but help but think about that infamous sinister doll movie – Childs Play – where the main actor is Chucky the doll. So when my light pans over these lifeless faces in the blackest part of the ship, my heart rate increases!
The Engine Room
The engine room is another spectacular experience. Access is fairly easy through the skylights. Swimming into the main ventilation shaft, the most-powerful lights are quickly gobbled up by the vast expanse of darkness of the engine room space. Then out of the abyss, the top of the engine covers come into view. These Salzer diesel engines powered the twin screws, giving her a cruising speed of up to 21 knots.
Make no mistake, this wreck is a lot of fun, but also extremely silty and dangerous. In the first three years of her sinking, three divers lost their lives. But this was all due to lack of proper equipment, experience and training.
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver North America US #11.