Dive Trip to the Canterbury

After a couple of shore dives in November that Jacqui kept telling me were not representative of New Zealand diving, Rita and I were ready to find out more about what proper New Zealand diving was all about. So it was with great excitement that we headed off to Northland Dive on Boxing Day. Several others from BSAC New Zealand had gone up on Christmas Day for a massive Christmas Dinner so, as Mitch put it, they would be suitably “fattened up for the fishies”. They had then been out all day on Boxing Day diving at Cathedral Cave. Meanwhile Rita and I had been delayed somewhat by a scheduled Christmas Day party and an unscheduled, but not entirely surprising, Boxing Day hangover.  So it was around 6pm by the time we turned up at the Cowshed, the dive lodge run by Shane and Julia of Northland Dive. The plan was for 2 more days of diving.

After years of berating people at South China Diving Club for failing to bring enough beer to club events (i.e. enough for them, and some extra for me), I  found myself in the uncharacteristic position of turning up for a dive trip with no beer whatsoever.  Our efforts to impress our new Club were off to a flying start! So in an attempt to divert attention from my own idiocy, I proceeded to blame the DM for not warning us. Rather than giving me the stick that I deserved,  Mitch, being such a nice guy, actually apologised! Fortunately there was a shop that sold alcohol a mere 26km round trip away. Unfortunately by the time we got there it was shut. So I arrived at the Cowshed for the second time that evening in an even worse mood than the first time. But then things took a turn for the better when Shane and Julia took pity on us and sold me a case from their private beer supply.

With that near catastrophe averted,  we were finally able to be sociable and to start trying to remember everyone’s names. We had met most of the club members before. In addition to Andy and Fiona, Brent, Mitch and Jacqui, were Brett and Tony. They showed us how things should be done, by arriving with a year’s supply of Steinlager, several bottles of bourbon and raging thirsts. Finally there was Chris, Andy and Fiona’s son. He was just visiting for a few weeks, and it was one of  those bizarre coincidences where you travel 12,000 miles to the far side of the world, only to bump into someone who lives 5 miles from where you were brought up. He is studying paediatric nursing at Queen Alexander Hospital in Portsmouth, near where I used to live. (Reminder for next time I meet him: “paediatrics” is something to do with children, not feet. Although in my defence children have feet too, or should that be two feet? ).

After a great dinner, courtesy of Julia, it was outside to see the eels that live in the stream at the back of the Cowshed. There are some monsters in there. I’ve a feeling Rita and I may have failed to bolster our wildlife and conservation credentials, after a spirited discussion as to whether they are better grilled Japanese style in a teryaki marinade or  chopped up and cooked in a black bean sauce. A bit later on a few people prepared for the morning’s diving by getting an early night, while Brett, Tony, Rita and I prepared for the morning’s diving by cracking open the beer.

And so it was on the Monday morning that we headed down to the launch point for the boats. Northland Dive have two big RIBs that take up to 16 divers. Rita and I continued our attempts to impress our new club by being 20 minutes later onto the boat than everyone else. Rita thought she was wearing my undersuit under her drysuit by mistake so had to kit up twice. Meanwhile I was resplendent in a semi-drysuit that was intended for someone 6 inches taller than me, which I’d inherited from Andreas in Hong Kong. The neck seal seals perfectly, around my forehead! So all I need is a periscope so I can see out.  Having watched all this, Mitch very kindly offered to let us follow him and Brent around on the dive, although whether that was to make our lives easier or to make sure we didn’t do anything else stupid, he was too polite to tell us.

Photo of photo of the sinking

So with all of us finally on board, we headed off to the Canterbury. This is a Leander class frigate that served in the New Zealand navy between 1971 and 2005. She represented New Zealand at the Fleet Review for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. She displaced 2,945 tonnes, is 113.4 metres long with a beam of 13.1 metres and a draught of 5.5 metres, and was sunk as an artificial reef and diving attraction in November 2007 in Deep Water Cove. This was largely due to the efforts of Northland Dive who submitted a tender to sink her through the Bay of Islands Canterbury Charitable Trust. I spoke to Shane about it later, and it sounds as though it was a major project to get all the necessary approvals and to clean up the ship enough in preparation for the sinking. I am hugely impressed at all the effort that they went to.

There are 3 moorings on the wreck, one at the bow, one at the stern and one at the top of the mast. We tied up to the middle buoy and dropped down the line. Almost immediately the mast came into view at 14 metres, and as we got lower the superstructure appeared out of the gloom. Even though it has only been down for 3 years, it is starting to become colonised with life, but it still looks very much like it would have done before it was sunk. It is upright, on a very slight slope, with the bow in around 32 metres and the stern in 36 metres. We headed to the stern and did a tour of the helicopter deck before swimming into the hangar. From there we went forward, stopping off at the bridge before finishing up back on the mast and heading up the line for a safety stop.  We got back to the surface, where there was a small amount of competition for “Most elegant entry to the boat”. But there was considerably more competition for “Least elegant entry to the boat”!

With everyone back on board, we headed to a nearby beach for a very welcome packed lunch. Trying to redeem myself from our late start in the morning, I headed back to the RIB to try and be first to change my tank over. Despite being in standing depth of water, I think I won the “Least elegant …” competition by a country mile, when I overbalanced and fell back out of the boat completely. I looked around quickly to make sure no-one had noticed, only to find everybody sympathetically laughing their heads off. Fortunately no-one had been quick enough to capture it on camera.

After that, it was back to the Canterbury. This time Mitch took us down into the hole where the gun turret had been, and forward along a corridor to the bow. After a quick turn around the chain locker, we headed out of one of the holes that has been cut in the sides of the ship. There are a number of these diver-friendly holes cut in the top two decks to allow easy access. No holes have been cut in the lower two decks, which means they are more challenging for experienced wreck divers. We swam back along the ship and took one of the companionways along the side of the superstructure, before working our way back up the mast to the line, and finally onto the RIB. Gradually the others arrived back. Brett had quite clearly not read the user guide for his wetsuit, particularly the chapter Zips: Their Use and Operation, because he’d forgotten to do his up, although he did try and convince us it was because he’d been too hot on the dive.

Back at the Cowshed, we washed the gear and then Rita and I headed off on another 26km round trip in search of beer. This time we were in luck and the shop was still open. It’s not the cheapest beer I’ve ever bought, but it was cold and that was the main thing. In high spirits we arrived back and found Brett and Tony were already 5 beers ahead of us – a deficit we completely failed to overhaul.  The evening took a similar form to the night before. But with Shane’s rather pessimistic weather report that the odds of us diving on the Tuesday were about 50:50, Brett and Tony cracked open the first of the bourbon. Their decision turned out to be a good one, as sure enough, the wind picked up and our final day’s diving was called off, leaving us with a leisurely drive back to Auckland.

So is the Canterbury a good wreck? I certainly found it interesting, with a lot to see and explore, and in the two dives we did, we barely scratched the surface. Rita kept saying how “clean” it looked, a sharp contrast to the wrecks in Truk and Subic that we’d dived most recently, all of which had been underwater considerably longer and most of which were covered in coral and were much more silty inside. And what about the marine life I hear you ask? The fish aficionados among you may want to look away at this point, as my “renowned” knowledge of fish life gets an unexpected airing. There were lots of juvenile filefish(?) all over the ship, and on the starboard railing below the bridge was a very large scorpion fish (?). On the second dive , where we were surrounded by a massive school of what may have been snapper(?). There were also a number of nudibranchs(?) on the superstructure. Now you can probably see why that part of the report was only intended for those of us who are piscatorially challenged,  those of us who don’t know our wrasse from our elbow.

When I was younger I was lucky enough to visit a number of Leander class frigates at Navy Days which used to be held every year at Portsmouth dockyard. It surprised me how many memories of those visits that the wreck brought back to me, and how well I could remember the layout and appearance of the ship, although the helicopter hangar seemed a lot smaller than when I was 12 years old. Despite missing the final day’s diving, it was a great trip and I hope to be back to dive the Canterbury again very soon.

Thanks in particular to Mitch, who in addition to acting as dive manager for the weekend, sorted out tanks for us and led us around the ship. Thanks also to Fiona and Jacqui, who were busy instructing, and to Brett and Tony for providing the entertainment. A big thank you to Shane and Julia for their hospitality and for running a very professional operation while managing to be very friendly, helpful and flexible.

About Neil Hambleton

I am a British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) Advanced Diver and an Open Water Instructor. I have been diving since 1992, after joining South China Diving Club (SCDC), which is a Hong Kong-based branch of the BSAC. Having moved to New Zealand, I am now a member of BSAC New Zealand.
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