Two Wrecks, Part 1: The Nord

This article is a little bit of a departure, as instead of dealing with things aquarist, its about things marinist. I know many of you harbor ambitions to observe exotic fish in the wild, as well as in your living room. So I thought I would write an article about going out and seeing the real thing. Of course, the best way to see fish in the wild is while under the water, and the ultimate activity of the amateur underwater tourist is SCUBA diving. Sure, you can see lots of great thing while snorkeling too, but there is something to be said for staying under water for an hour at a time.

So say you literally take the plunge and find yourself with fins on your feet, a tank on your back, and a mask over your face. Where do you go?

Well, I’ll tell you the story of two of the ten very best spots in the world to visit. Just in case you every get really adventurous. They are both early twentieth-century Australian steamer ship wrecks, the Nord and the Yongala.

Alas, neither wreck is for the novice diver, as they are both quite deep and potentially quite dangerous. I would only recommend that an experienced diver with at least an advanced certification attempt either trip.

This month, I’ll talk about the Nord.

The wreck of the Nord is located near the south-east corner of Tasmania, about an hour’s drive and then a forty minute power boat ride south-east of Hobart.

The area has a temperate climate, similar to northern California or Oregon. Tasmania’s west coast is very wet, but the east coast (where the wreck is) is quite dry in summer, but can be wet and windy in winter. Snow is rare at sea level, but temperatures can drop to freezing in the winter. Summertime high temperatures rarely exceed 30C. Ocean water temperatures are usually from 12C to 15C, but in late summer some inlets and bays have water in the low 20’s.

The wreck is quite close to Cape Pillar, the southeast corner of Tasmania, and to Tasman Island, a small island just south of Cape Pillar’s point. Tasman Island is the rocky home of the historically significant lighthouse that guided the way to the Port Arthur penal colony. Port Arthur was Tasmania’s first British settlement and it has a long and sorrowful history. It was the most brutal of the Australian penal colonies, and much more recently, the location of a massacre of 35 people in 1996.

The history of the wreck is quite interesting. The ship was delivering a shipment of 12,000 cases of benzine (motor spirits) from Melbourne to Hobart during an unusually late-season and severe “Sou-wester” in November of 1915. Unfortunately, she was too far from shore and so passed between two small islands called the Hippolytes, rather than passing inside them along the shipping lane. She then struck what was at that time an uncharted reef between the two islands. Although she did not flounder, the Nord began taking on water faster than the pumps could handle. Captain MacKay attempted to run to Port Arthur, but the winds around Tasman Island were too strong for the ship to make headway. He then backed off and tried to make it back to Fortescue Bay, a lovely inlet about ten kilometers to the north of Cape Pillar. However, the ship’s coal fires were extinguished by incoming water before they could reach the inlet. Now adrift, but relatively sheltered beneath the cliffs of the lea side of the cape, they rowed a line to the shore. The order was given at 7.15PM to abandon ship and all of the British officers and Chinese crew made their escape along the landline in a carry basket. The deserted ship sank at 2 AM on Monday, 8th November, 1915.

A picture of the Nord was featured in the January 1997 issue of National Geographic magazine, along with (among other things) pictures of the nearby Cathedral Caverns, and a picture of a great white shark taken at the sea lion colony at Isle des Phoques, about 50km to the north. Yes, there are dangerous sharks in these waters, mostly great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), locally known as white pointers; and mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), locally known as blue pointers.

Don’t worry about the sharks though.

White pointers are surprisingly picky eaters, and have only been known to attack divers at the surface near sea lion colonies, apparently mistaking them for sea lion pups. They are also becoming increasingly rare, so rare in fact they have now been declared a protected species in Australian waters. The area supported a large amateur fishery for them in the past, however, and the jaws of a near-world-record 6.4m female now adorn the wall above the bar of a nearby hotel. Rent the movie Jaws if you want some idea what a 6.4m white pointer looks like. Personally, I’ve never seen a white pointer but am acutely aware of their existence whenever I dive near a seal colony. Other than that, I give them less thought than I do the grizzlies while hiking in Banff.

Blue pointers are an offshore species that have never been known to bother divers. They feed on the tuna that still brings hundreds of fishermen to the area every summer. The tuna fishermen often catch them as well, and they are apparently quite delicious. I have seen this fish while diving on one occasion, and they are magnificent animals, with beautiful cerulean blue backs, snow-white bellies, and a perfect, sleek, and deadly shape.

My first trip to the Nord was in July 1994, and it was my most memorable.

Despite being literally a stone’s throw from shore, the Nord is in quite deep water at the base of a cliff. She rests upright on a steeply sloping sandy bottom with her stern toward shore. Her propeller rests at a depth of 36m, while her bow rests at a dangerously deep 52m. The top of her dilapidated wooden deck is at a depth of 28m.

Even the shallowest of these depths is capable of inducing nitrogen narcosis, a mildly to seriously incapacitating condition quite like alcoholic drunkenness. And the risk of the bends while ascending from these depths is very real. So only experienced divers who strictly adhere to the dive tables’ safety rules should be down there.

Getting to the Nord is an adventure in itself, as the boat trip goes along some of the most spectacular sea cliffs in Australia. The waters can be rough, however, and the wreck is surprisingly difficult to locate, so you really shouldn’t try going out there without a professional guide. Eagle Hawk Dive Center is the biggest dive outfitters in the area and will take suitably experienced divers down there whenever weather permits.

On the day I was first there, there were seven of us divers and the boat captain in a 6m Shark Cat (an open-water powerboat equipped with twin 140 HP outboard motors). The weather didn’t look to promising, with cloudy skies and strong winds from the west. In the lea of the coastal cliffs, however, the water was quite calm and there was surprisingly little swell. We were diving in two groups. The first group of five (including me) was only going to visit the stern of the ship in order to keep within the no-decompression depth limit of 42m. This is the maximum depth from which you can make an emergency direct ascent. But also on board were two dive instructors who planned a decompression dive to 52m. From such a depth it is mandatory to make a decompression stop at a depth of 10m and another at 3m to prevent the bends. The rest of us also planned decompression stops for safety reasons, even thought they were not strictly necessary. So we lowered two tanks over the side, and left them hanging from a large orange buoy at 10m and 3m depth to provide a depth marker, something to hang onto, and some emergency air while we decompressed.

Into the water we went. We descended quickly down the decompression line, then dropped through open water to the ship’s deck. Almost as soon as we started to descend did the dark hull of the ship become visible directly below us on the sandy bottom. The water was exceptionally clear that day by local standards, with 30m of visibility. The water was also pretty cold, at about 11C (after all, it was the middle of winter).

We dropped onto the deck, and then immediately spilt over the side to the sand bottom and the propeller. Dive safety guidelines dictate that you go directly to your dive’s deepest point and work your way up from there. A soon as we saw the propeller it disappeared behind hundreds of fish that filled the volume inside and under the wreck. The fish were of only two species: barber perch (Caesioperca rasor) and the much more abundant butterfly perch (Caesioperca lepidoptera). As a general rule, colder waters tend to have more individuals of fewer species than do warmer waters. Both of these fishes are members of the family Serranidae, which is well known in aquarium circles because it also contains the tropical anthiases, such as the purple anthias (Pseudanthias tuka). All serranids are smallish (about 20cm long) plankton feeders that are quite tame and gregarious. The butterfly perch is a rosy pink fish while the barber perch is a silvery species with iridescent blue head markings. Both would make lovely cold-water aquarium residents.

The butterfly perch were so thick that only when I actually swam up to the massive propeller did I get an unobstructed view of it. After swimming between the propeller and the rudder, I went up to the dilapidated deck. It would have been nice to swim into the hull, but we were neither equipped to do, nor planning to do, a penetration dive. I was also beginning to feel my judgement cloud with narcosis and thought better of entering a confined space. I did however sit on the ship’s toilet.

After very few more minutes of exploring, our six minutes of bottom time was up. The ascent to the 10m and then 3m decompression stops was uneventful: the water was so miraculously clear we could actually see the boat, the buoy, and the decompression line from the deck of the ship, so finding the line again was a snap. While we were waiting at the 3m level the two instructors finally arrived at the 10m level for their mandatory decompression stop. They waved excitedly up to us…a cause for sudden concern. A quick exchange of OK signals assured us that they were fine.

After a couple of minutes more we went to the surface and clamored into the boat. After another seven minutes we were joined by the two instructors, who immediately asked why we didn’t look at the sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) that was playing with our fins while we were decompressing. Ya, sure. But they were insistent. OK, there was a sea lion.

Almost as soon as we were safely back on board and got the boat back up to speed did we run into a pod of 30 common dolphins (Delphinus delphus) who came to ride our bow wave. They must have been pretty bored – a 6m Shark Cat doesn’t produce much of a bow wave to ride. Back on went our masks, fins, and snorkels. The motors were cut, and into the water we went. I was so excited that I put on a mismatched pair of fins and forgot to put my gloves back on. Usually, dolphins will just take off as soon as their bow wave disappears, but this group came right back toward us as soon as we hit the water. What followed was a merry game of tag, as six snorklers and 30 dolphins chased each other over a significant portion of the Pacific Ocean. The dolphins were quite friendly, but would not allow you to actually touch them. Instead, they would whirl at lightning speed just beyond your fingertips. It was also obvious that, like humans, dolphins “cue” on the eyes…when they look at you they look straight into your mask.

A sea lion (the same one?) also made a brief appearance, but he seemed quite intimidated by the (smaller) dolphins and didn’t stay to play.

After twenty minutes, the dolphins started leaving us behind, and the encounters soon dwindled in frequency. Then the dolphins left us entirely. We started back toward boat. The boat was by this time quite a ways away (and made no effort to come get us I might add) and so my hands were pretty cold by the time we got back.

The rest of the ride home was spent running the Shark Cat up and over the building swell for a fun roller coaster ride. Everyone was so high from the dive and the swim with the dolphins that the trip home just breezed by. It was one of the best days of my life, and one I’ll never forget.?