Precious Metal

At the time when a group of Sydney Project divers were diving the new wreck Wear of Montague Island, new information came from Rocco “Rocky” lagana a local fisherman in Bermagui that he have a position for what he believes is a large wreck. Keith Appleby was able to pass the area and verify the position on the GPS. This took him just two tries to confirm the site, and all that was left was to dive it to make sure that it’s a wreck.

Our interest was higher than usual with this wreck for one simple reason; we had no idea what wreck could be. With information given to us by Tim Smith from the NSW Heritage Office, we had a couple of wrecks in mind but the one that stood out the most due to the position is the Australian cargo steamer SS Iron Knight built in 1937. The Steamer was en route from Whyalla to Newcastle with a load of iron ore when it was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine I.21 in the early hours of 8 February 1943. Of the fifty crew on board only fourteen survived after being rescued from a raft by the French warship Le Triomphant. The vessel sank in 2 minutes whilst in a convoy of other vessels traveling north from Whyalla (SA) to Newcastle (NSW). The escort vessel was HMAS Mildura and HMAS Townsville.

I-21 was one of the 5 mother submarines involved in the Midget submarine attack at Sydney on 31 May 1942, shelled Newcastle on 8 June 1942, and sank the Iron Chieftain (3 June 1942), Kalingo (18 Jan 1943) and Starr King (10 Feb 1943). The submarine also damaged the Mobilube (18 Jan 1943) and Peter H Burnett (22 Jan 1943).

The historical significance of finding this wreck is very high, and brings us Australians closer to a time of our history when information was censored and the public was kept in the dark from war activities in our own backyard.

The weather through out the summer months proved to be the worst to date, and from three attempts to dive the deeper wrecks such as the William Dawes we were only able to dive the Wear. It was decided that summer is not going to be the season for deep diving on the South Coast and attention was diverted to cave diving in Tasmania, and that’s a story in itself.

With winter upon us my excitement was shared by the others in the group, and we were eager to get in the water and finally do some more work on these wrecks. The routine by now was to assemble the bottom divers and support then plan the expedition to its last detail.

With more members of the Sydney Project building experience on their rebreathers, and starting to do deeper dives enables us to do more trips and also enables more members to enjoy these magnificent wrecks. This trip brought two new members to join the expedition, Mark Eaves and Tony Keen, both very experienced Inspiration CCR divers, and also diving was Michael Kalman who has been one of the most active divers on all expeditions.

Of course the job can’t be done without a solid reliable support crew, and we had our usual super support crew in Frits Breuseker, Stephen Loneragan, Ivo Starski Nikolov and Josh James. Both Ivo and Josh were on our initial dive on the Wear. Having solid support is the foundation for a successful expedition.

With all planning out of the way it was time to drive south for the big day. The winds had been blowing through out the week and seas were rather large, but the forecast was for a reasonable window on Saturday May 27th. The early morning that day was not looking promising and seemed to be another fruitless attempt; I couldn’t believe our bad luck with the weather after 2 years of great weather. Keith Appleby and I decided to drive to town centre and check the sea condition from the headland. Further calls to a fleet of fishing boats out in the area confirmed reasonable conditions, even though the sea looked very sloppy with gray sky.

A decision was made to give it a go and check the conditions once onsite. The ride of just over one hour was not the most comfortable and getting all ropes and back up gear ready was pretty difficult. On arrival the sea looked reasonable and water pretty clear though it was hard to tell with the overcast sky.

After sounding the area for the most prominent feature of the wreck and a shot was dropped. To my horror the shot line was not long enough! How is that possible? I then realised that it was previously shortened for another purpose and I failed to make sure it was correct. With this set back and cursing myself for making such a stupid mistake, we pulled up the shot and added rope with the back up that we always bring with us. Not exactly the best start I hoped for but the shot landed in the right spot on second attempt. This time we decided to use a CQR anchor instead of our traditional depth accelerant, and it worked much more successfully.

With deco rigged and ready in the water it was time to get geared up. The thing I like about winter diving is that you are wearing all the thermals under the drysuit you don’t get as hot as in summer before hitting the water.

Upon checking my rebreather I noticed that my 3 liter on-board tank filled with air for wing and suit inflation had only 100 bars! I realised that I left the tank turned on after doing regular tests on the rebreather, and while the boat was on the way the regulator must have been bumped and slowly leaked from 240 bars. Ok no problem I thought, 100 bars should be enough for inflation! How wrong was I!

After meeting the other 3 guys at 6 metres we did a quick sensor and bubble check then we descended in about 0.5 knots of current. The water was very clear at least 20 metres all the way. The descent was at a good pace of around 20 to 25 metres per minute and took us around 6 minutes to reach 125 metres to the sand with the wreck in its’ full glory in front of us.

I have said on many occasions how the feeling is just amazing when you see a new wreck for the first time, and this was no exception knowing that we are on something that has so much history behind it and is a possible grave for 36 souls.

Our shot landed next to the bridge amidships on what we believe is the port side of this enormous wreck. I stopped to take in the scene while Mike was near the bridge which dwarfed him with it sheer size. The bridge area is every diver’s nightmare with trawler nets every, some suspended above the bridge by the buoys. Being there for the first time loaded with so much gear and not being familiar with the layout we had to be extra cautious. The cargo holds we saw were huge and looked like black pits. The area that we think is the bow seemed to be collapsed to starboard and may be where the torpedo hit.

While inspecting the wreck I had my own dramas. The 100 bar of air in the 3 liter tank ran out as I hit the bottom. I had enough buoyancy in the wing and all the bailout gas for inflation so that was no problem, but since all bailout are helium based I didn’t want to risk getting cold by using it, and decided that I was comfortable enough not to inflate the suit any further. I felt some water leaking into the suit but didn’t think it was much at the time, but infact my legs were getting soaking wet. On top of this my view finder on the video camera housing decided that it will flood! They say bad luck comes in three’s and my third was to come a little later.

With our time to go up, we made our way to the deco station. The support divers met us at the 30 metres mark, and it’s always reassuring to see them come and help off load the extra gear not needed anymore. I decided that I better send the camera to the surface to avoid any further damage, and regretted the decision two hours later when a Sun Fish joined us for one hour cruising at arms length.

Seeing animals on deco makes the time go faster, and the distraction was most welcome to keep my mind from the cold I was feeling in the dry/wet suit. Though my third bad luck came with one hour to go. One of my sensor cells in the rebreather failed suddenly and started showing PPO2 of 1.9! Most odd I though since it have been good through out the dive. This was not a major problem since the rebreather has 3 sensors and needs 2 sensors to keep the loop at the right PPO2, and I was at 6 metres doing O2 deco at this stage. Though the rebreather was trying to tell me about the failure in a form of a loud audible alarm from the buzzer located next to my head. This loud noise screamed in my ear for an hour and I was forced to shut the electronics to give my ears a rest for 5 minutes during air breaks.

With deco complete I was happy to get out of the water to take the wet drysuit off and then turn the buzzer off. Since I get sea sick on boats I had to take some motion sickness medicine to stop from getting sick on the way back, and was happy that the weather stayed calm throughout the day.

Once back in Bermagui it was time to celebrate our achievement with a well deserved beer, followed by a steak washed down with more beer. This was a day that we will remember for a long time to come and hopefully more divers will be able to visit these underwater museums in the future. We must remember that people lost their lives when these ships went down, and we must respect the wrecks and leave them untouched. Every diver that gets to dive such a wreck should consider themselves privileged.

The team will return on Saturday 17th June with scooters to obtain positive identification and video footage of the wreck. The wreck is being treated with respect in memory of the people that lost their lives during the horrible war that came so close to our shores. A reminder that war serves no purpose.

A special thank you to our support crew, Keith Appleby and Rocky.


Images from the Trip

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