Diving for Lost Gold
During the calm, moonless night of June 13, 1940, the German merchant cruiser Orion slunk into the Hauraki Gulf to carry out a deadly mission. The assignment was to lay 228 mines in four separate places between Great Mercury, Cuvier, Great Barrier, Moko Hinau and Maro Tiri Islands. New Zealand presented an easy target. Feeling safe in the fact that they were isolated and a long way from the war in Europe, New Zealanders were not expecting an attack. The disquieting truth is while the Orion was in New Zealand waters, her German crew were able to pick up radio broadcasts revealing details of airfield and shipping positions and the types of aircraft in operation. With this information, the Orion was able to calculate the operating range of New Zealand's aircraft, and effectively avoid detection. By the end of the night, 13th June, the Orion's deadly web of mines was complete. War had been brought to an unsuspecting nation's doorstep.
Dubbed the "Titanic of the Pacific", RMS Niagara was the largest liner to operate in the Pacific at the time. With a gross weight of 13,415 tonnes, capable of 18 knots and accommodation for approximately 590 passengers, the Niagara could transport large amounts of cargo and passengers across the Pacific with new standards of speed and luxury. With the first-class areas decorated in Louis XVI style and boasting spacious apartments, the Niagara was the epitome of contemporary luxury. Passengers were always impressed by the amount of space available.
The bulk of the Niagara's service involved travelling the Canadian - Australasian mail line from Auckland to Vancouver, stopping along the way in Suva, Fiji. Beginning service in the Pacific in May 1913, she had proved an amazingly efficient and durable vessel, even outrunning a German raider, the Wolf, in WWI. However, this magnificent ship's fate was sealed on the morning of the 19th June 1940.
The Niagara falls
The last departure of the Niagara would be a late one. Setting off at 11:30 PM, she cruised out into the Waitemata Harbour towards the Hauraki Gulf. To all of the 136 passengers and most of the crew, this trip was no different than any other. Unaware of the existence of 590 gold bars stored onboard, which were to be used to help fund Britain's war efforts, passengers retired to their beds completely oblivious of the floating menace waiting patiently in the gulf. Also onboard was a large consignment on small arms ammunition - approximately half of New Zealand's stock - which was supposed to support the Commonwealth cause in Europe.
At 3:43 AM, as the ship was steaming off Bream Head near Whangarei, everyone on board awoke to a massive blast, as a German Y-Type mine exploded directly under the No.2 hold on the port (left) side of the ship. Captain William Martin attempted to save the stricken vessel by closing bulkhead doors to prevent the onslaught of water. But the Niagara had been terminally damaged. As the ship began to roll to port, Captain Martin, realising the ship was beyond saving and aware of the precious cargo, made an attempt to beach the ship to make the later recovery of the gold easier. He ordered "slow ahead engines" in an effort to move toward shore without increasing the rush of water, but it was too late. Martin made the order to abandon ship. Fortunately none of the 338 passengers or crew were lost. However the entire ship's cargo of gold, ammunition and passenger belongings were lost at a depth of 66 fathoms,120.7 metres.
At the time of the sinking of the Niagara the greatest depth a salvage had ever be successfully carried out was by an Italian crew on the Egypt at 120 metres. The initial reported depth of the Niagara was 60 fathoms (109.7 metres).
This meant, as the Niagara was lying on its side -and the fact that the ship was in a minefield - it would be at least as hard, if not more diffcult, to salvage as the Egypt had been. Unperturbed, the Bank of England pursued any possible options available. Captain John P. Williams of United Salvage Propriety in Melbourne was experienced in deep water salvage and eager to take on the challenge. He was given the contract to recover the gold in October 1940. Williams then hired renowned diver John Johnstone as Chief Diver due to his experience in salvage diving. All that now remained to be found was a vessel to perform the salvage.
World record for NZ salvage divers
The Claymore was a rundown steamer, found in Auckland Harbour, which was purchased and fitted for the salvage expedition. Described as a crew of "men and mere boys on an ill-equipped vessel" the crew set out on the 9th December 1940. Over the coming 10 months this "ragged" crew would recover 555 gold bars with a modern day value of approximately $150 million in New Zealand Dollars. The salvage involved the use of a mushroom shaped diving bell which was lowered to the wreck with Chief Diver John Johnstone inside. Thick glass viewing ports around the upper portion of the bell allowed the diver to survey the wreck provide guidance for the ship's mechanical grab which was used to pick up objects and tear away metal. When the salvage was complete on 7th December 1941, the London Daily Telegraph proclaimed it "the greatest feat in the history of deep-sea salvage" and the world record depth of 133 metres was claimed, 12 metres deeper than the Italian job on the Egypt.
Despite the success of the salvage, Johnstone still felt unfulfilled, knowing 35 gold bars remained on the wreck. Believing he knew the location of the bars, he returned to the wreck in April, 1953 as a part of the Foremost 17 crew. Aged nearly 60, he was too old to dive personally, and acted purely in an advisory role. It was on this return voyage that it was discovered that the depth of the wreck was actually 66 fathoms or 120.7 metres, not the 133 metres originally claimed. This startling new fact threw some doubt on Johnstone's credibility, as well his ability to actually locate the remaining bars. But he was soon vindicated when the first of an eventual 30 gold bars were recovered, on the second day of grabbing in the debris outside the bullion room. The bars taken on this trip had a modern day value of approximately eight million New Zealand dollars. John Johnstone died in 1976; his feats are still considered legend throughout the diving world.
The Niagara would not be visited be visited again until 1986, when Jacque Cousteau's New Zealand expedition dived the wreck using an underwater submersible named Denise.
Over $1 million still hidden on wreck
The legacy of the salvage and exploration of the Niagara continues, with adventurer and exploration diver Keith Gordon. Prior to John Johnstone's death he believed he knew of the location of the remaining 5 bars, valued at approximately $1.2 million New Zealand dollars. Armed with this information, Gordon acquired the salvage rights to the Niagara in 1988. Using new mixed gas diving techniques and divers, Gordon has made numerous attempts to recover the Niagara's lost gold.
But the wreck still lies deep on the ocean floor, and divers attempting to recover the missing gold are pushing the boundaries of human endurance. These and other factors have so far ensured the treasure remains elusive.
Untroubled by complications, Gordon plans to return to the wreck in 2007, using the latest technology and world class divers to recover the gold.
For now, the Orion's secret mission remains partially fulfilled, as long as some of the Bank of England's gold remains on the ocean floor.Although both the Niagara and the Orion now lie at the bottom of the sea, the elusive, golden legacy of both ships has helped write an important chapter in New Zealand's maritime history.
Many thanks to Keith Gordon, without whose help this article would not have been possible. Keith's book Deep Water Gold is an authority on the saga of the Niagara. Incredibly well researched and written, it is a must-read for all divers and adventure enthusiasts alike.
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