british Canadian Australasian Line Ltd. SS Niagara (+1940)
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nationality british
purpose transport
type passenger/cargo ship
propulsion steam
date built 1913
is nickname no
live live
weight (tons) 13425  grt
dimensions 159.93 x 20.21 x 8.56 m
material steel
engine 2 x 4 Cylinder triple expansion and LP turbines, triple shaft, triple screw.
speed 17  knots
yard no. 415
IMO/Off. no. 135193
about the loss
cause lost mine
date lost 18/06/1940  [dd/mm/yyyy]
casualties 0
about people
John Brown & Co. Ltd., Clydebank (Scotland)
engine by
John Brown & Co. Ltd., Clydebank (Scotland)
last owner
[1]Canadian Australasian Line Ltd., London
SS Niagara (+1940)
period 1931 ~ 1940
IMO/Off. no.: 135193
prev. owners
[2]Union Steamship Co. Of New Zealand Ltd., London & Dunedin
SS Niagara
period 1913 ~ 1931
IMO/Off. no.: 135193
captain Bill Martin
about the wreck
depth (m.) 121 max. / -- min. (m)
war grave
entered by Allen Tony
entered 18/06/2008
last update Vleggeert Nico
last update 18/11/2013
Allen Tony28/06/2010
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  The Wreck today  

Cashman Tim28/06/2010

Niagara 99 Expedition January 1999 Tim Cashman

The Lure of Gold Beneath The Sea “Gold from the Sea” by JRW Taylor suggests that the word “Gold” invokes the imagination for romantic and wild adventure to far greater a degree than the metal itself, and that yarns of a wreck lost with a cargo of treasure are the stuff that dreams are woven around. I think he’s right. Under our very noses, right here and right now, in the Hauraki Gulf lies just such a ship! RMS Niagara The Royal Mail Ship, RMS Niagara was designed by Coll McDonald of New Zealand’s “Union Shipping Line”, and built by John Brown & Co. in Clydebank in 1913, to the highest standards of the great ocean liners of her time. 525ft long, 66ft beam and 34ft draught with a displacement of 13,415 tons she was a luxury ocean liner. She served the Pacific route for quarter of a century and became an icon of style, quality and reliability. The Union Line considered her “their perfect ship”. RMS Niagara ran literally millions of miles, crossing the Pacific Ocean between Vancouver, Auckland and Sydney and became affectionately known by her passengers as the “Titanic of the Pacific”.


On June 19th 1940, Europe was at war and New Zealand as part of the Commonwealth was included. Captain Bill Martin had been in command of the majestic “RMS Niagara” for 4 years, but today was particularly special. He was entrusted with a secret mission! He was to ship 8 tons of gold bullion from Auckland to Vancouver! There it was to be paid to the USA for “munitions” for Britain’s struggle against the rising threat of the Nazis in Europe! Japan and the USA had not entered the war when RMS Niagara left Auckland that fateful day, but the German raider “Orion” had. Under the cover of darkness Commander Kurt Weyher had spent his evenings laying an extensive minefield in the Hauraki Gulf earlier that very week! The Niagara was the minefields first and richest victim. Fortunately she sank gracefully in a calm sea with no loss of life. All the passengers and crew were returned safely to Auckland later the same day, but RMS Niagara now lay in “Davy Jones Locker” 120 metres down with 8 tons of gold in her strongroom! Coll McDonald, designer of the Niagara, was broken hearted that his “perfect ship” had been lost, but took comfort that she “sank like the lady she was”. Captain Bill Martin went on to command other ships and completed a distinguished maritime career but Niagara remained his favourite command. This is how special the Niagara was in service, but her fame was to increase even further after her loss!

Deepest Salvage Ever Attempted

Shortly after the sinking, one of the worlds most famous salvage expeditions was embarked upon. This was claimed to be the deepest salvage attempt ever carried out at that time although an Italian effort off France had been carried out at very nearly the same depth. (Egypt 125m). A salvage crew, led by Captain J P Williams, was assembled, and an old decrepit coaster, the Claymore, was made available to the salvage team. First they had to salvage the Claymore which had been abandoned in Auckland as a hulk! Then they set about the salvage of Niagara’s gold! A monumental effort ensued against all the odds. Using a purpose built observation chamber Chief Diver “Johnno Johnstone” was lowered to the wreck. From there he guided a grab, operated from a crane on the ship 400ft above him, by telephone! Over a year of continuous hardship they made slow progress. With a grit and determination which most people would mistake for obsession, they recovered the majority of the gold! These men got the job done against all the odds with minimal equipment and support from anyone but themselves. They proved that anything is possible provided you’re serious enough and were largely responsible for my own inspiration to dive the wreck. Johnno Johnstone repeated his technique in 1953 with a more delicate grab and recovered more gold. Finally it was deemed uneconomical to continue the search for the last five gold bars that remain unaccounted for, to this day.

Technical Diving Opens The Way

Since that historic effort, diving techniques have developed to make the Niagara accessible to divers, just! At 120 metres (390ft) deep the Niagara is near the limit of the emerging sport known as Technical Diving. The pressure at this depth is 13 bar (190psi) where air becomes narcotic and toxic to breathe. Utilizing customized blends of Helium, Nitrogen and Oxygen known as “trimix” these toxic and narcotic effects can be controlled but not eliminated. Long decompression schedules must be followed to the letter. There is no room for error so planning and preparation must be thorough and meticulous. Under strictly controlled conditions dives to such depths have been successfully completed in other parts of the world. Ingredients For Adventure RMS Niagara lies less than 60 miles from home and I have the experience to dive her! Keith Gordon of Searov Technologies has researched the Niagara story and obtained exclusive permission to access the restricted wreck site. Keith also owns a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). (This is a mini submarine operated from the surface by cable. It is self propelled and fitted with lights, closed circuit TV camera, video, stills camera, sonar and even a small claw!) Pete Mesley is the only other diver I know of in New Zealand qualified to dive to these depths. He also lives locally. My fellow members of the BSAC are well versed in wreck diving procedures and could provide a potential support diver crew. The dive charter fleet at Tutukaka could provide boat support. If I could mobilize this lot, to all work together, in the same direction, at the same time, there was a real chance of a New Zealand Team diving on RMS Niagara. The ingredients for a fantastic expedition were in place. All I had to do was follow the example of the crew of the Claymore and make it happen! Niagara 99 Expedition is Formed Keith and I joined forces and by sharing costs we agreed to initiate a diving and ROV exploration of the wreck. Keith was in overall control of the expedition and I was responsible for the diving team. Planning The Dives Our basic dive plan was to “shot the wreck”, “stage cylinders on the line” and “run a chase boat”. The “shot line” is a grapnel and line attached to a buoy. We used it to hook the wreck and provide the divers with a guideline to and from the surface. “Stage cylinders” are spare dive cylinders with regulators attached. They are fixed at strategic points on the shot line as reserves, in case our personal supplies failed. We planned to ascend up the shot line breathing our own gas supply, but should anything fail, eg from a burst O ring or freeflow etc, we could switch to the stage cylinders as back up. The “chase boat” was an inflatable that could re-establish contact with a diver if he failed to return to the shot line for his ascent. This could be done by lowering a “dropline”, pre-rigged with spare stage cylinders, to the drifting diver. Two complete sets of droplines were available. The intention was quick response deployment under any circumstances. Finally we held more spare gases available to replenish used cylinders if necessary. Skilled support divers with small boat experience and dive organization skills are essential for deep trimix support work of this nature. The support team was run by Brian Oxenham, an ex RN Submarine Diving Officer, better known as Captain Nemo! (and the source of strange submariner terminology!) He also owned the inflatable and is the Diving Officer and a founder member of the Auckland BSAC. Decompression Schedule and Gas Selection Air Liquide specified and supplied the special high purity grades of Helium and Oxygen we used to blend our gases. We selected a “bottom mix” containing 57% helium, 34% nitrogen and 9% oxygen. We used air, nitrox 50 and oxygen as decompression gases. The trimix blend would yield an oxygen partial pressure of 1.2 bar on the bottom, reducing the risk of oxygen toxicity, and would give us the same nitrogen narcosis level at 120m that we would experience if breathing air at 46m. We used “Z Plan” to generate decompression tables and opted for a 15 minute bottom time because we could carry all the decompression gas we needed for the dive. A bottom time longer than 15 minutes would mean we would breathe more gas than we could carry, so a return to our staged cylinders would be mandatory. In the open sea there is always a risk that this won’t be possible. A risk we didn’t want to take.

Practice Practice Practice

That’s the theory, but practice makes perfect so practice we did, time and time again. We started our preparation in Lake Pupuke, by rigging lines, practicing deploying the shot line and conducting “dropline ascents” between the eels! This went according to plan until the hospital administrator threw us out! (We had used the wrong access ramp so don’t go there). Next we chartered Phil Bendle’s boat, “Norseman” at Tutukaka for a weekend where we repeated the exercise at the Poor Knights. An 80m trimix dive off Fred’s Pinnacle was followed the next day by another “dropline” practice outside Rikoriko Cave. We decided at this point to mark the shot lines every 10m with orange fluoro paint. This helped the chase boat crew pay out the correct length of line when fitting stage cylinders. Little did we know what side effect this would have later! HMS Puriri Dive Jan 9th 1999 At this stage the team was ready for a “big dive” so we again chartered Phil Bendle’s “Norseman” and went to the wreck of HMS Puriri. This wreck had been a coaster which the Navy commandeered for use as a mine sweeper following the sinking of the Niagara. HMS Puriri unfortunately swept one of Commander Kurt Weyher’s mines with her own hull! She was blown in two, killing 5 men including the commanding officer. She became the minefields second victim even as the Claymore was salvaging gold from the Niagara. Pete Mesley and myself completed a dive on HMS Puriri on Jan 9th 1999. This wreck had not been dived before, although Keith Gordon had taken video footage with his ROV some years earlier. We reached a depth of 98m and found the rounded stern section broken away from the superstructure and hull. The ship was severely damaged and really reduced to a wreck site rather than a wreck. Our objective had been to conduct a dress rehearsal for our attempt to dive the Niagara in two weeks time so we didn’t give this wreck the attention it deserves. (Another project waiting to be explored). Our support team had performed impeccably so I was now confident that the months of preparation and practice were paying off and our team was finally ready. “Niagara 99” Begins On January 21st an expert technical diver, Dave Apperley, joined our team from Australia. Dave and I had dived together in the Pearse Resurgence two years previously. On that expedition we had recovered the body of a lost cave diver from 85m, so I knew I could rely on Dave! Since then he had acquired a “Buddy Inspiration” Closed Circuit Mixed Gas Rebreather and was keen to try it out on the Niagara! (Incidentally Dave had given up smoking some 2 years ago and was now hooked to nicotine chewing gum! Constant offers of “Chewy Mate?” plus the use of the rebreather earned him the nickname “Marine Boy” for those who remember the kids cartoon).

ROV Reconnaissance

On Wednesday 26th January 1999 our charter boat “Reel Passion” skippered by Bob Ash, anchored over the Niagara. We launched Keith’s ROV. After some difficulties with tangled cable the ROV arrived in position on the forward deck area. The team was glued to closed circuit TV monitors for a view of the wreck. Keith deftly manipulated the joystick controls. The ROV obediently swiveled round panning the TV camera across the wreck. We all saw a view of the mast and crows nest we will never forget. The ship lay on her port side. The mast pointed out horizontally and the ROV was looking along its entire length! The floor of the crows nest had gone and we could see right through it and beyond. Black coral trees now grew on the horizontal mast and fish patrolled the site. The whole scene was backlit by a surreal blue light with silhouetted wreckage standing out. When the video lights came close to the wreck bright colours sprang out of the gloom enhancing the scene further. We were still gasping with wonder at the mast when Keith steered the ROV towards the superstructure! The bridge had collapsed onto the seabed to the right, portholes were visible in the hull plates on the left and Georgian style window frames lay open in front! These views were reminiscent of the Titanic film. RMS Niagara had been referred to as the “Titanic of the Pacific” and now this seemed even more appropriate! That was enough for Dave and I. We decided to go and see her for ourselves! The Shark We began to kit up. While I was pulling on my drysuit a large black fin cut the surface in the background! No it couldn’t be? I said to Brian, “Take a look over your shoulder”. He looked and sure enough a large hammerhead shark was patrolling the divesite! It soon caught the attention of the rest of the team. Dave and I were assured that big hammerheads wouldn’t dream of hurting us. I quote skipper Bob Ash: “They’re too well fed”. Thanks Bob. What do you think? I’m a great believer in leaving the wildlife to its own devices hoping for a reciprocal arrangement! It seemed curious yet cautious as it kept its distance and was not nearly indifferent enough for my liking. Finally it lost interest and left, so in we went.

The First Dive on RMS Niagara

The visibility was excellent at over 100ft with clear blue water. Dave spent 10 minutes at 6m breathing on the rebreather. This technique is necessary to ensure the CO2 absorbent reaction is fully underway before the dive starts in earnest. We used this time to check for leaks and to relax from the exertion and apprehension of kitting up. Brian logged our decent at 11:53. Dave was ahead of me initially but I overtook him as pre arranged at 50m. I switched my breathing gas from air to trimix as the depth increased. Dave sank slower now as he checked the setpoint of his Buddy Inspiration Closed Circuit Rebreather. At 60m I was startled by a dark shape moving fast. Was it the hammerhead we had seen earlier, or tricks of the fading light enhanced by nitrogen narcosis? A school of kingfish swept into view from the depths and circled us rapidly. My mood ricocheted from alarm to euphoria! I knew then that we were in for a stunning dive. We sank deeper and deeper following our yellow shot line, losing buoyancy as the air in our drysuits compressed. I slowed my freefall to the abyss by injecting air into my suit to compensate. The bright sunlight was fading now and a twilight world approached us from below. At 80m we passed through a thermocline where two layers of water meet. The temperature dropped from 20 degrees above to 16 degrees below the watery divide. I shivered instinctively although my suit protected me from the cold. A dark mass in the gloom below was taking shape. As we approached, it receded, undulating ominously! The outline hardened. Unknown spectres fled and familiar objects took their place. Fish! A shroud of golden snapper parted like the curtains in a theatre, dramatically revealing the wreck of RMS Niagara! She was lying on her port side all right! Two rows of handrails curved downwards following the rounded stern. Rows of portholes perforated the slab like expanse of her mighty hull. As I looked left and down, ventilators and deck fittings filled my view. Up and forward revealed an ongoing line of handrail and hull with yet more portholes. The expanse of the ship seemed far greater now than her vital statistics would suggest. My eyes adjusted to the dim blue light revealing more and more detail to take in! I turned to Dave. He too was gazing in wonder. Our excitement mounted. Dave was now calling profusely into his rebreather with a helium distorted voice and gesturing with his arms. I couldn’t understand a word he said but I knew exactly what he meant! It was a stunning sight to see a huge ocean liner lying undisturbed on the seabed. Not everything we saw was so pleasing. There was an old trawl net snagged across the wreck which demanded respect. At 110m deep this could be a real hazard. It had trapped a large tuna which now lay dead as a warning to us. We avoided it carefully. As the ship lay on her side the timber decking that should be below us, now formed the wall on our right. The wood had decayed releasing its hold on the screws and bolts which secured fittings to the deck. These had fallen onto the now horizontal walls of the superstructure. We later learned that we were passing the ships hospital which is clearly visible in photos of the ship. Dave examined a deck light comprising 3 glass prisms set in a brass frame. It would have allowed daylight into the compartment below the deck while being strong enough for passengers to walk on during a stroll around the ship. Now it lay loose on its side with no deck to hold onto. I saw an oval brass fitting which might have been the mounting socket for a hand tool. An open hatch cover invited access to the inside of the wreck. I shone my torch inside and revealed a huge void with no visible end. Within this black maw the only visible object was a large cylinder some 5ft in diameter with numerous regularly spaced perforations. An unusual item like this might be identified later but so far we haven’t found out what it was. We do know we were looking into the hold beneath the stern mast where cargo would have been loaded. Gravity would have caused most of the cargo to tumble to the lowest point when the ship came to rest on her side. This may explain why the space was so large and apparently empty. I checked my depth gauge and timer and realized it was already time to turn back. We had been at 110m for a fleeting 11 minutes and had only 4 minutes more before we had to leave. The leisurely return trip took us along the starboard boat deck! A hemispherical light with a brass cage around it, drew my attention briefly. I pointed it out to Dave. This type of fitting would definitely show up in old photos. As we worked our way back we swam under the starboard docking bridge. This was a steel platform with a handrail around it. Officers could walk out to the end of this gantry to a vantage point where they could see right along the length of the ship. There was a telegraph here, which the officer would use to send manouevring instructions to the engine room below. Tempting as it was to go in search of this telegraph, prudence prevailed. I reminded myself that I was in “Davy Jones Locker” nearing the end of my planned gas supply, and still had a long decompression obligation to face. We stayed respectfully clear of that ghostly trawl that formed a canopy overhead! The ascent began with both of us looking down, reluctant to leave so soon. As we ascended up our shot line, the shroud of golden snapper once again closed around their home and the wreck faded into the depths below us. Decompression Stops As the view of the wreck faded into the depths the long decompression stops began. We carefully followed our schedules and like hypochondriacs watched ourselves for symptoms of the bends. At 20m Dave reported a ringing sound in his ears then red spots before his eyes! This was alarming as we still had a very long time to go. A serious problem now would mean ascent followed by emergency recompression treatment. The odds of survival would be minimal. Dave only saw the red spots when he looked in one direction. I remember thinking, “His brain’s going too. Its getting worse! I wish these fluoro paint flakes would stop clouding the water. Click! He thinks the fluoro paint flakes coming off Brian’s shot line are spots in his eyes!” I laughed mainly with relief! It took nearly 3 hours of decompression interspersed with visits from Brian and support divers before we finally reached the “roof” again. Surface (sorry “Roof”) I climbed out of the water feeling a mixture of euphoria at having dived on the Niagara, a deep sense of achievement that our dive plan had worked, and immense relief that everyone had returned safely. A quiet moments reflection would have been welcome to gather my racing thoughts, but it was not to be! Members of the ROV team thrust dictaphones in my face, cameras flashed continuously and a barrage of questions began! And who can blame them? They all dived with us in spirit, and had an insatiable need to know everything we experienced. I had planned as much of this dive as I could and rehearsed all the contingencies I could think of but I just wasn’t prepared for this! I hope there aren’t too many expletives! I had a metal splinter in my thumb and Wade Doak thought it exemplary that it was the only piece of metal we had “salvaged” from the wreck! We had visited the wreck deliberately without disturbing the environment she had woven about herself. A unanimous agreement had been made by all of us, not to salvage any artifacts unless they were used to build a display in the National Maritime Museum. To do this would require a few specific items which would enhance the story and be of interest to museum visitors. The real treasure would be video footage and photographs. Keith’s ROV would provide these so Wade had nothing to fear!

Expedition Niagara 99 Continues

The following day the weather packed in again! It seemed we had grasped our window of opportunity and although we stuck it out until the following weekend we didn’t get another chance to dive the wreck. We will though! The first visit by divers to this magnificent ship has barely scratched the surface. Most old ships are decommissioned after an uneventful life, broken up for scrap and forgotten. RMS Niagara lives on, right under our noses, her incredible history still unfolding! Project Niagara 99 to be continued…………………………….


Sincere thanks to our sponsors who made this dive possible: Air Liquide: Mike Skinner for specifying and supplying the highly specialized gases necessary for these dives. Reel Passion Charters: Alistair, Bob and Chris for their patience and hard work to support our weird requests, strange timing and for reducing their charter rate! Poseidon New Zealand: Paul Carrington for loan of regulators and high performance diving equipment. Searov Technologies: Keith Gordon for negotiating access to the wreck site and organizing Project Niagara 99. Norseman Charters: Phil Bendle for his support and assistance with the build up dives.

Special Thanks to the Dive Team

At 111m you need people you can trust so special thanks go to Dave Apperley (Marine Boy), Brian Oxenham (Captain Nemo) and Pete Mesley for their expertise, outstanding work throughout and unswerving commitment to the project. Tim

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Lockett Graham18/11/2013Shown on the deck of the salvage ship Claymore are some of the 555 gold ingots recovered from the SS NIAGARA. These were recovered in 1941 by the famous Australian (formerly from Liverpool) hard-hat diver J. E. “Johnno” Johnstone. As the depth of the wreck was too deep for divers at that time a diving bell was used for observation and the gold bars were recovered by grab. The salvage went on for almost a year, the value of the gold at that time being £2.4 million.

A further 35 bars were left behind, considered unrecoverable. This was not the case however and the famous English salvage company Risdon Beazley Ltd. recovered a further 30 gold bars in 1952. Each gold bar weighed 34lb. The value of the gold shown in the photograph was £520,000 in 1941. Today (2013) these would be worth some £50 million! With this increase in the price of gold over time, the value of the 5 bars which still remain in the wreck(?) is some £3 million – more than the value of the 555 bars recovered at the time!
ref. used: 
[1] Alan C Crothall, Wealth From The Sea
[2] James Taylor, Spoils From The Sea
Allen Tony18/06/2008Niagara SS was a British Passenger Steamer of 13,415 tons built in 1913 by John Brown Clydebank, Yard No 415 for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand. She was powered by triple screw 2x4 cylinder triple expansion plus LP turbine engines. Engines by shipbuilder. In 1931 she was purchased by the Canadian Australasian Line Ltd., London.

On the 18th June 1940 she was mined and sunk off Bream Head Whangareion when on passage fromland for Vancouver.

Note: the mine was laid by German aux. cruiser Orion.
ref. used: 
 Stuart Cameron,

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About Builders
 John Brown & Co. Ltd., Clydebank (Scotland)
One of the largest naval shipbuilders in the UK, John Brown produced both battleships and cruisers in quantity for the Royal Navy and approved foreign clients (Chile, Japan). Brown's was also noted for ocean liners of the largest size and speed, including the LUSITANIA, AQUITANIA, QUEEN MARY, and both QUEEN ELIZABETHs for the Cunard Line. The company had its own steelworks in Sheffield and shipyard in Clydebank, a city actually named for its shipyard, near Dalmuir on the Clyde. At peak workforce before WWI the works directly employed over 10,000 men. In the midst of this prewar arms race and prosperity in 1907, the company issued a commemorative volume on the completion of the LUSITANIA. Not content to tout the ship herself, the company produced an impressive brag piece for the yard -- our source for many of the photos here reproduced. Notable warships built at the yard included the Japanese battleship ASAHI, the British battleships HINDUSTAN, AFRICA, and VALIANT (QE class), and the battlecruisers TIGER, REPULSE, INDEFATIGABLE, and HOOD. In 1971 Browns was sold to Marathon Oil. The shipyard remained in service to the North Sea oil industry before being closed by a successor company; the site was demolished in 2002. It is now the site of Clydebank Community College; a few of the original buildings and the giant Titan crane remain in the midst of a bulldozed wasteland. The engineering arm of John Brown continues (after several bouts of acquisition) as John Brown Engineering Gas Turbines Ltd, E. Kilbride, UK.

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