Wednesday, May 23, 2012


As the SS Nord sailed down Tasmania’s east coast, Capt Maurice Mackay set a course close to the Tasman Peninsula. With the ship pushing into rough weather, he consulted his navigation chart; it was only a year old and showed deep water between the Hippolyte Rocks. He altered the heading to pass between the islets, expecting some shelter from the seas. But the Nord hit an uncharted rock (now known as the Needle), tearing a hole in the ship.

Capt Mackay understood his ship would sink and decided to try to reach Port Arthur.  Approaching Tasman Island he realised the situation was worse than he thought and turned back towards Fortescue Bay. The Nord never made it. In the early hours of 8 November 1915, she foundered beneath the cliffs of Monroe Bight.Everyone on board survived.
SS Nord started her life as SS Maria Goriainova.
Picture courtesy of Michael McFadyen

In this age of smart-phones, Google maps and GPS, we struggle to get completely lost. Knowing where we are, a little research quickly uncovers what we can expect. But wind the clock back a hundred years and things were very different. Navigators relied on sextants and magnetic compasses to work out where they were, and it could sometimes take decades before new hazards appeared on maps and navigation charts.

A couple of weekends ago, I visited the resting place of the SS Nord, 42 metres below the surface. The stern still resembles a ship, the propeller is in place and the rudder moves in the current. Invertebrate growth covers everything, adding colour to the rusted metal and softening the hard edges of the wreck. Schools of fish hover around the piles of debris, ducking undercover when a predator threatens.

The iconic image of the Nordbelongs to David Doubilet of National Geographicfame. A few years ago he set up HMI movie lights and backlit the propeller, while a diver hovered near the stern.

My dive started at the stern.In the back of my mind was Doubilet’s image –a worthy goal??‼ I was diving with Bob the Builder and he proved an excellent model.

I finned along the port side, amazed by the volume of fish. Butterfly perch, wrasse and trumpeter (stripy and bastard) often obscured the view! I was there to see rust and all this finny stuff was just getting in the way

Despite the ravages of time, some of the structure still stands. Frames and beams no longer brace the plating to keep the sea out, instead the water surrounds all. Swim-throughs gave us the chance to see inside the ship and explore the twilight zone, away from direct light.

When a dive site is as good as the SS Nord, a quick look around is never going to be enough. At these depths, no deco dive time is only about 10 minutes. My dive plan was 30 minutes at 40 metres. My backgas was a Trimix that I’d topped off with air to give me TMX20/13 and carried EAN60 for deco. With such a lean Trimix, the air run time was only a couple of minutes longer, so I cut backup tables for air and used my Nitrox computer for the dive.

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