A technical diver inspecting the bow stair entrance of the sunken RMS Niagara. Photo: SeaROV Technology Ltd

For 83 years, the fascination of the wreck of the RMS Niagara has been around its secret gold cargo. 

Now, it has a much scarier problem, surrounding something else in its corroding hold – oil. 

There’s an increasing clamour of voices, from shipwreck divers to environmentalists and mana whenua, raising the alarm over a potential disaster of epic proportions that could blanket the Hauraki Gulf in thick tar. 

But they feel they aren’t being listened to. 

Here’s the background.

In June 1940 the Niagara left Auckland for Vancouver, with 349 passengers and crew, and a cargo of 590 gold bars, payment from the UK to the US for munitions. It was worth $NZ400 million in today’s terms. 

However, unnoticed by us, the German ship the Orion had snuck into the Hauraki Gulf and laid mines. At 3am, the Niagara hit them. All the passengers survived, but the ship – and the gold – sunk. 

The wreck is sitting in 120 metres of water, two nautical miles inside the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park’s northern border. 

Two salvage attempts, in 1941 and 1953, recovered all but five gold bars. But it’s not the gold that people are interested in now. It’s the oil. 

Those concerns about the oil have been around since shipwreck expert Keith Gordon raised them 33 years ago. There have been various attempts to get the government to pay for a survey to work out exactly what the danger of a leak is, none of them successful. 

The interior of the first class library on the RMS Niagara. Photo: SeaROV Technology Ltd

But now we’re at what they’re calling “peak leak”. 

All around the world, old sunken World War II ships are corroding, and their contents leaking out. 

Gordon says the Niagara is degrading too – it’s biologically imploding. 

“Nowadays we’ve got big concerns, especially up in the Pacific Islands, a lot of the wartime wrecks there are leaking oil, and there’s a lot of investigation going on at the moment, and surveys on the Japanese fleet there. 

“Whereas here in New Zealand …no one is even attempting to do a survey. 

“We feel it’s a high-risk wreck. It is biologically imploding. It’s subject to corrosive action by the ocean. You get earthquakes out there. The ship laying on its side is degrading and we’ve seen over the years it’s deteriorating – large structural parts collapsing. The oil in the tanks could be suddenly released as an eruption.” 

The Hauraki Gulf Forum is trying to ramp up interest in what it says could be a disaster many times the scale of the Rena. 

Chief executive Alex Rogers says our Navy, Maritime New Zealand, and even the German government have expressed interest in doing something to stave off a potential disaster, but attempts over the years to get our government to fund a survey have failed. 

“It’s certainly not a case where there are not people with capability, or not people who are passionate – the challenge at the moment seems to be squarely with Cabinet,” he says. 

It’s been previously estimated it would cost between $800,000 and $1.6 million to do a full survey of the wreck, and then maybe $5-$6 million to extract the oil. 

While those figures may have risen now, Rogers says it’s nothing compared to the potential $100 million-dollar clean up bill if the Niagara is full of oil, and it leaks. 

Rogers is hoping for a ministerial meeting next week to keep the pressure on, before we’re all out on beaches wiping oil off penguins. 

Find out more about the wreck of the Niagara by listening to the full podcast.

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