Unveiling RMS Niagara: Exploring History and Confronting Environmental Challenges

In September 2023, Boxfish Robotics took part in an extraordinary expedition to delve into the depths of history by exploring the RMS Niagara, a wreck that was sunk by German mines back in 1940. This expedition was a collaborative effort featuring Graeme Sinclair from the TV show Ocean Bounty, maritime explorer Keith Gordon, and the Western Work Boats team. Together, they embarked on a mission that would be documented for an episode of Graeme’s show that aired on TV THREE in New Zealand.

RMS Niagara and its Story

The tragic tale of the RMS Niagara dates back 84 years, when the trans-Pacific liner met its fate near New Zealand’s Bream Head. On June 19th, while en route from Auckland to Suva and Vancouver, the ship struck two mines near Northland’s Bream Head left behind by the German raider Orion, which had secretly infiltrated New Zealand waters and planted 228 contact mines. Miraculously, all 349 passengers and crew survived this devastating incident.

The RMS Niagara had onboard a hidden cargo of small-arms ammunition and gold ingots worth £2.5 million, equivalent to nearly $250 million today. In late 1941, a heroic salvage effort managed to recover most of the gold from the wreck using a submerged guide in a pressure tank who informed the crew where to drop their grapple and explosives! Quite the crazy story in itself.

The RMS Niagara was built to burn either coal or oil, and when fully loaded, it carried about 4250 tons of fuel on board. At the time of sinking back in 1940, it was fully laden with heavy fule oil. The mine damage had breached the forward fuel tanks. The rest remained intact. Shockingly, some records reveal that six inches of oil trace were detected on the ocean beaches and coastlines at that time, causing significant harm to the environment. These events were never publicised during wartime.

Beneath the Surface with the Boxfish ROV

Boxfish Robotics deployed their cutting-edge Boxfish ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle)for the mission, a professional ROV designed and manufactured in New Zealand, known for its unparalleled precision in navigating in tight spaces and image quality. For this operation, the Boxfish ROV was equipped with advanced navigation tools, including the Blueprint Subsea’s Oculus imaging sonar and Seatrac positioning system.

Boxfish Robotics Team: Douglas Grant, Chris Bedford, Ben King and the Boxfish ROV fitted with SeaTrac USBL and Oculus sonar by Blueprint Subsea.
R&D lead engineer and ROV pilot Douglas Grant penetrating RMS Niagara with the Boxfish ROV

The primary objective of Boxfish Robotics was to document the current condition of the RMS Niagara wreck. They conducted two dives, spending a total of three hours exploring the ship’s remains and collecting valuable footage. This footage holds significant historical importance and value for assessing the state of the wreck.

Diving with the ROV from the comfort of “Reef Spirit” was a great experience.

Graeme Sinclair

Guided by Keith Gordon’s expertise and knowledge of the wreck, the team navigated over its intricate structure. Keith’s insights into specific areas and his recollection of the wreck’s past state were indispensable. Keith also pointed out signs of oxidation and mentioned that some parts of the ships superstructure had collapsed, even since he had last dived on it some years ago.

Capturing this incredible experience, Graeme Sinclair expressed his excitement about using the Boxfish ROV for filming, deeming it the perfect way to showcase the RMS Niagara resting in her underwater grave. Diving with the ROV from the comfort of MV Reef Spirit was a great experience, Graeme mentioned.

Time Ticking Bomb

Today, the RMS Niagara poses a significant environmental threat with over 1500 tonnes of oil estimated to be still contained within its corroding hold. Concerned voices, ranging from wreck divers to environmentalists, have raised alarm bells at all levels about the potential disaster this could cause in the Hauraki Gulf.

Ben King demonstrating to Graeme Sinclair the oil on the line after recovering the Boxfish ROV from RMS Niagara.
Photo credit: Ocean Bounty Show and TV THREE New Zealand

Coastal disasters are well-known and well-publicised, but the urgency of surveying the wreck seems to be overshadowed by the looming risk of over a thousand tons of oil spilling onto the precious coastline. Graeme Sinclair emphasised the importance of addressing this issue promptly, highlighting that the cost of surveying the wreck is minimal compared to the monetary and environmental consequences of an oil spill. The fate of the RMS Niagara, both its historical significance and the looming environmental threat, underscores the need for continued exploration and preservation efforts.

Ben King with Keith Gordon and Boxfish ROV after dive to RMS Niagara holding Keith's book about RMS Niagara

If you are interested in a complete story story of RMS Niagara check out the book “Deep Water Gold” by Keith Gordon.