MANY OF US WHO DIVE the south coast of England will have had a dive on the Scylla, the ex- Royal Naval Leander-class frigate that was sunk as an artificial reef in Whitsand Bay in 2004. The wreck sits upright in about 25m and has become a very popular dive destination out of Plymouth.
Less well-known is Scylla’s sister-ship ex-HMNZS Canterbury, which has also been purposely sunk as an artificial reef, but this time on the other side of the world, in Deep Water Cove up in the Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand.
Canterbury was launched by Yarrow shipbuilders in May 1970 and was commissioned in October 1971 as the last steam-driven ship in the New Zealand navy. She was estimated to have sailed 960,000 nautical miles in her career before decommissioning in 2005.
She saw service patrolling the Persian Gulf, was the first NZ ship to visit China and came to the UK for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee fleet review.
She would probably have been broken for scrap but Shane Housham, who now runs Northland Dive with his wife Julia, initiated proceedings to buy the ship from the New Zealand Navy. After consultation with the local Maori Iwi (roughly translated as “tribe“) she was purchased for the grand sum of $1 by the newly formed Bay of Islands Canterbury Trust.
Canterbury was duly dry-docked and stripped of much of her internal fittings and bio-hazardous materials.
A number of holes were cut in her sides to allow access and exits for visiting divers, in much the same way as the Scylla was prepared.
On 3 November, 2007, the ship was ready to be scuttled. It was originally planned to sink her in about 30m but the launch became delayed by the numbers of spectators and the ship drifted out of position. The harbour master refused permission to push her back into her planned position so the charges were fired where she was, sending her to the bottom to sit upright in a depth of 36m.

THIS FEBRUARY WHILE on an extended holiday in New Zealand I booked in with my non-diving wife for a stay at Northland Dive to dive the wreck and other sites in the Bay of Islands region.
The Bay of Islands is a beautiful place, and as we drove up the spectacularly winding road from Whangarei we had to keep stopping to gawp at the vista of steep tooth-like volcanic hills and blue ocean under a burning summer sun.
Shane and Julia bought a 100-acre farm and cowshed back in 2000 and converted it into the comfortable dive lodge from which they run their business.
They are, in UK terms, a long way from anywhere in rugged but peaceful and beautiful country. It’s a good idea to take your beer and wine with you, because the nearest top-up is 40 hairpinned minutes away. No need to take any food, however, and all diving gear can be provided if you haven’t brought your own.
The diving is seldom blown-out because it’s done from large RIBs that are towed to whichever side of Cape Brett is sheltered.
I was in luck, because we hit a heatwave – no wind, clear blue skies and Deep Water Cove like a mirror, the ride out highlighted with shags, shearwaters and distant leaping dolphins.
I was pleased to be diving with Shane, who has done many hundreds of dives on the Canterbury.
The plan for the first dive was no penetration and a tour of the wreck (Shane was obviously being cautious diving with an ancient unknown like me). A 32% nitrox mix would give us plenty of dive-time, even on a single cylinder.
We descended on the permanent buoyline tied to the bow to look for the resident seahorse, which appeared as ordered near the bow capstan, bright yellow and a monster specimen, though as shy as most seahorses are. We don’t see too many of them on the Scylla.
The vis was a slightly disappointing 15m, because the wind had been blowing from the wrong direction the week before.

FISH-LIFE ON THE CANTERBURY is prolific, it being a no-take zone. This is only the result of co-operation of the local Iwi, who have pronounced a rahui on the wreck, an ancient custom still in use whereby the Maori elders can declare that an area should be left alone to allow fish stocks to recover.
Some monstrous snapper patrol the wreck on the look-out for small fry, shoals of blue maomao shimmer in the blue, scorpionfish squat menacingly and leatherjackets nibble at the encrustations on the wreck. Perhaps we need some Maoris in the UK Government?
Finning along the deck hand-rail, I was impressed by the colour and size of the jewel anemones growing on the wreck, larger than those seen in the UK but of the same mixture of vibrant colours.
Pink and white Jason’s nudibranchs (Jason mirabilis) munched on seafans growing from the hull and the odd gem nudibranch (Dendrodoris denisoni) sat in gaudy splendour, like Elton John’s trousers. Shane paused to show me one of the spiny crayfish that had set up home in niches on the structure before we went on round the deck to the stern at 28m.
We came up to the funnel and tower to use up the rest of our no-stop time.
At 14m the top of the tower is just in the kelp zone, and there you can spend frustrating minutes attempting to find and photograph juvenile crested weedfish, which are small, weed-coloured, fast and very shy!

AFTER MORE THAN AN HOUR in the water, although it was 20°C I was missing my nice warm drysuit. We went to a deserted cove on Cape Brett for me to warm up and for an excellent picnic lunch before setting out for a second dive, on a reef with a well-hidden cave that Shane had found.
The cave was packed with fish, few of which I recognised. Then it was back to the Cowshed for Julia's excellent roast lamb – she is a busy lady, diving, towing and driving the boats, making the picnics and evening meals and 101 other tasks, but never seeming to get stressed.
Shane had decided that I was equal to swimming through the length of the ship, so the next day we entered through the hole where the forward 4.5in-gun turret would have been and went along passages, down hatchways and who knew where.
I saw rows of toilet cubicles and what looked like a monstrous gearbox full of splined wheels; I was never very good at identifying the contents of a ship. I did recognise the bridge when we finally emerged there to meet a large snapper swimming in and out of the windows, wondering why we were there.
Canterbury is in far better condition than the Scylla, even allowing for the wreck’s three fewer years under water. The passages are not silted up and there are fewer signs of corrosion and collapse.
The greater-than-intended depth when the vessel sank has done the wreck a favour by saving it from the worst ravages of the weather, helped by a protected, sheltered position in the cove.
After lunch the weather remained brilliant and calm, ideal conditions to visit Hole in the Rock, a sea-stack off the end of the peninsula out in the open sea.
It was easy to see how it got its name, because a hole that penetrates the stack
is big enough to allow the dolphin-watching boats to sail through with their cargoes of tourists.

CATHEDRAL CAVE, the dive-site near the hole, is a cracker. The surface of the sea was teeming with shoals of feeding fish as we began our descent, and huge kingfish were looking to pick up stragglers from the swarms around us.
We bottomed out at 26m and followed the seabed into the enormous cave. As we got further in and shallower the effects of the surge, even on this calm day, got worse. One moment we were rocketing forward, the next finning hard and going nowhere, but we slowly approached the back of the cave.
We disturbed a whole squadron of sleeping sting rays that slowly wafted over us, held like delta-winged bombers in our searchlight torches. Our bottom time was running out, so we had to retreat to the sunlight at the entrance and hang there fish-watching until time and gas forced us back to the RIB.
How does one finish a day's diving like that? Back at the lodge I grabbed my camera and cautiously entered the small stream in the garden.
Julia had been feeding her pet long-finned eels, an endangered species, for years and they are fearless.
I had been warned not to show my toes and to keep fingers well-curled round the camera. The eels (and I have seen smaller congers) wriggle and push looking for hand-outs, but the vis in the peaty water is not the best for photography.

AFTER ANOTHER MAGNIFICENT dinner the tireless Julia took me for a night-hike on her property to show me the native crayfish with their red-hot coal eyes gleaming in a tiny stream, and the glow-worms (fungus gnat larvae) that live on the banks, casting their sticky nets to catch their prey. New Zealand is a very special place!
Finding diving at other locations in New Zealand proved simple. An hour down the road from Northland is Tutukaka, the gateway to the Poor Knights Islands, a truly world-class dive destination and proposed World Heritage site. Several operators offer packages – I went with Dive Tutukaka, which was efficient and friendly.
Don’t neglect South Island either – the water gets chillier but some of the diving is awesome. I sampled Milford Sound with Simone and Lance at Descend, where the scenery above and below the water takes your breath away – crayfish, fur seals, blue cod and black coral left an impression.
For metalheads contact Brent at Go Dive in Picton to dive the wreck of the Mikhail Lermontov, an entire cruise liner waiting to be explored – and you will probably be the only people on the site.
All the operators I used had that friendly, relaxed but nailed-on efficiency that typifies the people of this extraordinary country.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Most major airlines fly to Auckland in the north of North Island. Graham Brown recommends car hire from there to the Bay of Islands if you want to explore further.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Northland Dive can provide nitrox and trimix if required. It also provides accommodation at The Cowshed, its dive lodge, www.northlanddive.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but water temperature varies from 14°C in the New Zealand winter to 23°C in summer. Temperature in early February was 20°C.
MONEY NZ $, around two to the pound sterling.
PRICES Major airlines’ scheduled flights from the UK cost about £1100 but can be found from £750. A two-dive package with Northland costs from $100 to $180 (with all hired gear), with one dive on the Canterbury and one on a reef. Accommodation costs from $25 (bunk) to $60 (double) per night, with all- inclusive food for $28 a day.
TOURIST INFORMATION www.newzealand.com