The
The bar with intact stools is in the Bolshoi Lounge.



PETE MESLEY, A WELL-KNOWN TECHNICAL DIVER in the Southern Hemisphere, knows the Mikhail Lermontov better than anyone. Or at least, I hope he does. Im deep inside the wreck and my life is in his hands, because I have no idea which way is out.
I can just make out Petes rebreather ahead, and Im desperate not to lose sight of him in the silt clouds that are rapidly destroying the visibility.
The plan for this dive is an internal traverse from the indoor swimming pool at the stern through several complicated passageways, past the Duty Free area and up to the library and the exit aft of the cinema-projection room.
Pete stops in a less-than-spacious passageway, and directs me up and through the now zero-visibility roof above. As I feel my way into the ceiling, I am aware of switchboxes and cables hanging loose around me.
Adjusting my buoyancy, I rise some 3m and squeeze through an opening. As the vis clears above, my torch lights up dozens of eerie-looking Russian dolls.
Pete calls this the Dolls Run. Part of this store-room is full of childrens dolls, so buoyant that they are pinned to a wall that has become the ceiling.
The Kiwi divers who regularly dive the Mikhail Lermontov are against using penetration lines. Their theory is that they could get tangled in them so, having pieced together the wreck in their minds, they rely on their own navigation skills.
This dive has to be one of the most nerve-racking I have made. Im deep inside a huge wreck with rapidly deteriorating visibility, counting on my guide knowing the way out!
The dolls have an evil look in their eyes. Some have no arms or legs. As I feel the hair rise on my back, I am thinking: this is not a place where I want to hang around. Squeezing back through the hole below, I drop down and am relieved to find Pete still waiting.
We swim along the tight passageway, the visibility opens up and my heart slows. Above is a clock frozen in time, its Roman numerals clear.
As the walls disappear, Pete indicates that we are now in the open passage that leads deep down into Duty Free. This area on the starboard side of the wreck is now the deepest, with hundreds of tons of Russian liner above it.
As we swim into shallower depths, I am relieved that Pete has not chosen to take me deeper, shopping for cut-price vodka. Instead, we pass through the library and into the cinema entrance. Here, for the first time in 45 minutes, I can see natural light penetrating the windows that are now above me.

WE SPEND ANOTHER HOUR or so inspecting private cabins on the port side of the wreck, as well as looking into the cinema, Bolshoi Lounge and wheelhouse. This was my first real experience of a serious penetration on this wreck, but as the week passed I began to discover that the Mikhail Lermontov is not all about hair-raising dives. It offers a variety of interesting areas for all levels of qualified diver to investigate.
Named after a celebrated Russian poet, the ship was described at its launch as 20,000 tonnes of gleaming white elegance. The Lermontov was one of the bigger vessels to visit New Zealands South Island on a cruise in February 1986. After Sydney she had visited Wellington before making her way along Tory Channel to Picton.
On board, the 330 predominantly Russian crew-members entertained more than 400 passengers, mainly from Australia. In the continuing Cold War, the presence of Russians was quite an experience for New Zealand.
1986 would be a year of disaster for both the Americans and the Russians, with explosions on the Space Shuttle Challenger and at Chernobyl nuclear power station making the headlines.
It would also be the year in which the Russians lost one of their cruise ships, following a catalogue of events unparalleled in maritime history.
On 16 February, Captain Vladislav welcomed Picton harbour pilot Don Jamison aboard the Lermontov to take charge on the bridge.
Jamison knew the waters better than anyone, and was highly regarded. He took the Lermontov along Queen Charlotte Sound, and was adamant that he would give the passengers value for money by showing them sights such as where Captain Cook first landed in 1773. But all this made Captain Vladislav very nervous. On several occasions he warned Jamison that he had taken the vessel far too close to land, and should stay further out.
Jamison declared that he knew the waters, and that all was fine.

AS THE SOVIET SHIP DREW CLOSE to Cape Jackson Lighthouse, the watch crew changed hands. None of the new helmsmen and navigators was aware of the earlier near misses.
At 5.21pm, Jamison made the first of three incremental course changes to port that would send the ship onto the rocks at Cape Jackson.
At 5.34, with the ship rapidly approaching the lighthouse, Jamison made a sudden decision and ordered a further turn to port, committing the ship to a course through Cape Jackson Passage, instead of steering to starboard to clear the dangerous reef. This fateful instruction has never been explained.
The Soviet vessel struck the reef, and took on so much water that she sank within a few hours. She went down in only 33m in Port Gore, a remote bay surrounded by picturesque mountains.
Visiting divers will reach the top of this wreck only 13m below the surface.
It is permanently marked by three buoys identifying the stern, bow and amidships sections.

OUR TEAM PULLED INTO PORT GORE on a small liveaboard, and moored over the site for three days.
Most Lermontov expeditions are conducted from liveaboards because of the remote location, starting from either Wellington or Picton. The only other visitors were from a local university dive club, launching their own RIB each day.
Our crew cooked fabulous blue cod for us, catching it fresh each day.
The Mikhail Lermontov is among the top five wrecks I have dived. Lying on its starboard side and in such a shallow depth, two or three dives a day are the norm. Using closed-circuit rebreathers, we were conducting two-hour dives on the wreck with no decompression.
Much of the port side invites shallow penetrations. These give access to areas such as the Bolshoi Lounge, and other bars. Even today, the 1980s Russian decor is clear to see. Spiral staircases can be followed to deck levels above the discotheque, and bars remain with their stools firmly in position.
It makes a refreshing change to be able to identify almost everything you see on a wreck. The bridge alone makes an excellent dive, and a doorway at the starboard side close to the seabed offers access through the entire wheelhouse. An array of instrumentation can be seen in here, and further access is available to the navigation room and officers accommodation.
I swam through the cinema, its seats packed tightly next to one another. The last films to grace the screen in the week leading up to the sinking were Beverly Hills Cop and Gremlins.
On the stern, I finned through the indoor swimming pool before dropping into the engine-room. This area is so vast that even the local divers dare not enter without a guideline!
In areas such as the Neptune Bar and Atlantic deck, we often came across bottles of vodka, fallen from optic stands. Stores behind the bars contain stacked cans of Fosters. Following the ships plans, divers can tour Duty Free, take a look into the barbers shop, swim the Winter Garden and drop into the Nevesky Bar.
For the diehard, the real challenge is a penetration into the depths of the Leningrad Lounge. Some who manage it return with a gold-leaf dish displaying the shipping line emblem. A cave-diving course might be recommended before attempting this, I reckon.
The Lermontov story has been the subject of several books. In the aftermath to the sinking, Jamisons best friend was appointed to head the inquiry, and the pilot himself was never prosecuted.
Endless questions were asked and there are many Russian conspiracy theories, but the files remain locked away in the national archives. Don Jamison has not said a word about the Mikhail Lermontov since the inquiry!

Leigh Bishop dived the Mikhail Lermontov with Pete Mesley, who organises charters to this wreck and many other sites for all levels of divers - visit www.petemesley.com. Other charter boat operators to consider are Sand Piper (www.sandpiper.co.nz) and Go Dive NZ (www.godive.co.nz).

Planning
Planning the dive
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the Mikhail Lermontov in its former life (photo: Kevin Dekker)
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a model of how the wreck appears today (photo: Kevin Dekker)
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a buoy marks the wreck, lying close to land
Gantries
Gantries lead deeper into the Lermontovs lower engine-room level.
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an electrical switchboard in the navigation-room
looking
looking into a bedroom suite on the upper port side
Pete
Pete Mesley swims through the covered promenade deck level.
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The bar area aft of the swimming pool, with cans of Fosters lager lying on what were once the walls.
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The 2007 team, from left - Andrew Simpson, Anne Clauge, Pete Mesley, Marcia Davie, Mark Gibson, Leigh Bishop and Geoff Payne.
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One last look - do you dare to enter the Locker of the Dolls
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The Bolshoi Lounge, where passengers gathered as the ship was sinking
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a local diver geared up to penetrate the lower sections
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