Search in darkness on bomb-strewn lake bed

21:16, Jun 16 2013
Private Michael Ross
PRIVATE MICHAEL ROSS: Drowned in Lake Moawhango near Waiouru during an exercise.

When navy divers were called in to recover the body of a drowned army private last year they found themselves working in total darkness, feeling their way by hand across a lake bed littered with unexploded bombs and scrap metal, the navy has revealed.

They have also told of three-metre sharks checking them out when, earlier this year, they recovered two bodies from a plane that crashed into the sea west of Kawhia.

The navy operational dive team (ODT) usually resists publicity but their commander, Lieutenant Commander Trevor Leslie, has used the in-house magazine Navy Today to disclose the extraordinary difficulties they face in carrying out their duties.

In September last year Private Michael Ross, 29, drowned in Lake Moawhango near Waiouru during an exercise. He had been wearing a faulty lifejacket and could not be saved because of problems with two army boats that tried to rescue him.

A week later the dive team recovered his body from the artificial lake.

Leslie said that when the area was flooded to form the lake, it included a forest and a cluster of buildings that were still under the water.

"The lake has absolutely nil visibility (when you hold your hand in front of your eyes you cannot see it!) and has been used for years as an explosives and ordnance range so the bottom is littered with unexploded ordnance and scrap metal," he said.

He said people had to imagine what it was like diving alone 42 metres down in total blackness, surrounded by a dense forest of drowned trees, while "searching by feel for a body, knowing that there are unexploded bombs - and the lake bed has about one to two metres of silt and mud that you must grope through".

Meanwhile, in April a light plane carrying 2degrees chief executive Eric Hertz and his wife Kathy came down in the sea off the coast of Raglan.

The dive team went in on HMNZS Manawanui to recover the bodies and the wreckage.

Leslie said the first two divers, Daniel Reynolds and Alan Holland, "were buzzed" by a couple of 2m-long bronze whaler sharks on the bottom.

Eventually the wreckage was found and preparations made to lift the aircraft, lying upside down with a large amount of debris around it.

Divers Darren Shea and Easton Nicholas discovered one of the bodies.

"They also observed a 3m great white shark observing them."

Two other divers recovered the body "with the respect and dignity required and expected".

While on the bottom, Holland reported water was flooding into his helmet.

He was bought to the surface by his buddy divers.

"After a frenetic two minutes" they got him into a recompression chamber and he was later flown to hospital, where he recovered.

Later as they began to lift the wreckage, Leslie said they discovered the second body still strapped into a seat.

Days of hard work were ended with "a solemn handshake".

"There was a feeling of pride within the team in a tough job well done, obviously tinged with sadness over the circumstances," he said.

Leslie added: "While it is a job that no one enjoys, it is one that the ODT is proud to conduct, and we are always grateful that we can assist in returning loved ones to their families during a particularly hard time."


Lake Moawhango
Lake Moawhango, north of Waiouru.
Eric Hertz
GONE: Eric Hertz died when his twin-engined plane crashed into the sea off Kawhia, near Raglan.