Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Marchart III
In March 1998 I travelled to Darwin in the Northern Territory. While this was not primarily a diving trip, I took the opportunity to do some dives while I was there. The majority of the diving in Darwin is on wrecks. These are a combination of World War II wrecks, pre-war wrecks, wrecks from Cyclone Tracy and scuttled wrecks.
While there are many wrecks located in Darwin Harbour itself, there are a large number of wrecks outside the harbour. On my trip to Darwin I went on a exploration diving trip with Cullen Bay Dive. The first dive of the day was at the Northern Gutter. This was about one hour and fifteen minutes in a very fast boat (25 knots - almost 50 kph) from the Cullen Bay marina. This was out towards Bathurst and Melville Islands and was so far from Darwin (say 50 kilometres from Darwin) that the mainland could not be seen at all.
The second dive was back towards the mainland at a location called the Vernon Islands. The land could be seen here but only just. It is 19 nautical miles from Darwin. At this location there are a large number of wrecks, perhaps six or seven, with the MV Marchart and two other wrecks at the centre. The others are located in a circle of about one nautical mile radius.
The Marchart was built in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1969. It was 32 metres long and 244 tonnes and was powered by two Caterpillar diesel engines. She was a research vessel but was later converted to a fishing vessel. It may have been converted later to a freighter.
In August 1988 the Marchart was scuttled at the above location in 26 metres of water (at mid-tide). It now sits upright facing the north (I think - see later). The GPS co-ordinates for the wreck are in an area between approximately 12° 10.288'S 130° 40.578'S and 12° 10.290'S 130° 40.638'S (using AUS66 I think - see my GPS Page for details).
As we arrive at the site, the seas are again millpond, absolutely flat and mirror-like. We anchor on the wreck (the mooring is missing) and the anchor line is easily visible running down towards the wreck. We enter the water and the visibility is about 12 to 15 metres. Great! We descend but soon run into a little problem. The visibility drops dramatically and by the time we get to the bottom the visibility is one metre or less. Yuk!! Luckily I have the foresense to take my reel with me (I have been warned about the poor visibility on Darwin dives).
I hook the end of the reel onto the chain and with my buddy, we drop off the main deck (at least that is what I think it was) over the side of the wreck. The depth on the top of the wreck is about 24 metres. We swim along the side towards the stern and I am amazed at the beautiful colours of the the sponges and gorgonias visible under my 100 watt video light. There is a fair bit of fishlife around, in fact from the small amount of the wreck I can see at one time, the fishlife is quite prolific. There are trevally, snapper, bream and many other tropical species. We are told that jewfish are found on the wreck but I do not see any. By the time we reach the stern there is a strong current coming from the starboard side of the wreck. We come up a bit and swim along the top of the deck back towards the bow, reeling in the line as we go.
Once back at the anchor, we go to the bow and marvel over the growth on the front winch. Again we return to the anchor. The current is still strong, precluding exploration of the starboard hull. We go along the deck on the starboard side, using the side railing as protection. A short look into the compartments/cabins and holds is interesting but the very poor visibility stops us seeing too much. After 23 minutes (we could have stayed about another six minutes) we ascend the anchor line.
We do our safety stop in nice clear water, disappointed that the promised 10 to 20 metres visibility has not been encountered. Back on the boat the local divers cannot believe how bad the visibility was on the wreck. They all swear blind to me that the normal visibility on the wreck is at least 10 metres. Trust me to cop the worst visibility on record!
Suddenly, one of the divers shouts that there are some dolphins approaching the dive boat. We grab our mask and jump into the water. I swim out a bit from the wreck (amazingly, there is no current on the surface) and dive down to five metres. Fantastic, a dolphin comes into view and swims towards me before altering direction to travel slowly away from me. Wow, this is great, finally I have seen a dolphin underwater.
The dolpins keep going so we get back on the dive boat. The dolpins have almost made up for the poor diving today. In good visibility, the MV Marchart would be a very good dive, with prolific fishlife and colourful fixed marine life.
The water temperature when I visited was 30°C and I only wore a Lycra suit as protection against the deadly box jellyfish.
While I travelled to Darwin at the end of the Wet Season, I would recommend avoiding this time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the days and nights are unbearably hot and humid, with temperatures of 35° and humidity of 95% most days. Even just sitting around you sweat profusely. The cost of travelling to Darwin is also quite high, with a 21 day advance purchase airfare costing $730 from Sydney. If you can travel at relatively short notice, then you can get this airfare down to $470 or thereabouts when the airlines offer special prices. For example, in April to June 1998 two people could travel for $457 each.
During my visit I dived with Cullen Bay Dive (08 8981 3049) and can recommend them for their excellent service.
References:Wrecks in Darwin Waters by Tom Lewis
Northern Territory Fish Finder - First Edition