Maybe it was the volume of beer consumed, or maybe it was simply a great idea waiting to happen. In 1989 a group of friends from the British Columbia Underwater Archeology Society decided to hit a pub in Vancouver following a meeting. While quaffing down a few pints, as so often happens, someone brought up a fascinating topic and the entire group chimed in as though it was the only thing that mattered in the entire world - in this case the subject was how absolutely GREAT it would be to sink vessels as artificial reefs for diving. Excited and enthusiastic, that night they planted the seeds that would become the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, an organization respected worldwide for their expertise in the art of sinking ships.
Almost 15 years later, John "Sparky" Campbell and I crossed the border with a specific goal – to dive every single one of the ARSBC's artificial reefs within a week. Our trip was planned out with the help of the Vancouver Island Department of Tourism, the BC Ferry system, and several dive charter operations. During our journey we became more and more amazed at what a small group of dedicated volunteers has been able to accomplish.
We began at the southern end of Vancouver Island, spending the night in Victoria and heading out in the morning aboard a charter boat from Erin Bradley's Ogden Point Dive Center. Erin regaled us with tales of past trips as we shot out of the harbor toward the dive sites. Also aboard was Tex Enemark, current President of the ARSBC, who throughout the week would provide us with information regarding the ships we were to dive on.
Our first dive was the HMCS MacKenzie, a 366-foot Destroyer Escort sunk in 1995. She was one of 13 "River-Class" vessels that were built during the Cold War designed to survive and fight in an atomic environment. All were named after Canadian rivers, hence the common name of the class of ships, although since the MacKenzie was the first built, the official name for the class was the "MacKenzie Class". The MacKenzie was the third vessel sunk by the ARSBC and benefited from the knowledge gleaned from previous sinkings. According to Tex, one of the key factors in sinking large ships is speed, and in this case she sank in less than 4 minutes, coming to rest upright and level in about 100 FSW.
Tying off at one of the floats attached to the ship, we quickly rolled over the side and descended down into the rich, green waters. Dropping through the surface plankton layer around 20 FSW the visibility opened up to approximately 60 feet as if we had passed through a veil. I could see the dim outline of the ship beneath me as I descended, the billowy white plumose anemones marking her shape like a chalk line at a crime scene. Reaching her deck, I glanced about to get my bearings and was fascinated by the abundance of life. Anemones, bryozoans and hydroids of various species abound, growing wherever they can attach. Small Sharpnose and Decorator crabs scuttled around the deck and up and down the ladders, startled by our unexpected appearance. Sponges were everywhere, protruding from the ship in odd shapes and adding bright splashes of color. The ship's white paint showed through this proliferation of life, the colors appearing even more vivid in the beams of our lights. Giant Acorn Barnacles were everywhere, their claw-like appendages lashing out into the current in a quest for food. The MacKenzie is in a current swept location, and it is this that has caused the life on her to be so abundant and varied. Tex, Sparky and I poked our noses into every nook and cranny, often astounded at where we would find life growing and thriving. Rockfish and perch hovered about the hull and small sculpins darted everywhere, while the occasional ling cod or cabezon would peer at us from their hiding places as we'd drift by. One big cabezon was established on top of the forward turret, staring out along the two big "guns", themselves enshrouded with invertebrates of all kinds. All too soon, it was time to ascend and we made our way toward the ascent line. Once at the surface Tex told us that the "guns" on the ship were in fact not what they seemed to be! The Canadian Navy will not allow working guns to leave their care and the barrels were removed and replaced with pipes in an effort to provide the right effect! It certainly worked for us, and the cabezon didn't seem to mind!
Our second dive was on the G.B. Church, a 185 foot World War II freighter that participated in the D-Day landings. She was the first vessel to be sunk by the ARSBC and, as Tex describes it, their success was pure "dumb luck"! No one really knew what to do, so they simply did whatever seemed right at the time. No holes were cut in the vessel as would be done with later ships to allow timed sinking and safe penetration. Volunteers stripped the vessel of everything salvageable and on the appointed day they simply pumped the cargo area full of water, towed her out to the site, and opened up a sea valve. The ship sank in 25 minutes and settled to the bottom perfectly upright in about 85 FSW. Tex reminisced, "It was deceptively easy….but later sinkings would show us just how much we didn't know."
The dive on the G.B. Church proved to be different from the one on the MacKenzie, the freighter being partially constructed of wood that has since been mostly eaten away by marine organisms. Once again, white plumose anemones enshrouded the wreck, dominating the seascape and looking like large balls of cotton. Much of the wreck is open, and I found the anemones to be prolific both inside and out of the pilothouse. As Sparky swam by the vessel's framework he disturbed a colossal ling cod, and with a swish of her massive tail she disappeared into the gloom. With a slight kick I passed over a side railing and sank slowly down toward the ship's keel. Heading back toward the stern our lights danced along the base of the keel, searching for octopus dens. Finding one, a hole in the sand surrounded by crab and clam shells, we paused momentarily and used our lights to check out the interior only to find that no one was home. Looking around, we saw that we were being investigated by a cluster of some of the largest Quillback Rockfish I had ever seen, their curiosity apparently piqued by our activity at the mouth of the den. As we ascended, some of them followed us up toward the ship's aft mast. Covered with anemones, as I followed the mast upward it felt like I was climbing a giant Q-Tip. Clambering aboard the boat, we began discussing the next leg of our journey with Tex – Nanaimo and the next two wrecks of our "trek".
Our arrival in Nanaimo was greeted with howling wind and rain coming down in buckets. Things weren't looking good weatherwise that night, but the next morning the rain had stopped and the sea was calm. We linked up with Ocean Explorers Diving and headed out to the dive sites with skipper Terry at the helm. A classic character, Terry entertained us with tales of the "northern long-necked penguin", the "only natural predator of the Orca whale", and the "double-fanged British Columbian Sea-Snake" that will coil itself around unwary divers. It's not often that I see Sparky at a loss for words, so I found Terry to be doubly entertaining! Securing the boat to a mooring buoy over the Cape Breton, Terry assisted us with our gear and soon we rolled over the side and plunged down into the green depths.
HMCS Cape Breton is also a veteran of the Second World War. Built in 1944 with a similar design to the famous "Liberty Ships", the ARSBC sank her in October of 2001, with the vessel going down in under three minutes in 140 FSW. The Cape Breton is 442 feet long and 10,000 tons, which at the time of her sinking made her the largest ship ever sunk as an artificial reef. Since the sinking of the USS Spiegel Grove down in Florida, the ARSBC jokingly refers to the Cape Breton as "the largest, sitting upright!".
Within moments of leaving the surface the stark white shape of the massive ship became readily apparent and we gleefully saw that our visibility would approach 70 feet. My first impression as we drifted downward was that there was no life on her at all. As we drew closer, however, I saw that I was mistaken and that invertebrates are slowly taking her over. Her deck literally crawled with tiny brittle stars and white anemones and brown Feather Stars were clearly well on their way toward becoming dominant species. Prior to sinking, the Cape Breton had numerous holes cut into her in an effort to make an exit visible from every entry point and the vessel is now extremely popular for penetration dives. In fact, despite the fact that the ship rests in 140 FSW it is possible to penetrate her and dive BELOW that depth since she hit the bottom with such force that her keel now rests deeper than the surrounding bottom. The size of the ship is simply immense and one dive simply cannot do her justice. During our ascent I stared downward at the huge ship and felt small – even with the visibility we had that day I could not see either end of her. As more marine life accumulates over the years she will become absolutely remarkable.
Following a surface interval, we found ourselves dropping down onto the HMCS Saskatchewan. Also a member of the "River Class" of Destroyer Escorts, the Saskatchewan was sunk in 1997. During the sinking she went down fast, hitting the bottom with such force that the bow was plunged over 17 feet into the mud and a furrow 12 feet high and 100 feet long was created. Again, Feather Stars and Plumose Anemones are present, although in far greater numbers than on the neighboring Cape Breton. Thousands of Colonial Tube Worms are everywhere and various types of colorful sponges have also made the ship their home. The bow is enshrouded with orange and white anemones, with clusters of scallops and the occasional urchin. While slowly swimming across the deck of the Saskatchewan I could easily imagine what the decks of the Cape Breton will look like in a few more years. As we ascended we spent some time on the ship's superstructure leading up to the radar and mast. This area is literally covered with life and I found myself wishing that I brought down a macro set-up as we found a brilliant array of tiny creatures darting here and there amongst the railings and structure. Sparky found a small octopus peering out of a rectangular metal box mounted to a side railing and we took turns making finger contact with a tiny arm that snaked out in response. Looking down as we ascended I couldn't help but that think, "Nanaimo has a true treasure here".
The next morning we departed Nanaimo for a ferry back to Vancouver to meet up again with Tex Enemark. Together we traveled north to Sechelt Inlet to meet our host Kal Helyar of Porpoise Bay Charters and to dive HMCS Chaudiere. The Chaudiere, another of the "River Class" Destroyer Escorts, is fascinating for a number of different reasons. She participated in the Bikini atomic testing, during which her hull was literally BENT by the force of a blast! Now unusable, the vessel was used for parts for the other ships. She ultimately became the second vessel sunk by the ARSBC and the one that taught them the most about what NOT to do. "The Chaudiere was literally a comedy of errors from beginning to end", said Tex Enemark as he recalled the fiasco. Problems with contractors, scrap dealers and sinking methods all led to a great deal of frustration, short tempers, and time wasted. "We managed to make every mistake it was possible to make and were absolutely exhausted after the Chaudiere". Today, one aspect of the ship stands as a permanent reminder of the mistakes made – because of the methods used she is the only one of the ships that came to rest on her side rather than upright.
The weather was flawless as we departed the dock to head up Sechelt Inlet. Leaving the town behind, the scenery opened up into an astonishing vista. Upon arrival at the dive site the water was like glass without even the slightest ripple. Bald eagles flew overhead as if to grant us good luck and Sparky, Tex and I hurriedly geared up for the dive. Shortly, the three of us were plunging down the line on our way down to the wreck, passing through an absolutely thick surface layer of plankton that blotted out virtually all light from the surface. Beneath it the visibility opened up to 60 feet or more and within moments the ship came into view. Each of the ships thus far seemed to have had their own biological "personality" and the Chaudiere was no exception to this. Even though she has been down the longest of the Destroyer Escorts, she appeared at first to have very little life on her compared to the others. This location has very little current, so many animals that thrive in current are either rare on the Chaudiere or completely absent. Plumose anemones are present, but in nowhere near the abundance as on the other ships, with the orange anemones rivaling the white in their numbers. Again, Feather Stars are numerous and seem to hang off every ladder or stairway. The most interesting, and dominant, form of life, however, seems to be Glassy Tunicates, which appear in clusters all over the ship, looking like groups of small glass jars. I had not even noticed them on the other ships and to see them in such abundance was fascinating. Prior to this trip I had imagined that the ships would all be similar, but in fact each of them was proving to be unique.
The following morning Sparky and I turned our way north to Powell River to catch a ferry back across to Vancouver Island. This was the travel day from Hell, with long waits on ferry docks, nasty weather, and long distances to travel. Looking like drowned rats, we finally staggered into our hotel in Courtenay just before midnight, (The next day we dived the beautiful wreck of the Capilano, a steamship that went down in 1915 and a story that will appear in the next issue of ADM). From Courtenay we turned northward again toward Campbell River, where we met our next host of the week, Earl Lowe of Abyssal Dive Charters, who would take us on the final dive of our trek – HMCS Columbia.
Campbell River is known mostly for its fantastic wall and current dives, and the HMCS Columbia is often dived when the currents are too harsh elsewhere, it being sheltered in the lee of an island. She is another of the "River Class" ships, sunk in 1996, and sits in approximately 117 FSW. She came down upright on a rocky bottom, with a 40-degree tilt to port, which adds an interesting aspect to a dive. Following a lively (and gorgeous!) drift dive, Earl swung his boat into the protected waters behind Maude Island and we began preparing the camera equipment and gearing up. With a quick stride we found ourselves dropping downward into water that was perfectly calm – without even a whisper of current. After the amazingly fierce current of our previous dive, it seemed anti-climactic. Again passing through a thick surface layer of plankton that cut down ambient light, the visibility this time proved only to be about 30 feet as we slowly descended to the ship. My initial impression was that she was coated with tiny barnacles with only the occasional anemone or Feather Star. Once again, though, we found that this ship had a unique biological personality. Swimming across the bizarrely tilted deck we found giant Sunflower Stars stalking in search of prey and isolated Crimson Anemones, their colorful tentacles extending into the water like dreadlocks. Over by a massive cleat on the starboard side we found a large Cabezon patiently waiting for dinner to scurry or swim by. Tex had told us about extensive damage that was done to the bow when the ship struck the rocky bottom and we swam toward it to see for ourselves. Arriving there, we examined the bizarrely twisted metal, still bearing its tonnage numbers, providing mute evidence of the violence of the ship's collision with the bottom. A cluster of anemones have taken hold there, taking advantage of the curled ledges of metal and adding color to the green paint of the hull.
Checking our bottom time, we realized that the time had come and simultaneously signaled each other to begin the ascent. Passing the ship's radar dish, I found myself not wanting it to end. Once we hit the surface the trek was done….the adventure over. Slowly sliding up the ascent line, I found myself glancing back down toward the fading outline of the ship below. A realization hit me….these ships had served their country faithfully in times of both war and peace. They are now continuing to serve, only in a different way.
As you might imagine, the logistics for this trip were incredible! The author would like to thank the following for their help and assistance, and would recommend their services to all:
The Vancouver island Department of Tourism
Vancouver, Coast and Mountains
The British Columbia Ferry System
The Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia
Ogden Point Dive Center
Accent Inn, Victoria
Ocean Explorers Diving
Porpoise Bay Charters
Pacific Pro Dive
Coast Westerly Hotel
Campbell River/Quadra Island:
Abyssal Dive Charters and Lodge
Author's Note; this article originally appeared in Advanced Diver Magazine issue # 16 in 2004.