Captain Samuel Nelson was sleeping fitfully. The smell of wood smoke permeated the air and his lungs were raspy because of it. It was late September, a prime time of year for intense logging on the coast of British Columbia and the slash burning that went along with it. In fact, the smoke had been so thick on this voyage that it seemed to even make the blackness of the night more deep than it really was. He had been concerned enough that night that he had personally taken his vessel, the 122 foot long cargo steamship, the Capilano, through Malaspina Strait, between Texada Island and the mainland, worried that in the poor conditions she might run aground or worse. Finally, once the ship had made it past Scotch Fir Point he had turned things over to the second mate and stumbled down to his cabin for some much needed rest. Sleep came hard but eventually it did come.
Shortly thereafter around 9:25 PM, the Capilano struck a submerged object. The slight lurch that was felt was not enough to awaken the Captain, and most of the crew thought they had simply struck a log, a common enough occurrence off a coast dominated by the logging industry. Apparently no one thought enough of it to send below for the Captain. Minutes later, however, he leapt from his bunk when he heard the blast of the ship's whistle and the incredibly short echo off of nearby land – a mere 5 seconds! Dashing into the wheelhouse Captain Nelson hollered at the helmsman to "haul her to the westward….Port!" Peering into the sooty blackness no one could see even a dim outline of the peril they had, seemingly, avoided. Unbeknownst to Captain Nelson and his crew, however, the Capilano had received her death blow.
The ship was turned toward Vanada, a small port around two miles away, and upon arrival there the Captain and his 16 man crew examined the Capilano from bow to stern. No leaks were found and nothing seemed amiss. Perhaps it really HAD been a log…..perhaps they really HAD missed the jagged rocks they had come so close to in the darkness. Captain Nelson decided to continue the voyage and the Capilano steamed out of Vananda sometime around 11:00 PM. Now, in 1915, after a long and successful history carrying both passengers and freight for the Union Steamship Company, the Capilano, and her Master, had a reputation to uphold.
Sometime around 1:30 AM, while struggling with rain and a strong southeasterly wind, it was realized that that Capilano was listing heavily to port. Once again the ship was examined and the entire crew was stunned to find that there was already two feet of water in the lower hold and it was steadily rising. Later, it would be speculated that the "submerged object" the ship had struck had in fact been a submerged rock and that part of that rock was carried away embedded in the hull like a cork. The rock apparently had worked its way out of the hole in the hull when the ship had encountered rough conditions. At the time it was happening, though, all the Captain and crew knew was that water was rushing in and they had no means of stopping it.
In a desperate attempt to save his ship, Captain Nelson turned her toward the port of Campbell River, hoping against hope that she would stay afloat long enough to reach it. It was not to be. As tons of water gushed into the ship she waddled along with the wind and waves and her cargo became unstable, heavy gasoline drums crashing back and forth within the hold as the Capilano rolled back and forth. Conditions became so fearful that the crew ultimately abandoned ship around 3:00 AM in a large lifeboat. According to the testimony of the Captain and crew, the Capilano finally plunged to the bottom around 5:30 AM, her lights still blazing into the darkness and her whistle giving one last mournful blast.
She lay undisturbed until 1972. That year a fisherman pulled up a piece of wreckage and happened to mention it to a friend that just happened to be a diver. Shortly thereafter he and his buddy investigated and found one of the most beautiful cold-water wrecks they had ever seen lying in about 130 FSW. For years the location of the Capilano was kept a closely guarded secret but gradually more and more divers became aware of its location. Still, even to this day it can at times be difficult to try to squeeze information out from a local about the wreck's location. I had heard about the Capilano for years and had finally made up my mind to dive her, driving up in the Fall to Vancouver Island with my buddy, John "Sparky" Campbell, to dive the wreck and photograph her. We had made arrangements to meet our friends Bill Coltart and Sharon Moran at their dive shop, Pacific Pro Dive in Courtenay, BC, one of the premier technical dive shops in British Columbia. Basically, the plan was that Bill would take us out to the grave of the Capilano and drop us on her. As I mentioned in a previous article (BC Wreck Trek in ADM # 16), after a long, nasty wet trip from Hell we staggered into our hotel in Courtenay late at night and stumbled out of bed to meet Bill the next morning.
Following him down to the marina, we were introduced to Vel Wilson, a fine and fascinating lady with a taste for both motorcycles and wreck diving, who would be dropping down to the wreck with us as a tour guide while Bill played lounge lizard up on the boat. As Bill turned the bow eastward past the breakwater a lone Bald Eagle stood atop the mast of one of the sailboats, staring at us as we passed by. Vel, Sparky and I hunkered down, discussed the wreck and planned out the dives. Both Vel and Bill had almost a reverent look on their faces when they spoke about the wreck, and that fact gave me a faint glimmer of what we were to see. As I began to assemble my gear I felt myself growing more and more excited.
As Martha Stewart would say – "GPS….it's a GOOD thing" – and it didn't take Bill long to place us directly over the wreck. Surface conditions looked amazing and the potential for good visibility was bright. As we finished the last of our gear preparations Bill called our attention to some porpoises playing in the distance, hoping that they would come over to be our companions on the dive, but it was not to be. The sun glistened off the snow on distant peaks and danced along the water as we stepped toward the dive platform at the stern. Unlike the previous night the wind was virtually non-existent and only a few cotton-ball clouds looked down at us from an emerald-blue sky. With a quick stride I was off the stern and splashing into the green water, which looked almost fluorescent in the bright rays of the sun. "Not a bad day, eh?" said Bill as he squatted down to hand me my camera, and seconds later the three of us sank quickly into the depths, grinning in anticipation.
Vel in the lead, we plunged down the line and within seconds I could begin to see the ghost-like form of the wreck, enshrouded with billowy white plumose sea anemones along her entire length. The cotton-like appearance of the anemones grew increasingly pronounced as we dropped further, their brightness almost seeming to glow against the emerald green of the surrounding water. The wreck sits upright on a flat, sandy bottom, almost as if she was still steaming along. The wooden parts of her, such as the wheelhouse and the deck, have long since rotted away, but everything else is relatively intact, just completely overgrown with invertebrates of every type, species and hue. We initially arrived at the stern, almost unrecognizable as such because of the continuous coating or huge anemones until one looks at the basic shapes underneath. Huge lingcod abound on the wreck, laying on the ledges formed by her structure as if laying claim to them, moving only when a diver gets too close for comfort. One in particular caught my eye – she was resting atop a gorgeous Cloud Sponge attached to the side of the ship as if on a throne. It was a photo opportunity made in heaven and the shots that I took of her on that dive are now some of my most treasured images. Rockfish, too, abound on the wreck, many of them of tremendous age and size – we saw one old Methuselah Yelloweye Rockfish that was the largest I had ever seen and that I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were to be a hundred years old or more. Juveniles of all species darted around the wreck, staying amongst the stalks of the anemones to avoid becoming the snack of their larger cousins.
With the decking long since gone, the ship's engines and boiler are clearly visible and completely intact. Individual compartments, including the crew quarters and galley, are recognizable and completely open, as are the holds, which still contain remnants of the Capilano's cargo from her last voyage, huge gasoline drums and coal. Moving farther toward the bow we encountered many more fascinating structures, such as winches, each coated with marine growth and at times almost unrecognizable. Periodically we would find a Chimney sponge protruding from the hull much like its namesake, usually with a juvenile Rockfish sitting inside staring out at the world. Other sponges and hydroids abound on the wreck, adding to its almost "fuzzy" appearance. As we drifted southward in the direction of the bow we would spook resident Lingcod and with a flick of their monstrous tails they would dart down into the bowels of the ship like torpedoes, a few flecks of silt settling in the water marking where they had been only moments earlier. Approaching the bow we found that it appears to be the gathering place for a local cloud of both Quillback and Copper Rockfish, all of them facing into the current as if riding the crest of a bow wave from the ship. Snapping off my last few shots, I glanced at my gauges and realized that it was time to turn the dive. The team turned as one and glided silently past the ghostly hull back toward the ascent line and the beginning of our decompression. Even though we were planning a second dive after a surface interval, as we began the slow ascent I found my eyes constantly being drawn downward toward the wreck as if to absorb still more of its raw beauty while I could still see it. It was a feeling that lasted until I had to squint hard to see its outline. It was like walking away from a church service at which the preacher had really, and I mean REALLY reached you – a great feeling that you just want to keep.
Upon surfacing I found Bill sitting contentedly in the sunshine, grinning from ear to ear. "Quite an experience, eh?"
Special thanks to the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia for their able assistance in researching the historical portions of this article.
Pacific Pro Dive
Courtenay, BC, Canada
Coast Westerly Hotel
Courtenay, BC, Canada