Captain Lo Chung Hung was tense and nervous. He had every right to be. He was passing through some nasty weather and was now dealing with a thick fog that prevented even the sharpest lookout from seeing what was ahead. It was the night of March 14th, 1972, and his ship, the 473 foot Panamanian registered Vanlene, was enroute to Vancouver, BC, from Japan loaded with a cargo of 300 Dodge Colts. She had sailed with only one working compass and completely non-operational navigational gear, (the ship's owners would later dispute this in the resulting inquiry), and the result had been many long, sleepless nights spent trying to determine their actual location and course. This was Lo Chung Hung's first command and the lack of proper navigational gear had made the voyage one of constant worry and concern, forcing him to use every trick he knew to keep the vessel on course. Additionally, both the echo-sounder and radar were non-functional, of particular concern now that the vessel was approaching land. He was seeking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington State and Vancouver Island and was confident that the Vanlene was approaching the entrance to the strait despite the poor conditions and thick fog. Captain Hung was wrong. In fact, the Vanlene had entered Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, over 57 miles north of where he believed his ship to be.
Amazingly, in the fog the ship managed to steam past numerous rocky reefs and islands without incident. Missing some of the rocks by mere feet, the Vanlene's captain and crew were blissfully unaware of how close to disaster they were. This ignorance was not to last. Breakers were sighted dead ahead and with a colossal lurch and the sickening shriek of tearing metal the ship struck a cluster of rocks just off Austin Island in Barkley Sound. The violence of the collision forced the ship's bow completely out of the water and left the stern nearly awash. In the resulting mayhem a distress call was sent out stating that the ship was aground on a rocky reef "somewhere off the coast of Washington".
The US Coast Guard immediately responded with a massive search and to their horror, thinking she had foundered, could find no trace of the vessel. Canadian rescue efforts had also immediately been launched and rescue vessels were hurriedly steaming southward to assist their American comrades in the search. To everyone's surprise, the Canadian Forces' ship Lamar and the tug Neva Straits sighted the Vanlene stranded on the rocks inside Barkley Sound. Upon the arrival of the Neva Straits the officers and entire crew of the stricken vessel leapt to the deck of the log barge being towed by the tug, an act that caused several unnecessary injuries among them. The crew was taken to Port Alberni and both clean-up and salvage efforts began. Efforts were made to recover some of the floating oil before the nearby herring spawning grounds were polluted and the oil remaining in the Vanlene's fuel tanks was pumped out and removed. While many of the Dodge Colts were underwater and ruined, those remaining above water were taken off one at a time by helicopter, a sight spawning tales that entertain locals to this day! Following the salvage of the cars, it was decided that the Vanlene herself was not in fact worth the time, money and effort required to refloat her and she was left to the sea, her bow still forlornly perched on the rocks. She was visited often by local boaters and fisherman and anything valuable was removed. According to the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, "Hardly a resident in Bamfield or Ucluelet does not display or utilize something from the Vanlene".
The wreck remained on the rocks for several years, buffeted by the fierce winter storms that regularly strike the west coast of Vancouver Island. Ultimately, during one such hard blow, she slipped off the rocks and sank into the deeper water adjacent to them. Due to the remote location and the storm no one was there to see it except perhaps wind-swept sea birds and possibly a few Sea Lions, but the sight must have been tremendous.
Today, despite its remote location, the Vanlene has become one of the most popular wrecks in British Columbia, divers thronging to her as if by the sirens' call whenever their path takes them to Barkley Sound. Because of weather conditions and large swells coming in from the Pacific, the Vanlene must necessarily be a dive planned based on existing conditions and alternate dive sites considered in advance – after all, as her captain and crew learned to their regret, the rocks and breakers there are nothing to mess with in bad conditions and there is really NO point in adding another, smaller wreck alongside the ship on the bottom!
Over 30 years after the Vanlene struck the rocks and came to her end, my buddy, Sparky, and I found ourselves once again in Barkley Sound heading west toward her grave. As always, our host was Dave Christie of Rendezvous Dive Ventures and we were joined by a group of Canadian divers just itching to dive the wreck. The wind and waves were calm as we departed the lodge at Rainy Bay, but as we neared the outer edge of the Sound a thick, dense fog began to envelope us. The air was perfectly calm and the water as still as glass, the only sound the rumbling of the boat's dual engines and the conversations of the divers. Knowing the Sound like the back of his hand, Dave still kept his eyes on the GPS and depth-sounder, knowing that a moment's inattention could easily put us aground much like the Vanlene herself years ago. Watching the screen, we could see that we were passing small islands and rocks, even though they were completely hidden from us in the dense fog. As Dave slowly turned the boat at an angle I started to see a few treetops jutting out over the fog, then suddenly disappear as though they had never been. Then, just like in one of those old Doug McClure "Lost World" movies, the island appeared ghostlike through the fog and we seemed to plunge out into the daylight, the rich green of the trees and the Pacific itself seeming to gleam in the morning sun. Waves crashed over the outer edge of the rocks while a carpet of kelp coated the surface on the inside like a brown mat. We had arrived and, almost within seconds, Dave had dropped anchor. Grinning, he loudly announced that the pool was open!
As always, the Spark and I were excited and it wasn't long before we were both poised at the stern and grinning at each other through our mouthpieces. With a quick stride we vaulted into the water and sank quickly downward to the rocks below. Since the ship slid off the rocks stern first, her bow lies in shallow water beginning around 30 FSW. More of the yearly winter storms have done their work and the bow section more closely resembles a colossal heap of debris rather than a part of an ocean-going vessel. Piles of twisted, jagged metal lay everywhere as we headed into deeper water, all of it covered with beautiful anemones and invertebrates of all sizes and shapes. Finding one of the colossal loading derricks laying at an angle on the bottom like a giant tube, we began following it downward into the greenish gloom, knowing that it would lead us to the wreck as sure as if we were following a road sign. Within moments we left what can best be described as a debris field and came upon the remains of a recognizable ship.
Near the surface, the Vanlene is coated with a layer of acorn barnacles, looking like a white shroud, but as the depth increases these denizens of the intertidal grow fewer and other invertebrates dominate. Giant Rock Scallops gape from nooks and crannies, colonial tube worms appear almost as a carpet in some places, sea stars of every size and color glide across the wreckage in search of prey and everywhere huge clumps of ghostly white Plumose Anemones cluster in profusion like massive wads of cotton. Sponges and tunicates add their bizarre shapes to the seascape as well as splashes of color here and there. Through it all scamper thousands of small spider crabs, each decked out in its personal finery of bits of sponge and algae.
Rockfish of various species abound on the wreck,Yellowtail Rockfish (Sebastes flavidus) in particular following us around during the dive like curious puppies and scattering when we turned to look at them as if we had caught them doing something "naughty". Tiny Scalyhead Sculpins, their eyes looking like sunbursts, darted here and there wherever we looked, their bright colors flashing in our lights as they swept back and forth across the wreck. Periodically, we would catch a brief glimpse of large shadows darting by just out of our vision and later we would be told by other divers that a pair of Sea Lions had played with them and danced in our bubbles nearer the surface.
As we dropped deeper on the wreck it became obvious that the deckhouse has completely collapsed upon itself and most of it has become detached from the ship in both large and small heaps of debris on the sloping bottom surrounding the vessel, each a small little habitat all its own. The area of the ship originally astern of the deckhouse back toward the stern itself remains intact and lies on its starboard side, with all of the deck structure including the massive loading derricks and deck fixtures still poised as if waiting for use. The vessel's cargo holds are still open and the jumbled remains of some of her cargo can still be seen jammed up against the starboard bulkhead, although no longer in a state that one would ever recognize as automobiles. As we cruised along the stern we saw several open hatchways leading into the Vanlene but chose not to penetrate as our knowledge of the ship's interior was completely lacking. Many penetration dives have been made on the wreck, however, and a lot of souvenirs have been brought up from below decks. Turning the dive at her stern in approximately 130 FSW we slowly swam upward on the opposite side, a massive Ling Cod disturbed by our lights abruptly speeding off into the gloom like a torpedo.
As we continued our ascent the bright sunshine darted down into the water like long green fluorescent fingers, bathing the wreck in its intensity. A school of shiny Striped Sea Perch glistened in the light and dozens of them surrounded us as we slowly moved through them toward the surface. The occasional China Rockfish would stare at us from small ledges in the ship's railing, their beautiful shiny black color emblazoned with a bright yellow "swoosh" on their sides as if they were part of a Nike commercial. Our final stop was on a massive piece of unrecognizable twisted metal on which stalks of Bull Kelp had attached and plunged up to the surface like long, thin spears. The sun shining through the mat of kelp gleaming on the surface gave the spot an incredible golden-brown hue that made our last minutes underwater a vivid memory.
Climbing back aboard the "Rendezvous" I could see grins all around and knew that our fellow divers had also had experiences that would last them for weeks of tall tales with their buddies back home in Alberta and Saskatchewan. As Dave swung the bow of the boat eastward back toward Rainy Bay and home, each diver described in detail the memory of his or her dive. Like us, perhaps they too were making silent vows to return again to Barkley Sound and the grave of the Vanlene.
My special friends Dave and Renate Christie retired after this article was written. Sadly, Dave passed away within a year and Renate has gone on to build a new life. Readers desiring more information on diving in Barkley Sound may contact the new owners of Rendezvous Lodge, Peter Mieras and Kathy Johnson at www.rendezvousdiving.com or toll free at 1-877-777-9994.