For the local diving community, it is hard to imagine a full year has already passed since the sinking of the HMCS Annapolis in Halkett Bay, off Gambier Island in British Columbia, Canada. It only seemed like yesterday when crowds of onlookers gathered to watch the sinking on 4 April 2015. In little over two minutes, the ship was on the bottom, and Howe Sound had its first substantial wreck at 371ft (113m) in length! Divers joined in from around the northwest to be one of the first to dive the new underwater reef of steel, keeping local dive charter operators busy for months to follow.
According to Jan Breckman, co-owner of Sea Dragon Charters out of Horseshoe Bay, business continues to be strong a year later: “Yes, it looks like another great year is coming up! It takes time for dive stores and trip leaders to organize group charters, so we will continue to have new business for some time. We already have many bookings for 2016 and visibility has really been good since last summer.”
Breckman also agreed the new wreck has without a doubt contributed to the local economy by attracting new divers to the area, similar to other artificial reefs put down around coastal BC by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC). “Yes, for sure it has contributed as the media attention on the Annapolis has let divers know that there is a great artificial reef in close proximity, which is very inviting to new customers from Washington and Alberta,” said Breckman.
Over the past year, Sea Dragon Charters (Seadragoncharters.com) has added snorkeling and kayaking tours in Howe Sound to their adventure tours. When asked if Jan and her husband Kevin has had a chance to dive on the new wreck, she replied:
“Of course, we have both been diving on the wreck! I actually cried when the wreck was first being towed from Long Bay to Halkett Bay, because it meant the project that we had been working on for eight years was actually going to happen, and the blood, sweat and tears would all be worth it. I cried again when she actually went down perfectly on sinking day, and I cried one more time in my mask when I was on my first dive right after the sinking. The fact that this artificial reef is shallower than most of the other artificial reefs makes it great for training and beginner divers can also partake because there are plenty of areas shallower than 60ft (18m) that they can explore safely.”
Indeed, the wreck is somewhat shallower than the other retired military ships, making it very accessible year round. According to reports, the bow is to the south at around 105ft (60ft at top) and the stern to the north at 98ft (77ft at top) with plenty of the other sections in 35 to 65ft (10.5-20m) of water. As with the other artificial reefs scuttled by the ARSBC, large holes throughout the vessel make it easy for divers to see inside the wreck and watch how marine critters begin to take hold. Just make sure you are trained for penetration diving if you wish to venture inside.
“The ship already has lots of life,” added Breckman. “The Vancouver Aquarium’s project ABIS has already identified well over 40 species.”
Started soon after the sinking, the Annapolis Biodiversity Index Study (ABIS) was set up to observe and record marine species on the wreck for the next five years. Sponsoring participants in the study include the ARSBC, Vancouver Aquarium, Squamish Nations, the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society and BC Parks. Project coordinators Doug Pemberton and Donna Gibbs are asking underwater photographers and videographers to contribute by sharing their experiences, photographs and videos whenever possible.
So far, sightings have included anemones, barnacles, gobies, shiner perch, hydroids, tubeworms and encrusting bryozoans. After a few months, diatoms, new hydroids, spot prawns, coonstripe shrimp, purple and mottled sea stars, rockfish, pollock, greenlings and sculpins were added, followed by red algae, spiral bryozoans, stout shrimp and pygmy rock crabs. For more information on the ABIS project, go to: www.vanaqua.org/act/research/annapolis.
Another dive charter operator, Marc Palay of New World Diving, Ltd, who also departs from Horseshoe Bay, said: “We charter to the Annapolis three to four times a month with most of the divers being local, but a few groups coming from the US and Alberta. I would say we have 50% technical divers and 50 percent recreational divers. Wreck diving courses have been very popular. I have also taken out a few handicap divers along the outside of the ship and they love it!”
For those of you who have never been diving in Howe Sound, there are plenty of other excellent dives as explained by Loretta Corbeil, owner of Sunshine Kayaking/ Sunshine Dive Charters (Sunshinekayaking.com): “Howe Sound is unique for diving as it has over 45 dive sites. We started doing dive charters in Howe Sound after the HMCS Annapolis was sunk, then expanded the charters throughout Howe Sound. Our company has been in Gibsons Harbour for 25 years now. Most of the dive sites are only five to 20 minutes away with our charter boat.”
Many of the charter operators work with local hotels to offer visiting divers a package deal similar to the one Sunshine Kayaking offers: “We work with Gibsons Garden Hotel, who offer special rates for divers including breakfast and provide a secure place to wash and store the diving equipment. We also work with Sea Dog Divers Den, the local dive store in Sechelt, for air fills and rentals. Families can come and do a dive and then have a nice holiday here with other things to do like kayaking, fishing and sailing to accommodate the whole family.”
A great reference for diving Howe Sound is the book written by Glen Dennison: The Complete Guide to Diving Howe Sound Reefs & Islands by Boat. Howe Sound is accessed from Mainland Vancouver, serviced by Vancouver International Airport (YVR). For those traveling to Gibsons from Horseshoe Bay, ferry reservations are recommended during the summer months. Gibsons Harbour is accessed via BC Ferries from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale (BCFerries.com).
Support and growth
To assist with the upkeep of the artificial reefs around BC, one of the programs the ARSBC has implemented in cooperation with the Dive Industry Association of British Columbia is a voluntary $20 annual tag fee. Divers receive a colorful, collectible small plastic tag to attach to their buoyancy vest (BCD) to show their support. Money from the program is used for replacing mooring lines, buoys and other needed maintenance on the wrecks. Tags are available from the charter operators.
One thing is for sure that I have heard from many of the charter operators, dive guides and divers who have been on the Annapolis, is that it takes several dives to be able to see the whole ship. Keep in mind, the Annapolis is a helicopter-carrying destroyer escort with the hanger still intact. On both sides of the ship are covered walkways, similar to the Cape Breton, currently scuttled in Nanaimo off Snake Island. Perhaps one day the Annapolis will also have a thriving population of cloud sponge and feather stars.
For more detailed information and the history of this and other wrecks around British Columbia, go to the ARSBC website (Artificialreef.bc.ca). Have fun!