Holding my regulator and my mask, I fall backwards into the chilly emerald green to revel in weightless freedom. Descending slowly beside the mast of the G.B. Church, streams of plankton catch ribbons of sunlight leading down to the depths. My mask is within inches of the softly waving tentacles of a mauve barnacle. Limpets, smiling clams, little hermit crabs and bright orange and purple starfish sway in a tangle as I bubble down the mast. Giant white plumose anemones, large as cauliflowers, wave their delicate florets in the pulsing water, retracting suddenly into central stalks when I brush the edges gently with my gloves. July, 2007
This plentiful marine life was not always thriving here. The G.B. Church was sunk as an artificial reef in 1991, in Princess Margaret Marine Park, (now part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve) near Sidney, British Columbia. It was the first in a series of 7 vessels sunk by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC). Now, almost twenty years later, the ARSBC hopes to sink an eighth vessel, the HMCS Annapolis in Halkett Bay Marine Park off Gambier Island.
Since my dive on the G.B. Church in the summer of 2007, I have followed the story of the Annapolis, anticipated to be the best artificial reef yet. A decommissioned helicopter-carrying destroyer, it has large open areas such as the landing deck and helicopter hangar, which will be ideal for habitat formation.
The ARSBC has a long history of creating environmentally and economically sustainable reefs in British Columbia and around the world, for the protection of marine habitats and for the enjoyment of scuba divers. Teams of volunteers give hundreds of hours of labour to ensure the ships are dismantled properly. Parts are recycled where possible and the ship is made ready so that it will pose no threat underwater to the environment or to divers. The environmental standards for artificial reefs were developed by Environment Canada in consultation with the ARSBC, and they have been adopted as standards internationally.
The ARSBC had hoped to sink the Annapolis in 2009, but is now targeting Fall 2010, to coincide with the Canadian Naval Centennial. The Squamish First Nation endorsed the project in writing in 2008, recognizing the environmental restoration potential. Late fall 2009, the ARSBC announced project Annapolis Biological Impact Study, (ABIS), to be led by a group of core marine academics. The wreck will become a living underwater laboratory to study the rate of inhabitation by marine life, utilizing the latest technology in high definition video and digital imagery.
So what’s the holdup?
In a nutshell, there are disagreements among activist groups about what activities should be permitted in a provincial park and there are boundary issues that surfaced last fall.
I must point out that I have never been to Halkett Bay or Halkett Bay Provincial Park and so cannot comment on the actual planned site for the wreck or whether it will be several feet in the right or wrong direction according to the boundaries of the Islands Trust.
I do however support that scuba diving is a valid form of recreation just as camping, biking, hiking, sailing and swimming form other activities permitted in a designated park. In Ontario, Fathom Five National Marine Park “preserves a rich cultural legacy” that includes 22 natural shipwrecks frequented by fresh water divers.
ARSBC President Howie Robins says that the G.B. Church is “an absolute garden underwater.” I concur. I have witnessed first-hand the thriving marine life on the Church. Aquatic life was teeming on the old ship’s mast and quillback rockfish, identified in the Species at Risk Public Registry as threatened, were patrolling around the old deck. The stellar lions watching from nearby rocks did not look bothered by my presence in the slightest, and there were no other dive boats out that morning. Ironically, I waved hello to folks on the Vancouver-Victoria ferry as it plowed past in the same ocean channel.
Last fall a further obstacle surfaced: as reported in The Globe and Mail, the United Church asserted their land ownership rights to withdraw property from the Halkett Bay Marine Park. Close to a third of the protected marine area is subject to a covenant that’s attached to a section of land on Gambier Island, which is owned by the United Church. Legal counsel for the United Church has requested changes to the park’s boundaries by the B.C. Ministry of Environment. Environment Canada is reviewing the application and additional information has been requested from the ARSBC.
Hopefully all the issues can be resolved and this ship will go down. I would love to see the teeming life in a few years and think that an eco-friendly living laboratory for underwater research will be priceless.