COVER STORY: Sink & Swim
Theses days much of the dialogue surrounding the troubled Annapolis, a 113-metre former Canadian navy destroyer currently being prepped for sinking by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, is focused on the warship’s uncertain future.
Since 2009, the vessel has sat off Gambier Island waiting for its descent into the waters of Howe Sound, fulfilling the ARSBC’s plans of sinking the ship in nearby Halkett Bay and establishing a readily accessible place for Vancouver-based scuba-enthusiasts to dive. Environmentalists, on the other hand, have argued toxins from a sunken ship would contaminate the waters and bay residents are worried their secluded hamlet will become a popular dive-tourism destination. But after nearly three years of playing the waiting the game, the longest such period of limbo for any of the ARSBC’s seven projects to date, the Annapolis doesn’t just represent a tale of what’s next, but a story of what happened to produce this drawn-out saga in the first place.
X Marks the Spot
“Halkett Bay was not our first choice, in fact, it wasn’t high on our list at all,” says Howie Robins, president of the ARSBC. “Because it’s a fjord it’s difficult to find a place in Howe Sound to sink a ship. No sooner do you think you’ve found a place that you learn of a terrain change, either a precipitous drop or precipitous rise. We needed a consistency in depth, suitable for a ship this size.”
The society’s initial location, says Robins, was Pasley Island, located between Bowen Island and Gibsons. That site had a great deal of flat ground on which to land the ship but the idea was met with such resistance from residents that the society decided to entertain other locales.
Enter Halkett Bay. Using SONAR equipment, says Robins, his team measured and examined the area for six weeks, ensuring it would have enough flat ground to land the large ship. And after finding a plot 1,470 square metres in size, they have just enough room to pull it off.
The seabed found in Halkett Bay has long been damaged from the area’s log-booming past, according to the ARSBC. Over the years, bark and other fibrous materials from lumber-booms found their way to the bottom of the bay, smothering the area. By sinking the Annapolis on top of the debris, says Robins, the ship creates a new environment for sea-life that hasn’t been able to exist with the current sediment.
But what of the supposed toxins from the ship’s lead paint and the explosives that will be used to sink the vessel? Do residents and environmentalists have a reason to be concerned?
Robins claims the Annapolis will be the cleanest ship “ever put down” and will set the standard by which all future ARSBC projects will be measured.
“This will be a defining moment for us,” says Robins. “The Annapolis will become a living laboratory, perfectly suitable for all divers. If the ship isn’t clean, it won’t go down. We play by the rules.”
The agency in charge of ship sinking is Environment Canada, with consultation from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Transport Canada.
In the early 1990s, the ARSBC, under then-president and West Vancouver-based lawyer Jay Straith, helped the federal departments write the rule book for these projects.
All vessels earmarked for sinking must be stripped of all floatable objects and cleaned of toxins and hydrocarbons, to name but a few of the expectations.
The ship must also be free of all PCBs. Because the ARSBC is a non-profit organization, the navy removed all such substances to assist the society before handing the vessel over, according to Robins.
Canadian Artificial Reef Consulting, an international artificial reef firm established by Straith after he broke away from the ARSBC, adheres to the same set of Canadian-established guidelines when working on reef projects abroad. The International Maritime Organization, an agency within the United Nations, has copied those expectations, as has the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Thus far Robins’ group hasn’t had the best of luck getting federal approval. In late 2009 and 2010 respectively, reports from the DFO and BC Parks recommended the project move to a new location because of the ship’s size and potential disruption to the area.
March 2011, however, marked a change in attitude towards the Annapolis when former Minster of Environment Murray Coell promised the provincial government would assume possession of the ship after the feds had signed off and the vessel was sunk. The ARSBC immediately approached Ottawa again for permission to sink the Annapolis, but problems on the ship prevented their request from getting the go-ahead. Another inspection is expected soon, as the optimal time for sinking a ship is before the cold-weather season.
Save Halkett Bay
“We know the ARSBC wanted to sink the Annapolis in Pasely Island but the people said ‘hell no’,” says Gary McDonald, spokesman for Save Halkett Bay, a group comprised of area residents fighting the Annapolis project.
“And the next thing we knew a guy who was doing some work in Halkett Bay tells us of their plans to sink here. So, this is not the first one to meet with community push back. It’s not as if these plans are uniformly welcome.”
The concerns of McDonald and his group are twofold: the potential damage to the waters and the assumed increase in visitors to the normally quiet bay. The root of their environmental concerns, he said, has been getting assurance the ship will be thoroughly cleaned.
He understands the vessel will be examined but he claims he has asked for the results of previous cleaning inspections, just to see what was found on the ship, and hasn’t received any information. Data on the current state of the Annapolis, he feels, isn’t too much to ask considering his community is the proposed site.
In the past, the ARSBC has held open houses onboard various vessels to educate community on its plans and to let residents get a look at the condition of a particular ship.
The HMCS Mackenzie, sunk in 1996, hosted two open houses, as did the Saskatchewan project in 1997 and the Cape Breton in 2001. Thus far, no open house on board the Annapolis has been held.
A jump in traffic, adds McDonald, is also worrisome. Halkett Bay is different than a place like Porteau Cove, for instance. The bay is small and quiet, he says, and will not handle significant increases in traffic without disruptions to residents.
“He [Robins] says we’re out to lunch, just a bunchy of rich, NIMBY land owners, but we’re not,” says McDonald. “We have real environmental concerns. Can they get it clean? We fundamentally believe that Halkett Bay is not the right place for this to happen.”
A new life
For the past two years, North Vancouver’s John Webb has volunteered his time getting the Annapolis ready for its descent. He’s broken down parts of the ship so nothing will be swept away once it meets the seabed and wiped countless surfaces onboard.
Pipes, in particular, always have some “residual stuff” on them, he says, so every one is cleaned thoroughly. Those that have been bent or damaged are removed and those in good condition are opened up for inspection.
The Annapolis, he stresses, isn’t going to be sent off and made into razorblades. It’s a part of Canadian history and all the work the dozens of volunteers have put in is to ensure the ship is able to again serve its country, albeit in a slightly different way.
“We’re fulfilling all the required standards,” says Webb, who guesses he’s spent about 60 days on the Annapolis since he began volunteering. “But it’s a real boon for the Vancouver dive industry. The site is 20 minutes from Horseshoe Bay. If Vancouver gets on the map more and more for diving, it will be a major plus for us. It can really be one of those beautiful B.C. things.”
Webb, an employee at North Van’s Edge Diving Centre, is quick to admit that sinking a ship does do some damage, such as killing the species it lands on, but says the life that grows on the reef afterwards outweighs the hurt it causes initially. And the Annapolis, he adds, has a landing pad that will “provide more surface area for habitat.”
Like Robins, Webb cites the damaged Halkett Bay seabed as a reason for the site’s selection. He’s dove in Howe Sound numerous times and says bark has “smothered” the bottom of Halkett Bay. The opportunity to change that should not be missed.
Divers from across the Lower Mainland are excited to see this job come to an end and even after more than 200 career dives, so is Webb.
“You’re always seeing new things. You can go to the same site and see different stuff each time,” he says. “It’s the array of life and the personal challenge of learning something we as humans are not supposed to do. Through technology and trail and error we’ve figured diving out. That’s what keeps me coming back.”