Underwater archaeology and wreck diving are not always the same thing. Many people dive shipwrecks seeking treasure and profit from selling their finds, or for the thrill of the danger of entering a dark, mysterious, sunken ship. Professional and hobby archaeologists alike are more interested in discovering the historic information a shipwreck has to offer, although the excitement of diving is still an important part of their work!

Wreck divers doing a three-dimensional dive (where they penetrate or enter a sunken vessel) require extra safety equipment. The dangers of becoming lost, trapped, or pinned under falling wood and metal disturbed by bubbles and motion from the divers exist. Reels of line are used to help divers find their way out. The air supply is carefully monitored, so that one third of the tank is used to descend and enter the site, one third is used to exit and return to the surface, and one third is always in reserve in case of an emergency. A second, back-up tank and extra lights are also carried.

Safety is one of the biggest concerns for all divers, and knowledge of the wind is very important. Especially on the west coast of Vancouver Island Read More
Underwater archaeology and wreck diving are not always the same thing. Many people dive shipwrecks seeking treasure and profit from selling their finds, or for the thrill of the danger of entering a dark, mysterious, sunken ship. Professional and hobby archaeologists alike are more interested in discovering the historic information a shipwreck has to offer, although the excitement of diving is still an important part of their work!

Wreck divers doing a three-dimensional dive (where they penetrate or enter a sunken vessel) require extra safety equipment. The dangers of becoming lost, trapped, or pinned under falling wood and metal disturbed by bubbles and motion from the divers exist. Reels of line are used to help divers find their way out. The air supply is carefully monitored, so that one third of the tank is used to descend and enter the site, one third is used to exit and return to the surface, and one third is always in reserve in case of an emergency. A second, back-up tank and extra lights are also carried.

Safety is one of the biggest concerns for all divers, and knowledge of the wind is very important. Especially on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the waves can grow in size and strength in a strong wind very quickly. Beneath the water, the force of the waves can push divers at great speeds towards the sharp wood and metal pieces sticking out from a shipwreck. With no way to stop, this is a frightening situation!

Some divers enjoy exploring ships that are part of artificial reefs. These reefs are created when vessels are sunk in a special area. They become a relatively safe place for diving experiences. These artificially created environments do not require archaeological knowledge or the historic investigation of shipwrecks, but they do allow divers to practice their skills and to see marine life growing around an old vessel.

The GB Church was Vancouver Island’s first artificial reef, sunk in Princess Margaret Marine Park in 1991. The Chaudiere DDE 235 was made the second. It was sunk in Sechelt Inlet in 1992. The destroyer Mackenzie DDE 261, now off of Sidney, and the destroyer escorts Columbia DDE 260 (located near Campbell River) and the Saskatchewan 262 (near Nanaimo) were sunk as artificial reefs in the 1990s. The HMCS Cape Breton became the world’s largest artificial reef in 2001 when the Artificial Reef Society of B.C. and the Nanaimo Dive Association helped to send it to the ocean floor, 40 metres below the surface.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Archaeological diver with metal detector

Archaeological diver with metal detector

J. Marc

© Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia


Surveying on the Orpheus Wreck

Surveying on the Orpheus Wreck

J. Marc

© Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia


Canadian Naval diver

Canadian Naval diver and sailors preparing to dive to the wreck of the Lord Western

National Defense photograph

MMBC P1784.94
© Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Diver and the Wreck of the Lord Western

Diver and the Wreck of the Lord Western

National Defense photograph

MMBC P1784.103
© Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Video

Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia Mission

Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia Mission

"The Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia started in 1975 and the main mandate of the society is to research, to locate and then to preserve and conserve the maritime heritage lying underwater, not only on the coast but also on the inland waters, our fresh waters. For myself and the members of our society, we really feel that when we see artifacts on the bottom that we are so excited to see them and we like to leave them there for other divers to see. If we feel that a smaller item for example or one of historical significance is at peril by leaving it at the bottom or the fact that we really would like other people to see it who can’t dive to have an appreciation of our maritime heritage, we will get a permit from the BC Heritage Trust and we will raise that item to be preserved and conserved properly which does take some time and money. Then we like to have it in the maritime museums of BC so others can appreciate it as well."

Ian Pope - Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Jacques Marc is a member of the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia. He has been sport diving since 1976, but found his love of researching and exploring British Columbia’s coastal shipwrecks in 1982 with the identification of a vessel called VT-100 in Bedwell Bay and the publication of an article on his findings in Diver Magazine. He has been participating in and leading archaeological dives ever since.

What inspired your interest in wreck diving?

As a kid, I watched Jacques Cousteau like everybody else and that got me into diving. I’ve always had an interest in history, especially maritime history.

I was diving on a ship in Bedwell Bay, Vancouver, that everyone called the HMCS Cranbrook. I went back and read the story of that vessel, and I thought, “that’s not what I’m looking at.” It got my curiosity up. Next time I went out, I took a tape measure. I measured the wreck, and it was 136 feet long and had twin rudders – it was a twin-screw vessel. I researched the HMCS Cranbrook and found out that it was a Canadian Minesweeper in the Second World War. It was 120 feet long and had a single scr Read More
Jacques Marc is a member of the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia. He has been sport diving since 1976, but found his love of researching and exploring British Columbia’s coastal shipwrecks in 1982 with the identification of a vessel called VT-100 in Bedwell Bay and the publication of an article on his findings in Diver Magazine. He has been participating in and leading archaeological dives ever since.

What inspired your interest in wreck diving?

As a kid, I watched Jacques Cousteau like everybody else and that got me into diving. I’ve always had an interest in history, especially maritime history.

I was diving on a ship in Bedwell Bay, Vancouver, that everyone called the HMCS Cranbrook. I went back and read the story of that vessel, and I thought, “that’s not what I’m looking at.” It got my curiosity up. Next time I went out, I took a tape measure. I measured the wreck, and it was 136 feet long and had twin rudders – it was a twin-screw vessel. I researched the HMCS Cranbrook and found out that it was a Canadian Minesweeper in the Second World War. It was 120 feet long and had a single screw. After the war, it was sold to a company in Mexico. If it was in Mexico, then that was not what we had in the harbour! I started doing some more research, and I read about a vessel called the VT-100 burning and sinking in Bedwell Bay. That was my first introduction to wreck diving and research.

Early in 1983 I went out to my first Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) meeting and I found it interesting, so I started regularly attending meetings and participating in trips. Next thing I knew, I was running around diving wrecks and documenting them. I was tired of just pretty fish and anemones. You get to a point with diving where you need to move on, so the wrecks gave me that next step.

Each wreck is different, each story is compelling. When you read the stories of the Valencia and then you make the dive – it’s like you’re touching history. When you see where she lies at the base of the cliff and you imagine 150-160 people on there and huge swells breaking over it, you’re going “Oh, Lord help these guys.” You can imagine that the fact that 36 survived is incredible, because there was no way out. No way out.

What is your favourite diving site?

Probably one of the top ten is the wreck of the Union Steamship Capilano, off Savary Island. [The steamer Capilano was lost October 2, 1915 off Savary Island in the Gulf of Georgia.] It was a small coastal freighter-passenger vessel that plied the inner coast. Other than the wood, which has disintegrated, the ship lies upright in a white sand bottom. It is quite compelling in the blackness, under 130 feet of water, contrasted with the white sea anemones that cover the ship. It’s sort of like a ghost ship – it’s still sailing under water.

The Vanlene is compelling because it’s a natural wreck – the front half is all flattened by the Pacific swells; the stern is still intact on its side in 130 feet of water. You can still swim through and look at Dodge Colt cars down in the lower cargo hold. It’s not particularly pretty- it’s sort of rusty, but it’s big, very big.

One of my favourites, just from a site standpoint, is the wreck of the USS Suwanee . It’s bright, colourful, and you’re looking at an 1860s paddlewheel gunboat. It’s pretty neat. And the best thing is: half of it’s missing. Where did it go?


How do you prepare to dive a vessel before you enter the water?

In all our projects, research is the primary thing. Before we go looking for anything, I go to the archives. I do research using the old newspapers. You need to know the general vicinity, plus or minus 100 metres, of where the ship was wrecked. The ocean is a huge playground, and remember, under water we can see 20 to 30 feet maximum. So, when we’re searching for wrecks, we have to have a good idea of where they are, and the first step is research. Sometimes you get X marks the spot, sometimes you get a very vague statement, and sometimes somebody says, “Oh, I’ve been there!” Do your research, and then go out and search for it.

There’s a whole variety of search techniques. We did a project in Restoration Bay near Bella Bella and we were looking for two dueling pistols that were thrown overboard by the Captain Vancouver expedition. We had two compass references of the day, but the declination, the magnetism of the Earth, has changed since he was there. We needed to do corrections. We could have plotted them as they wrote them, but we’d be diving for nothing, because that’s not where the ships would be, using our compass points today.

How should people interested in wreck diving begin?

If people only want to dive wrecks and artificial reefs, then I would recommend that they go and take a wreck diving course through their local dive shop. If they are interested in the underwater archaeological aspect – the research, the searching for and the surveying, then they should come seek out the UASBC. We offer a nautical archaeological course which is a NAS [Nautical Archaeology Society] certification. We’ll also take people with basic diving certification who have an interest in history.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Divers doing archaeological work with the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) are required to have some kind of open water dive certification, such as NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) or PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). Divers in Vancouver Island waters use a protective neoprene suit made from a stretchy, rubber material that helps to protect them from the cold water and elements. Divers can use a wetsuit, which allows water to come into the suit to be warmed by the body in a layer between the skin and the suit, or a dry suit, which keeps out all water.

Air is stored in tanks, usually made of aluminum or steel, which divers carry strapped to their backs. 80 cubic feet of air stored under 3000 pounds of pressure is held in one air tank. A regulator controls the flow of the air from the tank to the diver’s mouthpiece. Divers use air at different rates, depending on the size and weight of their bodies, whether they are calm or nervous, and how deep they dive.

Before SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) technology, divers breathed with the help of tubes and hoses that were at Read More
Divers doing archaeological work with the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) are required to have some kind of open water dive certification, such as NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) or PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). Divers in Vancouver Island waters use a protective neoprene suit made from a stretchy, rubber material that helps to protect them from the cold water and elements. Divers can use a wetsuit, which allows water to come into the suit to be warmed by the body in a layer between the skin and the suit, or a dry suit, which keeps out all water.

Air is stored in tanks, usually made of aluminum or steel, which divers carry strapped to their backs. 80 cubic feet of air stored under 3000 pounds of pressure is held in one air tank. A regulator controls the flow of the air from the tank to the diver’s mouthpiece. Divers use air at different rates, depending on the size and weight of their bodies, whether they are calm or nervous, and how deep they dive.

Before SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) technology, divers breathed with the help of tubes and hoses that were attached to pumps on the surface. They could only descend in their heavy metal helmets and rubberized canvas suits as far as their air hoses could reach.

Vancouver Island divers need lights, as the thick layers of plankton prevent the sunlight from reaching shipwrecks 20-30 metres below the surface. Regular pens and paper for making notes and sketches do not work under water, so divers use special mechanical pencils, fastened with an elastic cord to a slate made of fiberglass, plastic or Plexiglas. Special plastic ‘paper’ made of Mylar allows divers to write out their notes for later research.

Underwater metal detectors can help divers find metal objects such as nails, engine parts and cargo. Tape measures allow archaeological divers to make accurate notes about the size of objects and how close they are to each other. Sometimes, high-tech digitising systems are used to collect information. Deep water and difficult or dangerous conditions make the use of an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) an exciting option, allowing a submersible to go down and collect information such as photographs, measurements and video that researchers can use on the surface.

Some of the most important pieces of equipment underwater archaeologists have are their eyes. Divers depend on what they see and observe to keep them safe, to help them find the location of shipwrecks, and to gather archaeological information.

© 2004 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Diving Helmet

Diving Helmet

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

MMBC 1592d
© Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Diving unit at Friendly Cove

Diving unit at Friendly Cove

J. Marc

© Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • acquire knowledge of many shipwrecks that took place near the coast of Vancouver Island;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the era that experienced these shipwrecks.

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