By Lucy Hyslop
Vancouver Sun, May 24, 2005
PLYMOUTH, England - With four giant blasts, six
years of collaboration between diving experts in North Vancouver
and the U.K. sink in minutes to the bottom of the ocean.
Now, just over a year since the scuttling of HMS
Scylla, a 2,500-tonne frigate formerly with the Royal Navy,
the benefits of creating the first artificial reef in Europe are
being reaped -- not only in Britain, but also in Vancouver.
The new venture at Whitsand Bay, off Plymouth, southwest England,
has already brought in £1.6 million (almost $3.7 million Canadian
at Monday's exchange rate) for the region. In an unexpected twist,
it is also prompting European divers to go to Vancouver's artificial-reef
Having gained a reputation as international experts, Canadian Artificial
Reef Consulting (CARC) was able to help "turn the dream into
a reality," according to Scylla's new owners, the National
"On Scylla three Canadians were employed as consultants covering
the handling of the ship, the use of explosives to sink her and
the general handling of the project," explains
Jay Straith, a Vancouver
lawyer and president of CARC.
"It took two minutes and eight seconds for the ship to sink.
Using linear explosives the charges are shaped to fit the sides
of the hull and provide a perfect fit for the cutting charges. The
result is four-by-four-foot holes that allow the ship to flood evenly
and also provide diver access to the lower parts of the ships."
The new duties for the former Royal Navy ship -- now 21 metres below
the surface near the NMA in Plymouth -- involves education and marine
research projects as well as diving. (Non-divers will be able to
go on one-hour submarine tours later this summer and there are plans
for web-cameras to be installed.)
Diving websites are already referring to the reef as "the best
wreck dive that we have in England." Basking sharks, two-foot-long
squid, starfish and cuttlefish have already been spotted on the
reef and algae and barnacles are growing on the upper parts which,
to be precise, is at divers' co-ordinates 50 degrees 19' 58"
N 04 degrees 15' 19" W).
"This was the first time this type of project was tried in
Europe," adds Straith, who previously headed the Artificial
Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC), which created diving sites
such as the sunken Cape Breton and Saskatchewan off Nanaimo.
"The precedents set in Canada have been studied and generally
accepted as the appropriate way to reuse ships as artificial reefs."
It's a notion seconded by British diving enthusiast Nick Murns,
who along with John Busby first thought of the idea of an artificial
reef here in 1998: "They were so advanced in artificial reefing
-- advanced in respect that they were doing it legitimately, legally
and respecting environmental laws as opposed to previous artificial
reefs that were just ships that had been scuttled but not necessarily
cleaned, which had happened a lot around the world."
The transformation of Scylla -- which was built in 1968 -- into
a reef has also turned out to be a great advertisement for B.C.
"I've heard of Canadians going over to dive the Scylla, but
dive shops on Vancouver Island have also reported that there are
a lot of people that dove the Scylla have then been over to dive
the Canadian ships," explains Straith.
"Because diving the Scylla has really piqued their interest
in the whole matter [of artificial reefs]. It's been an interesting
sideline, that we sink a ship over in England -- and it ends up
with people diving in British Columbia."
In fact, Murns himself has recently returned from a diving trip
in B.C., which has fired up his hopes for the future of Scylla.
"It was great to compare the two areas," he says. "The
Saskatchewan is now very colourful -- she's been down a few years
more than Cape Breton which is going the same way. It was fantastic
-- all full of life.
"You have to look at the long term on this. In about 18 months
you'll start noticing a big difference in Scylla -- she'll be covered
in life. Then more in 50 years, and 100 years -- she'll be there
for a long time because she sits on her keel.
"And you won't find any artificial reef that had to be exhumed
-- for want of a better word -- or brought back to the surface because
it hasn't worked, because they always do -- if they've been done
The historic significance of Plymouth as the site of the U.K.'s
first artificial reef is not lost on Straith, a naval history buff.
Among many noteworthy events, the city is where 16th-century explorer
Sir Francis Drake first received news of the Spanish Armada (reputedly
quipping, while he played bowls, that "there's time to finish
the game and beat the Spaniards too").
"It felt like a part of history -- very special," says
Straith. "I did not have the foggiest notion that 15 years
later [after ARSBC's founding] I would be on one of Her Majesty's
Ships planning to have it scuttled near Plymouth, England.
"If you had told me that, I would have told you that you were
The Scylla Reef has turned into a huge success.
"It is reported that up to 300 divers per day are diving on
Scylla and proving a huge financial success for the many industries
involved: dive shops and schools, hotels, B&Bs," says Melanie
Cowie, NMA's communications manager.
"Artificial reefs are getting more popular," adds Murns,
who now heads a British artificial reef group, Artificial Reef Consortium,
and is looking to collaborate again with CARC on another project
in Scotland. "You are disposing of these vessels cost effectively
and rather than just scrapping them, you are reusing them to generate
income back into the economy."
Straith, a lawyer with Lakes, Straith and Whyte in North Vancouver,
also believes that artificial reefs play an important part as "the
tools that need to be developed for proper ocean stewardship."
"There are so many areas where there has been damage to the
marine habitat -- that's how I got into this in the first place
(I had done fisheries prosecutions as the local agents for the Department
of Justice)," he adds.
"Using an artificial reef properly you can put back a lot of
that habitat which has been damaged when we build our harbours and
things like that.
"When we first came along and said we're going to sink a ship
and it's a good thing for the marine environment, people thought
we were from Mars. It's important to educate the public so that
there's more of an understanding of how these artificial reefs work."
Lots of new scuttling projects are in the pipeline for CARC over
the next few years: the former USS Vandenberg, which is to be sunk
near Key West Florida, the former HMAS Brisbane and the Saxon Ranger
are being sunk off Australia, and the former HMNZS Wellington will
go down near Wellington, New Zealand. There are a number of other
possible ventures in Europe and the Caribbean. There is also talk
of creating an artificial reef in the tsunami-ravaged Asia, to take
pressure away from the natural reefs that need to recover.
Last year CARC's vice-president (sinking operations), Roy
Gabriel, who has nearly 40 years experience as a technical explosives
specialist with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian
military, was also involved in the sinking of the 57-metre ship,
the South Tomi, off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia.
Of working in the U.K., Straith says: "We very much enjoyed
working there. It was a technical and diplomatic challenge taking
the experiences we have had in Canada and elsewhere and translating
them to the local legislation.
"As a lawyer I know that many of these statutes are remarkably
similar in wording but everything is in the interpretation of the
statute and the regulations. We have the advantage of having been
through the process a number of times.
"The U.K. is somewhat more bureaucratic than Canada but a lot
of this was due to the fact that no one had seen this type of project
So is B.C. ahead of the game? "Very much so," adds Straith.
"It's a very interesting marine community around Vancouver
-- everything from the tourist submarines that you see all over
the world to one-atmosphere and sonar technology.
"It's quite interesting for a certain little backwater of the
marine world, but there's actually a lot of very forward-thinking
people in the area."
Canada's growing reputation for excellence in the artificial reef
world started in far less grand circumstances. "Over a Chinese
meal and an idea scribbled on a beer mat," adds Straith of
the founding of ARSBC in 1990.
"Like most good ideas in Canada, the concept came upon us during
the consumption of alcohol."
He created CARC and stepped down as president of ARSBC once the
sinking of the Cape Breton was completed in 2001. "There have
been more and more requests to act as consultants for foreign projects,"
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