When Jacques Marc dove through the murky depths of Bedwell Bay, he knew what he was looking for but it still took him by surprise. He was headed to an underwater gravesite of a Second World War minesweeper. Despite its immobility, the 41-metre vessel that sunk in the ’50s still had a way of sneaking up on him.
He approached the site. The dark water suddenly grew darker.
“You feel this black wall, but you don’t see it because of the poor visibility. Then, eventually, you realize you’re right under it,” Marc tells me. “It was quite eerie. … The wreck sort of creeps up on you.”
As I listen to Marc, explorations director for the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, a wave of intrigue grabs ahold of my gut.
On Brotchie Ledge, near Victoria’s outer harbour, rests a massive portion of the S.S. San Pedro, a San Francisco-bound collier that went down in 1891. The area is much brighter and far less spooky than Bedwell Bay’s minesweeper, Marc says. And though divers have pilfered the site over the years, about 90 metres of hull, including the keel and floors, remain in water as shallow as 10 metres, just off of Dallas Road.
The San Pedro is well known to local divers who regularly slip past the array of anemones and long bull kelp engulfing the wreckage. Somehow, despite its much-documented place in history, people like me who claim an interest in all there is to see and do in Victoria continue to pass by the same stretch of ocean without taking notice. I could have gone on my usual run for the rest of my life, admiring the kiteboarders and the Olympic Mountains from Dallas Road without ever wondering what lies beneath.
Marc is by no means trying to sell me on the thrill of diving, but as he casually describes some of the more than 100 wreck sites he’s seen, I make the commitment to myself to at least give scuba diving a try.
A whaling boat in the Inner Harbour? A cargo ship off Race Rocks? A lost paddle steamer in Cadboro Bay? Some 200 substantial wrecks, relics from the turn of the century, dot the seafloor surrounding Vancouver Island. Some are located, others remain undiscovered mysteries.
Like I needed another reminder of why we’re so lucky to live in this little seaside city.
Tomorrow’s a landmark date for shipwrecks. On April 14, 1912 the Titanic famously collided with an iceberg in the north Atlantic. The 274-metre vessel, travelling from Southampton, U.K to New York City, sunk rapidly and claimed the lives of 1,500.
A barrage of television specials and news features along with the 3D rerelease of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic have marked the anniversary. A luxury cruise ship’s recreation of the Titanic’s intended voyage, complete with staff donning period costumes and menus featuring original Titanic fare, has also made headlines. I understand our obsession with the tragedy and why Cameron has parlayed his role as a director into that of an underwater explorer. (Last month Cameron tweeted from a submersible at the Earth’s deepest point, the bottom of Mariana Trench.) But you don’t need to plunge 11 kilometres below the surface to make your own discoveries.
For anyone whose idea of underwater exploration is limited to visiting the Royal B.C. Museum’s former narrated elevator submarine experience as a child (R.I.P. Open Ocean) maybe it’s time to challenge the status quo – to remember what it’s like to be eight years old, constantly facing the unknown, and dive right in.
I’m now totally fascinated by our local shipwrecks and more than a little nervous to pull on a wetsuit and see one for myself.
Natalie North is a reporter with
the Saanich News