Diving the Annapolis

By Greg Von Waldburg |

Ever since I started diving in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, I have had the desire to explore the HMCS Annapolis, an old Canadian Navy destroyer, sunk in 2015 by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia. Sunk off of Gambier Island in Howe Sound, the ship was destined to become an artificial reef.

Greg Anap2

On the 5th of March 2017, I finally got my chance to see it for myself. Still relatively bare due to its sheltered resting place, the HMCS Annapolis is a fantastically easy wreck to dive. With very distinct edges and clear cutouts along the side of the hull, it make it very simple to navigate, swim through, explore and just in general thoroughly enjoy this behemoth. The day started off with some light snow shovelling. I guess winter isn’t over just yet. An uncomfortable 0°C reigns over this Sunday Morning. Thoroughly chilled, barely awake, and late, I find myself questioning my sanity. Why do you do this to yourself? What the hell is wrong with your bed, which you decide to leave it in a rush at 6 am? As I drive to the store though, the mood skyrockets, I realise that I am getting closer and closer to actually diving the Annapolis!

Once at the store, there is not much time to get all the gear together and ready to go. I do get to meet my dive buddy for the day, Jonathan Ross. My brain functions have somewhat booted up at this point in time and I am able to follow and remember most of the dive briefing. There will be a second one on the boat, thank god. All the gear is loaded into the various cars and off we go. We have to be at the docks in Horseshoe Bay by 8:45am. I am rocking my (now trusted) twin back mount contraption with all the usual shebang. I’m sincerely very proud of the set up I have concocted for myself over these past couple of months. Still, I can’t believe that most of this gear is actually mine.

On our way to the dive site, John and I exchange the usual small talk pleasantries. He is a very upbeat, outdoorsy Vancouverite. This is going to be a good dive. As we get to the docks, I realise that the first challenge will be to bring all of the gear that I am so proud of onto the boat... Being somewhat of a wannabe badass, I decide to take everything at once. I slip on my set of twins, sling my undergarment bag over my head, take my drysuit bag in the right hand, my lead weight basket into my left, and here I go. Halfway down the docks, my shoulders give me heads up that, if I were to keep this up, they would go on a permanent strike... I sadly will have to swallow my pride if I want to make it to the boat. I drop my drysuit bag and my weights and press on with just my twins on my back, which seem to have morphed into a small car at this point. A quick note to myself “Go back to the gym with Nikita!” After 15 minutes, all the divers have brought their stuff onto the Sea Dragon’s boat and we are ready to cast off.

A calm 25 min drive out to the dive site gives us plenty of time to get ourselves ready. At the site, we get a last briefing from our skipper Bob as to what awaits us under the waves. Soon enough, we have the green light to hop into the water and make our way down the line to the Annapolis.

When you dive down a line, in relatively bad visibility conditions, there comes a time where you are in limbo: too far from the surface to hear or feel the above world and too far from the ground to see progress. You float in an in between stage, where the only sign of motion comes from a progressive suit squeeze. It’s a moment that gets me every time. It spikes that little bit of stress in your body that ultimately will make you that much more focused on your dive. Very soon though, we are released from limbo, out of the murky green waters of Halkett Bay, and the roof of the ship materialises. A quick check-in with John to see if all is good, followed by a shrug of the shoulders, asking him “Where to?” We decide on the bow for our first dive. So we start making our way towards the front of the vessel, gradually lowering ourselves alongside it as we go. Never exceeding the 25-meter depth mark, we start peering into the cutouts on the side of the boat. I am excited as ever! At the bow, I turn around to face the ship, expecting to see the majestic HMCS Annapolis in its entirety. Instead I am just looking at green water... a little pinch of a disappointment. But the latter is soon drowned out by the excitement that rushes back as we make our way to the centre of the ship again.

During the briefing, we were told that, as long as we could see the other side, we were allowed to extend of our comfort zone and make some small wreck penetrations. As we make our way back I stop at one of the cutouts. Is that the other side I see there? It turns that it is! A quick gesture to John, and in we go! Like ghosts we glide through the bowls of the ship, making sure not to stir up any silt as we go. It is surprisingly quite in here, terrifyingly peaceful almost. Some remaining pieces of furniture serve as a reminder of what it used to be, a place of passage and constant activity, that has now become the promised land for pioneer species to turn the Annapolis into a thriving ecosystem.

As we make our way back to the centre console and hit the 30-minute mark, I get a little tap on the shoulder. John is signalling me that his air is on the low side. So we start making our way back to and up the line that will lead us safely through limbo and back to the surface. At the 5-meter marker we make our mandatory safety stop. I am currently trying to perfect my midwater hovering skills and the safety stop is always the best moment to practice, especially when along a line.

At the surface, I realise that I am yet to face the biggest challenge of the dive: getting back onto the boat. The Sea Dragon has been designed for divers, and thus was outfitted with a ladder fit to be used with fins. A great piece of luxury! I let John go first, as I want to drag this out as much as possible. Inevitably, my turns come around and I grab hold of the ladder. The first couple of steps are fine because the water is still carrying most of the weight of my twins. Along comes step three; I now have to heave myself fully out of the water. A familiar thought pops into my mind: “I need to go back to the gym with Nikita!”

I do make it in one piece back onto the boat. I ditch my gear and start removing my hood, gloves and fins. My left, so called “dry” glove, has been leaking through out the entire dive. My Left thumb is a rather unhappy icicle... with the under glove being soaked, I will have to resort to wet gloves for the next dive. But the warm chicken soup, which is presented to me by Bob, pushes the uncomfortable thought out of my head. Dive one done and successful!

For the second dive, John and I agree that we would explore the stern of the boat. After our 1-hour surface interval, we are ready to hop back into the water. A quick buddy check, and in we go. Our descent through limbo reignites the excitement and soon we find ourselves on the roof of the Annapolis once again. The stern of the boat is just as mesmerising as the bow. Our first stop is the helicopter-landing pad. A long rail stretches down the middle of the pad. Apparently it used to house a winch, to which the helicopters would hook themselves, to make landing in rough waters easier. On the next level we are greeted by a school of tiny fishes that I cannot identify. I will have to ask Otto about them once we are back on the boat. As we get to the stern, I try the same thing I tried at the bow. I swim out and turn around to face the Annapolis hoping to see more this time. Once again I am staring into the green... back to the centre we go. As we get back to the helicopter pad we decide to venture into the helicopter hangar, a huge open space at the end of which I can discern a narrow door. As we swim through a little smile touches the corner of my mouth. I am flying through a warship. And I didn’t even need an extensive background check to do so.

We squeeze through the back door, back into the open. At this point in time we are about 27 minutes into our dive and I feel like it is a good time to head back to the surface; wouldn’t want to overshoot my NDL. I check in with John, and he agrees. Back up we go, one last time through limbo, back to the surface. As we leave the underwater world behind to go back to our terrestrial lives, I feel happy. Happy to have successfully dived the Annapolis and finally seen it for myself.

This dive has sparked something inside of me: an unprecedented urge to explore. I want to go back down there and wander further and further into the wreck. Spend hours looking at every bolt in the structure imagining what it must have been like serving on this vessel. I feel like a new chapter has begun in my diving career, and I am very curious to see where it will lead.

Onto the next adventure,

Greg