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Article and Photos by ADM Photojournalist John Rawlings
Although many divers describe her as a “wreck”, HMCS Cape Breton is actually an artificial reef, sunk deliberately by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia in October of 2001. After months of preparation by hundreds of dedicated volunteers, the huge vessel went down in under three minutes, coming to rest as planned in 140 FSW in the waters off of Nanaimo, BC, near Snake Island, becoming what was then the newest of the city of Nanaimo’s underwater attractions. Her years spent underwater have changed her and made the ship one of the most popular dive sites in Canada – with her vast accumulation of marine life she has truly become a “wonder to behold”.
HMCS Cape Breton is a veteran of the Second World War, although she never saw action in that conflict. Built in 1944 at the Burrard Dry-dock Facility in North Vancouver, British Columbia, with a design similar to that of the famous “Liberty Ships”, the ship was originally christened as HMS Flamborough Head. She was originally earmarked to be used in the war against Japan as well as in what was supposed to have been the re-colonization of Asian territories as part of restoring the pre-war British Empire. Launched in Vancouver in 1945, the ship remained on active service with the British Royal Navy until 1952, at which time she was purchased by the Royal Canadian Navy. In January of 1953 the ship was commissioned and renamed as HMCS Cape Breton, serving in Halifax until 1958 as a repair ship and “training establishment” vessel. Transferred to the West coast of Canada in 1959, HMCS Cape Breton served as an escort maintenance ship until February, 1964, when she was “paid off into reserve”.
ADM Team Member Josh Smith floats alongside a portion of the Cape Breton's side railings, now covered with calcareous tube-worms, anemones and swirling feather-stars.
During the 1970s and 1980s, she served as a “towed mobile support facility” and was berthed semi-permanently as a part of the Fleet Maintenance Group (Pacific). Eventually, with the redevelopment of the dockyard approaching completion, HMCS Cape Breton was declared surplus and assigned to the Reserve fleet in Colwood, British Columbia. She was eventually acquired by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia.

Along with the incredibly extensive cleaning of the ship that was required, prior to her sinking the stern section of the Cape Breton was removed at her “birthplace”, the Burrard Dry-dock in North Vancouver, along with the ship’s huge triple-expansion engine. Eventually, both the stern section and the engine are destined to be featured exhibits at the North Vancouver Maritime Museum, scheduled to be opened in the future. A series of photographs showing the extensive cleaning phase as well as the removal of the stern section and engine can be found at:


HMCS Cape Breton is 442 feet long and listed at 10,000 tons, which at the time of her sinking made her the largest ship ever sunk as an artificial reef. Since then, however, the sinking of the USS Spiegel Grove off Key Largo and the USS Oriskany off Pensacola has deprived her of that honor.

Shortly after her sinking, my best friend and dive buddy, John “Sparky” Campbell, and I dived the Cape Breton along with all of the other ships sunk as part of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia’s efforts to create a series of dive attractions within the waters of the Province. It was a “dive marathon” and an absolutely amazing week with dives that will remain in my memory forever. Here is a brief excerpt from my article that appeared in ADM # 16 describing my first impressions of the Cape Breton:

“Within moments of leaving the surface the stark white shape of the massive ship became readily apparent and we gleefully saw that our visibility would approach 70 feet. My first impression as we drifted downward was that there was no life on her at all. As we drew closer, however, I saw that I was mistaken and that invertebrates are slowly taking her over. Her deck literally crawled with tiny brittle stars and white anemones and brown Feather Stars were clearly well on their way toward becoming dominant species. Prior to sinking, the Cape Breton had numerous holes cut into her in an effort to make an exit visible from every entry point and the vessel is now extremely popular for penetration dives.

Above Left: From the past: a photo of one of the exterior hatch doors of the Cape Breton, taken approximately a year after her sinking. Marine invertebrate life was just beginning to take hold and populate the ship.

Left: From the past: ADM Team member John "Sparky" Campbell next to a portion of the Cape Breton's superstructure when the ship was relatively "new" as an artificial reef. Things were just getting started and virtually no marine life is visible in this photo.

In fact, despite the fact that the ship rests in 140 FSW it is possible to penetrate her and dive BELOW that depth since she hit the bottom with such force that her keel now rests deeper than the surrounding bottom. The size of the ship is immense and one dive simply cannot do her justice. During our ascent I stared downward at the huge ship and felt small – even with the visibility we had that day I could not see either end of her. As more marine life accumulates over the years she will become absolutely remarkable.”

In November of 2009, I again traveled to the city of Nanaimo with the intention of diving on the Cape Breton, this time with the express intention of seeing how she had fared during the intervening years. My dive buddy on this trip was my friend Josh Smith, an avid wreck diver from Seattle. With our Closed-Circuit Rebreathers, he on his COPIS Meg and I on my KISS Classic, we planned on diving from one end of the huge ship to the other, seeing for ourselves how much marine life has adapted to the Cape Breton as “home”. We arranged our dives through “Diver’s Choice” dive charters, one of the most popular and professional charters operating out of Nanaimo. The Captain, Ken Adrian, knows the waters and conditions around Nanaimo extremely well, and his vessel is well maintained and suited for the comfort of groups of divers, both technical and recreational. The MV Shawn Tanis is an extremely stable 50 foot yacht with large covered decks. She has a walk-through transom with a large swim-grid and one of the best dive ladders I’ve ever seen – just perfect for tech divers and photographers lugging lots of gear! Both Josh and I had been well pleased when diving with Diver’s Choice on previous occasions, and so in this case the “choice” was obvious. On the day that we dived the Cape Breton, a group of divers from one of the dive shops in Vancouver had come over from the mainland to Nanaimo and joined us on the boat. A good mix of recreational and technical divers, they were friendly, knowledgeable and added a high level of camaraderie to the entire day. We were glad that they were aboard.

Below A large Cabezon, Scorpaenichthys marmoratus, sits amidst several feather-stars on the deck, waiting in ambush for its next meal to happen by. These predatory fish have adapted well to life on the Cape Breton and they can be seen virtually everywhere on the ship's exterior.
To our immense relief, the day had dawned that morning with calm winds and a perfectly blue sky, and to our good fortune those conditions continued throughout the day. The previous day had seen high winds, rain and windswept seas, so the complete change in the weather was a true blessing for us. All of the divers began gearing up as soon as we left the marina in Nanaimo, so we were ready when Ken announced that we were approaching the floats suspended above the Cape Breton. Since we were on our CCRs and intended to spend more time on the wreck than the others, Josh and I were the first to enter the water and as Ken handed my camera system down to me I could feel a growing sense of excitement at the thought of once again diving down to meet an “old friend”. The last time that I had dived the Cape Breton she had seemed like a huge ghostly apparition as I descended, her white paint glowing almost like moonlight in the darkness, and I wondered what the effect of the sight of her would be on me this time.
Descending down the mooring line, I peered downward intently, struggling to catch my first glimpse of the massive ship. A whitish glow began to appear and for a second or two I thought, disappointedly, that nothing had really changed….. As I descended still deeper, however, it suddenly dawned on me that the “whitish glow” was NOT coming from the paint on the ship, but instead was from huge bunches of pale white Plumose anemones, covering parts of the ship like colossal balls of pure cotton. Interspaced amongst the white anemones were bright orange variations of the same species – standing out like glowing Halloween pumpkins in a field of snow. As I approached the deck at around 80 FSW I found myself surrounded by dozens of curious Rockfish – both Coppers and Quillbacks – hovering above the superstructure. Glancing around, I saw many other Rockfish nestled atop pieces of machinery and deck-ladders almost like birds sitting on nests. Hundreds of smaller Rockfish – probably the “young of the year” – darted here and there into the nooks and crannies of the vessel, keeping a wary eye out for predators as well as for anything that could be their own next meal.

We had reached the deck immediately near the bow, and the two of us began to slowly move toward the starboard outside companionway. As we approached the entrance of the companionway I found myself almost entranced by the appearance of the ship’s railings. They were literally covered with invertebrate life, alternating between billowy white and orange plumose anemones and hundreds of Feather Stars, which almost seemed to dance as they gathered food from the passing slight current.
Below: One of the exterior railings on the Cape Breton, virtually invisible beneath a covering of billowy white and orange Giant Plumose Anemones, Metridium farcimen. Parts of the ship are so covered with these anemones that it appears to be almost cloud-like.
Slowly swimming down the length of the vessel through the outside companionway was literally amazing – I recalled these companionways as being almost devoid of life years ago when I first dived the Cape Breton, but now I was fascinated to find that they are now virtually enshrouded with living creatures – dozens of invertebrate species of all shapes and sizes on all sides – at some spots like a living carpet. I was absolutely astonished to find Cloud Sponges growing from the inner bulkhead wall in the companionway – a marvelously intricate species that can take decades to grow, and whose beauty is a magnet for underwater photographers. To my delight, as the dive progressed we would find several of these sponges throughout various parts of the ship. Sometimes pale white, sometimes yellow, sometimes a glowing orange; they will only get larger, more intricate, and more beautiful as time progresses.

Emerging from the aft end of the companionway, I turned my head slightly and found myself staring into the bulbous eyes of a large Cabezon, a bottom-dwelling predatory fish known for its huge head and stunning speed. Perched on one of the many deck-ladders, he watched me as slowly positioned my camera and took his portrait, all the while moving only his eyes to follow my movements. Looking around the surrounding deck, I saw several other “Cabbies” nestled amongst the anemones and Feather Stars, a predatory fish species that has clearly adapted well to life “aboard” the Cape Breton.

Left: A Quillback Rockfish, Sebastes maliger, swims past a fallen hatchway door adorned with small anemones, calcareous tube-worms and feather-stars.

Below: Surrounded by invertebrate life of all kinds, a Cabezon rests on part of the ship's exterior superstructure.

When the ship was being prepared for sinking, numerous large rectangular holes were cut into her deck and sides that would allow divers easy access to the ships interior. Additionally, areas such as the engine room skylights were cleared and expanded for the same purpose. Dropping down through one such opening, we entered a different realm; one in which ambient light never penetrates and the rich currents does not feed. The ship’s exterior was covered with life, but her interior is startlingly different, with only the occasional hint of life to be found, bare metal giving way to rust, and the occasional pile of paint chips that had fallen from her dormant walls. The beams of our canister lights darted to and fro like light sabers across the inky darkness as we made our way through Cape Breton’s tomb-like passageways, and we often found ourselves passing through a narrow hatch only to discover that we had entered a colossal room, made even larger by the absence of machinery long since removed. The Cape Breton rests on the bottom at 140 FSW, but it is actually possible to dive deeper than that as her lower deck is in reality beneath that level, the ship having struck the bottom with such force that her stern is embedded deep into the bottom. The significant amount of preparation done to the ship in anticipation of penetration has made the Cape Breton an extremely popular destination, particularly for training, and numerous divers from around the world have taken their wreck-diving classes on the ship.

Our mission, however, was to examine the levels of marine life that have become part of the huge artificial reef since she was sunk in 2001, so, ascending toward one of the rectangular openings cut into the hull, we popped out of the ship’s port side, dropped down to the bottom, and began to slowly move along the base of the heli-deck where the ship’s stern section had been removed.

Left: Another large Cabezon perches on an invertebrate-encrusted ship's ladder. Beneath the ladder at the bottom left can be seen the beginnings of a majestic Cloud Sponge, Aphrocallistes vastus. A delicate "glass" sponge made of silica, this beautiful species can take decades to grow and is an important element of reef-building in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. Our team found several of them on the Cape Breton, and they will continue to attract underwater photographers for years to come.

ADM Team Member Josh Smith swims alongside the section of the ship where the stern was removed, with literally hundreds of feather-stars dancing alongside him in the current.
Thousands of Feather Stars and Plumose Anemones covered the area, and mostly obscured the “surgery” that had been done years ago to the ship. The many ledges, nooks and crannies exposed by the stern removal held invertebrates of all kinds and numerous species of bottom fish taking their ease. Edging our way around the stern section we ascended toward the main deck, and began seeking one of the up-lines mounted permanently in place on the ship. Slipping over a railing section covered with anemones, I found myself staring into the yellow eyes of a huge Lingcod having staked out that part of the deck as its territory. Normally fairly skittish, and looking much like a “torpedo with teeth”, the predator allowed me to get close enough for a couple of good portrait shots before it turned and swam off slowly into the gloom.

Swimming up through the starboard outside companionway, we were again delighted to see that like its twin companionway on the port side it was completely enshrouded with life, and again I had the sensation of swimming through billowy white cloud formations. The end of our planned bottom time was fast approaching and, popping out the end of the companionway we made our way up the main deck toward the bow and the ascent line, (there are three permanent ascent lines on the Cape Breton, located at the bow, the stern, and amidships). Locating the line, we nodded to each other and started our ascent. We had spent an hour on the Cape Breton, most of that time between 100 and 140 FSW, having both circumnavigated and penetrated her, and thanks to our CCRs we now had about only about 25 minutes of decompression ahead of us. As we slowly inched our way up the line, ambient light from the surface bathed us in rich shades of green. I found my eyes constantly focusing on the tiny animals drifting by in the current – part of the “planktonic soup” that is the reason that the Pacific Northwest has such colossal amounts of life in its emerald green waters. It is this richness brought by the currents that has made the Cape Breton such a successful artificial reef – brimming with life and ripe for adventure. The members of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia must feel a profound thrill whenever they dive here….that group of folks has most assuredly made a positive contribution to the marine environment, to their community, and to diving in general.

Left: Another Cloud Sponge, this one an orange varient, growing inside one of the outside companionways. This species can grow into incredibly bizarre shapes and sizes, and no one can predict their ultimate final appearance.

Below: ADM Team Member Josh Smith slowly swims over one of the many ship's bollards on the Cape Breton. Now encrusted with invertebrate life, such bollards make outstanding subjects for underwater photographers.
Those wishing to dive the Cape Breton can do so by visiting the marvelous little city of Nanaimo on the southeastern shore of Vancouver Island. Easily reached by ferry from the city of Vancouver on the mainland, the city looks at divers as a tourism asset and welcomes us with open arms:


BC Ferry System:


The ADM team used the professional services of Diver’s Choice Dive Charters, and highly recommend them:

Diver’s Choice Charters - Captain Ken Adrian
Telephone: (250) 716-8867
Toll-free: 1-866-716-8867
E-mail: aadrian@telus.net


Accommodations were provided by the Buccaneer Inn, an extremely hospitable and clean hotel that caters especially to divers located near the waterfront: