|TRANSATLANTIC SHIPPING PASSES ALONG THE EAST COAST OF NOVA SCOTIA, in south-eastern Canada. The St Lawrence seaway, one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes after the English Channel, exits around the northern tip of Nova Scotia. There is great potential for mishaps involving rocks, fog, snow, ice, collisions with other ships and foul weather.
Add to this marshalling areas for wartime Atlantic convoys and prowling U-boats, and the consequence is 5000 recorded wrecks, only a small percentage of which have been dived. I cant wait to get started.
The flight is comfortable and stress-free. It isnt much further than the Red Sea. With Air Canada, two bags of up to 32kg each saves arguments about excess baggage when travelling with drysuit and camera. This is more diver-friendly than most coldwater travel.
At reclaim, Snoopy the customs dog gets very excited about my hand luggage. Its the lingering smell of sausage sandwich from my breakfast, which had been stored in the top pocket.
This loveable little fink of a basset hound gets me diverted for a full search and inspection. I cant understand what anyone would want to smuggle into Canada from the UK, because everything in Canada is so much cheaper, but I just smile and let the customs lady get on with her job. I would never risk arguing or they might get the rubber gloves out.
Terry Dwyer from Atlantic Dive Tours meets me and asks if I have remembered my shorts. The sky outside is a perfect summer blue and the climate almost Mediterranean. Nova Scotia is, after all, on the same latitude as southern France.
However, the next day the water temperature on the Bohemian is a chilly 7C. I have two pairs of gloves with me and decide to risk the lighter pair, though my buddy Sam, a local dive instructor, is using 5mm three-finger mitts.
After 20 minutes I am regretting it. Any dexterity originally gained from the thin gloves has been lost and I resort to rolling my hands across camera controls rather than grasping them, as I would have done with thicker gloves and warmer fingers.
The Bohemian was a 5444 ton steamship that hit Sambro Ledges in March 1920 while coming into Halifax to top up with coal. The forward part of the wreck is well broken, with a good covering of kelp.
Heading for the stern, my numb fingers are forgotten as the dive starts to get interesting.
The kelp suddenly gives way to clearly visible debris, mostly pink and pale green, from a calcifying algae with hordes of sea urchins munching their way about. The wreck has obviously been commercially salvaged, as will be nearly all the wrecks I dive here, but enough remains to enjoy.
At the stern, the highlight of the dive is the complete steering engine attached to the top of the rudder post. The ring of the steering quadrant is gilded with plumose anemones. Its only 24m deep, but I have been down for 40 minutes and feel a bit rushed by now, with air running low and deco starting to accumulate.
Between dives, skipper Dave manoeuvres his boat into Sambro Island so that we can stretch our legs and look at one of the oldest lighthouses in Canada. Now automated, many of the keepers buildings are derelict and a pair of old iron signalling cannon are just lying in the undergrowth.
Our next wreck is the City of Vienna, a WW1 troopship bringing Canadian troops home. On 2 July 1918 she was in fog and steering close inshore as a precaution against submarine attack when she hit Black Rocks, just north of Sambro Island.
Grey seals watch from the rocks and the water as we kit up. I wear my thicker gloves. The wreckage is again well broken, the shallower parts obscured by kelp.
The buoy line is tied on next to an upended donkey boiler, the side cracked open to reveal rows of fire tubes. We head upcurrent towards the deeper end of the wreck in 20m, which is the bow, judging by the fittings and lack of any engine or propshaft remains.
Returning amidships and slightly up the slope, I am surprised to see a more intact full-size boiler standing on end 5m shallower than the donkey boiler, perhaps the shallowest part of the ship. Sam brushes sprigs of kelp aside to reveal piles of 6in shells. Quite a large gun for anti-submarine use, and unlikely to be cargo.
Our plan for the next day is to dive the Letitia, a 5764 ton passenger liner converted to a hospital ship. The Letitia had seen extensive service off Malta and in the Dardanelles and was returning to Halifax with wounded soldiers when, on 1 August 1917, pilot error caused her to strike rocks at Portuguese Cove.
The wreck lies down a slope with its stern just short of 40m. Luckily I always travel with spare cambands to rig a twin-set.
It is an even clearer and calmer day than before, so Skipper Dave remarks that this would be a good day for the Russian.
This is the local nickname for the Kolkhosnik, a freighter carrying, among other things, a deck cargo of M3 Grant tanks. It has a mystique among local divers, and at 42m is the deepest wreck that it is sensible to dive on air.
We hadnt planned to dive it, but we do have twin-sets. The Letitia will have to wait.
As with most of the wrecks, there is a buoy on the Kolkhosnik with a line heavy enough to tie up to.
On previous dives I have experienced problems with the port of my camera housing fogging over, a consequence of hot sunshine followed by immersion in cold water. The fog would take 15 minutes or so to clear, no use when constrained by depth and time. Skipper Dave comes to my rescue with a bucket of cold water, cooling the camera as we kit up.
On the way down we cross a couple of thermoclines. Once on the wreck the temperature is only 4C. The benefit is incredibly clear water, though it is a little dark.
Most of the hull has been blasted out during salvage of the cargo of tin and nickel ingots, leaving the boilers and engine intact and upright and the propellers haft exposed.
The Kolkhosnik was heading from Boston to Halifax to join an Atlantic convoy when on 17 January 1942 she struck Smithson Rock and sank. There were rumours of a torpedo attack, but simple navigation error is more likely.
With the wreck now still a recognisable shape but spread out on the seabed, any trace of the original hole has been obscured by subsequent damage.
We follow the propshaft to the stern, biasing our route slightly to starboard where two of the tanks have come to rest, one upside-down and one on its side.
The M3 Grant was a predecessor of the far more successful M4 Sherman tank. It had similar suspension but a very different hull and turret. The main 76mm gun was carried in a barbette on the right side of the hull, with a turret above carrying a smaller 37mm gun.
I have dived Sherman, Valentine, Stuart and some Japanese tanks, but these are my first Grants. Exposed corners and wheels are garnished with some lovely plumose anemones.
It takes a brisk 25 minutes to cover the wreck from end to end and return to the buoy line, pausing to check out the stern gun, steering, propeller, bow, anchors, ammunition and more Grant tanks.
Decompression on air takes another 30 minutes, hanging on in a gentle surface current. The 3m stop feels positively warm in the 12C surface layer. In my log book there are few wrecks as inspiring as the Kolkhosnik.
I later ask Terry about oxygen, nitrox and helium. He doesnt stock any, but can arrange supplies for groups planning technical trips, or lay in scrubber for rebreather-divers. For those inspired to base a technical expedition in Halifax, skipper Dave has run dives to a submarine at 54m, the British Freedom at 64m, the Kaparren at 73m and the Clayquot at 100m.
There are 350 wrecks in Halifax harbour and its approaches, many resulting from navigation errors on the way in. Even the Titanic was heading for Halifax when she struck the iceberg in the North Atlantic, and the survivors were landed in Halifax by the Carpathia. Terrys other business, Movie Marine Canada, worked on the underwater scenes for the Titanic film.
Before the Titanic, the worst shipwreck of its time was the 3390 ton White Star liner Atlantic, wrecked on Mosher island while approaching Halifax on 1 April 1873 with a loss of 547 lives. Its a well-known local dive, but I just didnt have time to fit it in.
I didnt dive the French steamship Mont Blanc or the Norwegian steamship Imo either. This was because their remains are spread over several square miles.
The Mont Blanc was carrying 3000 tons of nitro-glycerine with a deck cargo of drums of benzine. On 6 December 1917 she was leaving Halifax when she collided with the Imo.
The benzine caught fire. Twenty minutes later, the nitro-glycerine exploded. It was the biggest man-made bang prior to nuclear weapons, with the explosive force of a modern tactical nuke. Bits of metal were found many miles away. Half the city was flattened, 1200 killed, 2000 wounded and 6000 made homeless.
I spent an idle afternoon reading about these and other famous wrecks at the Halifax Maritime Museum, on the waterfront in downtown Halifax. The museum also has an extensive display of ship models and outside a WW2 corvette preserved with all its submarine-hunting paraphernalia. I also learned that Captain Joshua Slocum, a man born in Nova Scotia, was the first to sail single-handed round the world between 1895 and 1898.
Back to the diving, and an older wreck is the Daniel Steinman, a 1790 ton steamship that struck Mad Rock Shoal in 1884 after crossing the Atlantic and making for Halifax.
The engineering is interesting but although there is a fair spread of flattened ribs and plates the main diving interest is in the cargo of wine and champagne. We find no intact bottles, but Sam holds a neck and base together for a photo.
Further forward are concreted remains of bales of wire and of a large pile of passenger baggage. This is both a whole-wreck exploration and a rummage dive. At only 22m deep we get a good 45 minutes no-stop time.
One of Terrys favourite dives is the Portia, a schooner-rigged 732 ton steamship that struck Big Fish Shoal while heading for Halifax in 1899.
Skipper Dave dryly remarks that he isnt so sure about this one, as it lies on a flat sandy seabed close to a small reef and he doesnt have it buoyed.
I dont know why he was cautious. As I descend the shotline I can see the wreck spread below me, just an outline of steel and kelp on the sand at 21m, with the shot beside the boiler.
I do a quick circuit. There is not much structure left, only an outline on the sand with a few bits sticking up. This is the only wreck Im excited about - its for those who like rummaging in the sand for trinkets rather than taking in a bigger picture.
I finally get back to diving the hospital ship Letitia. I dive with Rob, another local instructor whose main business is as a freelance TV cameraman. He covered surface shots of the Carpathia expedition for the History Channel.
Skipper Dave ties up to a buoy-line tied in to a large piece of wreckage in just 5m and we navigate out through a maze of reef to the main line of the wreck, which angles down the slope.
With a change of wind, the water is more mixed up. The deep water is warmer but the visibility is nowhere near the wonderful clarity I had experienced on the Kolkhosnik.
At 30m, the slope becomes a short wall and the wreck is more broken before the stern at 40m. I find various winches, bollards and the steering gear, but not the two propeller shafts or rudders.
The end of the trip and decompression day. The standard way to spend it is shopping, as everything in Canada is so cheap and the baggage allowance is so big. Apparently some divers end up having to buy extra suitcases to carry all the goodies home.
I fantasise about filling a suitcase with fresh meat. Terry had cooked some excellent barbecues and meat prices are ridiculously low. Then I remember Snoopy and his excitement over the mere residual smell of sausage sandwich. I settle for a few pairs of jeans.
The trouble with Nova Scotia is that there is too little time to do it all. In addition to Halifax I had been further north to Cape Breton, Louisburg and St Paul Island and only scratched the surface. I still have four thousand nine hundred and something wrecks to go.
|a sea raven, a type of scorpionfish, on the Portia |
|steering engine geared to the Bohemians rudder quadrant |
|76mm main gun in the barbette on an M3 Grant tank on the Russian wreck |
|The lighthouse at Sambro Island is one of the oldest in Canada |
|One of the few upright ribs on the Daniel Steinman, with mussels growing over sponges |
|Brass fitting in the hull on the Letitia |
|Inside the broken boiler on the Daniel Steinman |
|Suspension of an upturned Grant tank, its tracks fallen off, on the Kolkhosnik |
|Engine-room tool kit on the same wreck |
GETTING THERE: Air Canada from Heathrow to Halifax (0870 5247266, www.aircanada.ca).
DIVING: Atlantic Dive Tours (001 902 455 3483, www.splashwatersports.ca, www.saintpaul.ca) can design a package tailored to the requirements of a group, including accommodation, vehicle rental and diving.
ACCOMMODATION: Hotels, motels and self-catering across the whole price range. Atlantic Dive Tours can make arrangements or advise.
WHEN TO GO: Locals dive year-round, but realistically stick to the summer months.
WATER TEMPERATURE: From 12C in shallows to 7 at intermediate depth and 4 in deeper water.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All levels of coldwater diving experience.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Many well-preserved historic sites from the days of exploration and colonisation. Request the Nova Scotia Doers and Dreamers Guide from the Canadian Tourism Commission.
COST: Scheduled flights cost from about£570. A two-dive boat trip in the Halifax area costs Ca $65-100, depending on size of group.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Canadian Tourism Commission, www.travelcanada.ca. Nova Scotia Tourist Board, explore. gov.ns.ca. Skipper Dave (book diving through Atlantic Dive Tours), www.skipperdavescharters.com
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