Does the Yukon tempt divers to death?

Bad luck in dark water off Mission Beach

Blue Escape dive boat prepares for Yukon excursion. “We would have liked to see it land flat because, logistically, it would have been a little easier to dive."
  • Blue Escape dive boat prepares for Yukon excursion. “We would have liked to see it land flat because, logistically, it would have been a little easier to dive."

The Yukon, a 366-foot Canadian destroyer that’s now a popular San Diego dive spot, has had its share of bad luck. On January 19,1983, it collided with the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Washington coast. The accident damaged the mast of the Canadian vessel. Then, just after midnight on July 14 of last year, the Yukon sank in 100 feet of cold water two miles west of Mission Beach. The ship had been scheduled to go down the following day. Demolition experts had cut holes in the hull — which they then covered with plywood — and were installing explosives for the controlled sinking when the Yukon began to take on water and started to sink.

Brant Bass with dive-team gear: "Villa's brother and brother-in-law lost track of her, so we don’t know what happened to her, really. She had plenty of air in her tank when we found her on the ocean floor near the wreck.”

Brant Bass with dive-team gear: "Villa's brother and brother-in-law lost track of her, so we don’t know what happened to her, really. She had plenty of air in her tank when we found her on the ocean floor near the wreck.”

Dick Long is a scuba diver and president of Diving Unlimited International, a San Diego company that manufactures diving equipment. He is also the volunteer president of the San Diego Oceans Foundation — whose primary interest, he says, is “preserving, protecting, and rehabilitating the ocean” — and was instrumental in bringing the Yukon to San Diego. Regarding the premature sinking of the ship, Long said, “Well, we had never sunk one of these ships before. What we did was hire these people from Canada, and they were the ones who had sunk six other ships. We paid them money to come down here, and we followed all of their instructions. I even questioned some of their instructions, but they were the supposed experts. First, they cut some holes too low, and then they flooded the boiler room to see if there were any leaks going back to other areas, but they didn’t pump it out afterwards, and they should have. As it was, when the sea changed, because she was on a three-point mooring, the ship took on water and sunk. She was on the three-point mooring so she would go down exactly where we wanted her to go down, but when the waves came in from the south, she couldn’t point into them.”

Dick Long checks dive suit for leaks. "What we did was hire these people from Canada. First, they cut some holes too low, and then they flooded the boiler room to see if there were any leaks going back to other areas, but they didn’t pump it out afterwards."

Dick Long checks dive suit for leaks. "What we did was hire these people from Canada. First, they cut some holes too low, and then they flooded the boiler room to see if there were any leaks going back to other areas, but they didn’t pump it out afterwards."

After a group of 60 volunteer divers inspected the vessel for jagged metal edges and a team of Navy Explosive Ordnance Detail divers removed the explosives, the Yukon was declared safe for recreational diving. But there was one more bit of bad luck. The original plan called for the ship to sit on the sea bottom upright on its keel. Instead, it settled on its port side. Had the 70-foot-tall ship landed upright, the mast and portions of the upper deck would have ended up in shallow water and been accessible to beginning divers. As it is, the shallowest part of the boat lies 60 feet beneath the surface.

Yukon, c. 1970. On January 19, 1983, it collided with the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Washington coast.

Yukon, c. 1970. On January 19, 1983, it collided with the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Washington coast.

“We would like to right the ship for safety reasons,” Long said. “Lying on its side, it’s a little disorienting. The Navy was talking to us about righting it as a training exercise until they had problems with the submarine and the Japanese fishing vessel. It’s not that it’s costly, it just takes a big tugboat. If we could right it, we would, because divers are people who walk around in buildings all day, and walls are walls and floors are floors, and that’s what we would like it to be. We made it for visitors to come and have a good time. This is not a shipwreck; this is a toy for people to play on, so we would prefer that it be upright.”

Some dive-boat operators agree with Long. Matt Silva runs Blue Escape, a dive company out of Mission Bay, with his father Manny. Matt said, “We would have liked to see it land flat because, logistically, it would have been a little easier to dive. It does make it a little more difficult to dive because the holes they cut on the port side are now in the sand. It was supposed to be that you could penetrate from any side. In our local waters here, 20 feet is average visibility, so you can’t see from one end of the ship to the other, which psychologically may make it more ominous.”

Richard Sillanpa, who runs the tour company Yukon Diving Adventures, agrees. “The optimum thing would have been to have the ship lying straight, so it isn’t disorienting for novices,” he said. “You kind of have to turn sideways at a 45-degree angle to swim through it. As a guided dive, it’s an excellent venue. As far as just a novice going out, I wouldn’t recommend that at all, though that would be true of any wreck.” According to the San Diego Lifeguard Service’s Lieutenant Brant Bass, who investigates scuba-diving deaths, one of the dangers of any deep dive is that clients don’t have to prove their expertise to boat operators. “You have to be a certified diver to dive,” Bass said, “but that doesn’t speak at all to skill level. You can use a certification card from four years ago if you want. The bottom line is that divers are responsible for their own safety.” And two more signs of bad luck: since the Yukon’s sinking, there have been two tragic deaths at “wreck alley,” the site of the Yukon and two other sunken ships, the El Rey and the Ruby E. On December 29, Monica Vila, a 41-year-old recreational diver with fewer than 20 dives, died during her descent to the Yukon. Then, on January 7, Mia Tegner, a 53-year-old marine biologist at Scripps, died after a botched decompression procedure after a research dive on the El Rey. Though it seems possible that the Yukon, lying in deep, dark water at an awkward tilt, lures novices into a treacherous dive, no one in the San Diego scuba community says as much.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a dangerous dive,” Lt. Bass said, “but it’s an advanced dive that beginning divers should not make. I would say it’s been a success all the way around, except for the one fatality [Vila], but that didn’t have anything to do with the wreck. Right when she got to the deck, her brother and brother-in-law lost track of her, so we don’t know what happened to her, really. She had plenty of air in her tank when we found her on the ocean floor near the wreck.”

Long also believes that Vila’s death was caused by carelessness, not the boat. “She told the operators she had been diving for two years and had been diving in cold water and knew what she was doing,” he said. “They had no way of verifying that. The two guys went down, and one of them came back up with a problem, and they lost her. When they found her, she was off the boat. She never even got on the boat. She panicked out. That was definitely a woman who went in over her head. There is no way of preventing that.”

Vila was diving with Blue Escape when she died. Regarding the incident, Matt Silva said, “I don’t want to get into it too much, but it was deemed a drowning — and, of course, it was unfortunate. But it really had nothing to do with the Yukon. It was one of those things that can happen. It’s very rare.”

Tegner’s death, everyone agrees, resulted from her not following common safety practices. Tegner was ascending from an 85-foot dive when her air apparently ran out, forcing her to surface before she could complete her final decompression stop. A companion suggested to her that she stay in the boat and head for a hyperbaric chamber. Instead, she grabbed another tank and returned to the water to complete her so-called safety stop — a pause for several minutes in 20 feet of water meant to clear nitrogen bubbles from a diver’s blood. Tegner’s tank later bobbed to the surface, and she was found on the ocean floor.

“The professor made some mistakes,” Long said.

Silva added, “Even though she was on the El Rey, it seems like her death has been linked with the Yukon. All of a sudden there were a few things that occurred that brought a lot of attention to the Yukon!'

Despite its reputation, the Yukon has been an economic and ecological success, bringing new business to local dive guides and prompting the U.S. government to consider turning its own decommissioned warships into artificial reefs. “We get a lot of people from Europe, and it’s our most popular dive,” Silva said. “It’s the biggest wreck on the West Coast.”

Woody Morrison, the manager of Lois Ann Dive Charters, said, “Most of the dive companies are scheduling trips just to handle demand for the Yukon. As next year rolls around, it will certainly be the most popular dive site, just because it’s so big. You can do two dives on the Yukon to see the whole thing, while the Ruby E. and El Rey take one dive. Plus, because it’s new, it will always be changing; every year will be different.”

“In order to get this project approved and funded by the city,” Long said, “we sold it as an economic enhancement, because not everyone goes for ecological enhancements alone. And in terms of economics, it’s been a huge success. You had better have reservations to dive at the site on the weekend, otherwise you won’t get to go. All the boats are full. It’s been an incredible boon. And we’re bringing in lots of people from out of town. This is the only wreck with guns along the Pacific coast, and there are damn few on the other coast.”

Ironically, the fact that the boat settled on its side is one reason it’s such a popular dive. “It starts at 60 feet and goes to 102 feet,” Morrison explained. “One whole side of the boat is the shallow depth, and the other side is the deep depth. And the middle of the boat, where all the guns are, is right in the middle of the dive. So less experienced divers can stay shallower and see the same things that those going deeper would see. Actually, I think it worked out better the way it landed than the way it was planned.”

Even Long, who wants to see the boat righted, said, “There are some advantages to it lying on its side. The sunlight, for example, penetrates the holes in the side of the ship, making it possible to go through it without a flashlight.”

Silva explained the attraction of the Yukon. “A lot of people like the fact that it’s not a cookie-cutter wreck placed there like a Disneyland dive,” he said. “People like to dive the ship because, like a real wreck, it’s mysterious.”

Long believes the Yukon would never have turned into such a popular dive if it weren’t safe. “When a ship sinks for real,” he said, “it has everything in it, but the Yukon has been steam-cleaned, and we removed all the wire. When a ship deteriorates underwater, the wires will fall down and trip divers. But we took all that out. Also, we went through and took out bulkheads and walls. When we got the ship it had 200 rooms, and now it has about 100 rooms. So we made little rooms into big rooms. We also cut holes in the ship every 20 to 30 feet, so that no matter where you are, you can see a way out.”

But Long is quick to point out that the Yukon should be judged on its ecological benefits, not its popularity as a recreational destination. He explained that he first came across the ship when he was researching artificial reefs for the San Diego Oceans Foundation. “One group that I got ahold of was out of British Columbia, the Artificial Reef Society, and they said that they used ships instead of concrete for artificial reefs. They told me that they had some extra ships and that they were going to be sold to India for scrap. The former sailors didn’t want that. They wanted the ships to become artificial reefs, which is an honorable thing; being torn apart by peasants and made into rebar is not so honorable. We couldn’t get the money together for the ship, but the sailors were fond of San Diego; it was the Yukon’s last port of call. So the sailors told the society to make a deal with us. We paid them about a quarter of a million dollars for it.”

“Ecologically,” Long added, “it has surpassed our wildest expectations. I’m in this thing for fishes, even though we said it was for the money. Our oceans are dying, and that’s pure and simple. We have to do something; we have to replace habitat. Well, right now, we have Yukon babies, which are fish that have been born on the Yukon. The first ones we had are called blacksmith fishes, which are incredibly small. At least two groups of them hatched at the front gun. The ship also has kelp growing on it, though we aren’t sure whether it will make a kelp bed. There are anemones and barnacles and sponges and mussels on it, too. Every inch of the ship has something growing on it.”

“It’s absolutely phenomenal,” Morrison said. “There are huge schools of fish on it already. There is also a certain type of anemone, called cory-nactis, that we didn’t expect to see on the Yukon for another three or four years. It’s a miniature anemone, a soft coral. They range from a light purple to a blood red.”

Long explained that the Yukon artificial-reef project has been such a success that Congress is looking to replicate it. “Our country has in storage about 600 ships,” he said, “and there’s another 200 on the way because we’re downsizing the Navy. Congress has mandated that 400 of those ships must be disposed of. So the Secretary of the Navy asked the Rand Corporation [a national security research institution based in Santa Monica] to look into the disposal question. In the process they heard about us, and they walked through the Yukon before it went down and told me that we had answers to questions they were still trying to formulate. They included us in their study, and the report went to Congress and said that reefing was far more practical than scrapping.”

As Richard Sillanpa pointed out, “Its a hell of a lot better than cutting these ships up for razor blades.”

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