For one hundred years the Capilano lies at rest.
****This article appeared in the CV Collective magazine in early 2016.
Floating lazily in the glassy calm waters of Shearwater Passage, our boat tied off to the mooring buoy, we got our equipment ready for an exciting dive. While the setting was tranquil and relaxed I couldn’t help but wonder how it was at this exact same spot one hundred years ago. In the early morning hours of Oct 1st 1915 at this location a storm was brewing. Both on the water and in the hearts and minds of the crew of the Capilano. A steamship for the Union Steamship Company, the “Cap” as it is now often referred to, was taking on water and foundering in the waters between Savary and Harwood Islands. In a desperate bid to save his crew and cargo, Captain Samuel Nelson steered his ship towards Campbell River. But taking on water at a significant rate the ship began to list and the abandon ship call was made. The crew managed to safely get into the lifeboat and sit by as they watched their ship go down, with lights blazing in the dark.
Earlier in the evening, while cruising through Malaspina Strait, the Captain retired to his bunk, leaving control of the vessel to the second mate. At some point the ship struck an object, not enough to raise too many alarms, but of concern. The Captain was roused and the order was made to put into the nearby Port of Van Anda on Texada Island. After a thorough inspection and nothing found it was assumed the ship was sound. The voyage resumed, only to be confronted with some nasty seas and the imminent discovery that the crippled ship was taking on water. The thoughts were that whatever had struck the vessel had become lodged in the steel hull, and then fallen out once the rough conditions were met, thus sealing the ships fate.
After disappearing from view of the captain and crew, the Cap did its last short journey and settled in 130 feet of water on a relatively small flat sandy ledge at the edge of a reef. Sitting perfectly upright on the bottom, it rested forlornly, undisturbed for 57 years. With memories of a storied history, including voyages to the Klondike Gold rush, and transporting stone from the quarry on Nelson Island to Victoria for the BC Legislature Building, it could only live on in dreams. Its name did however live on in the form of another vessel that plied the waters around the Strait of Georgia under the banner of the Union Steamship Company a few years later. This vessel sailed until around 1949 and has led to some confusion. Not many photographs of the first S.S. Capilano are in existence due the era but plenty of the second are.
The first Capilano sat quietly at rest until 1972, when a local fisherman unwittingly snagged a piece of the wreckage. Subsequently a dive was made to investigate, and an historic connection to the past was rediscovered. I imagine the feeling of awe as the wreckage first came into site on that first dive. Not unlike today, on our dive, the first thing to great the descending divers would have been a massive white outline of Giant Plumose Anemone. Covering the outside of the hull, and lining the gunwales and edges of the compartments, these cauliflowers of the deep make an impressive first sight. Like the secrets it held for decades underwater before it was discovered, the divers at the time closely guarded the location of the wreck. Formally recognized as a historic wreck site in 1985, it is now a popular site among local divers, and a destination dive for those from further afield. Located somewhat between Powell River and Courtenay it is reasonably accessible in good weather.
During the typical summer algae blooms in the Strait of Georgia the nutrients feed a host of underwater life. The wreck structure gives the only foot hold around in the sandy bottom and is subsequently covered in life. Once we descended below the green water layer the visibility opened up and the ghostly white outline of the ship became apparent, giving the first indication that this is a spectacular wreck. As we sunk lower large schools of fish became visible, hanging in the current between the descent line and the anemone encrusted bow. Copper and Quillback Rockfish are everywhere, and the minute I poked my head over into the ships compartment holds the Lingcod became apparent. Resting on any flat surface or piece of rigging, these giant fish sat staring.
There is not much left of the wooden superstructure, having rotted away over the years. But evidence of the voyages last cargo is apparent but mostly everything is festooned with life. Swimming towards the stern of the boat where the bridge used to be were magnificent clumps of Cloud Sponge amid all the Plumose Anemone. Hanging off the outside of the hull and perched in other spots these structures continue to grow upon themselves and become a great nursery for little rockfish and other life. In other places, particularly on the structures in the hold, there were chimney sponges. These aptly named sponges stand out from the substrate and often host a sheltering rockfish or warbonnet. As well as being a nursery for young fish it has become a haven for the adults. With so many Lingcod on the wreck it has consequently become a target for sport fishing, as evidenced by the snagged fishing lures on the wreck structure. But thankfully there seems to be a lot of fish that somehow avoid the angler’s lines. Indeed when you look out into the dark waters beyond the wreck you can just make out the shapes of large lingcod cruising over the sandy bottom.
After a trip around what’s left of the superstructure it was time to end the dive. Meeting my buddy at the bow ascent line I took a few final shots of a rockfish that looked like a sentry of the wreck, nestled in a coil of rope on the bow davit. Leaving the wreck to its dark, lonely home we headed back up into the ever brightening green ocean and boarded our small craft, floating on the surface that was still like a millpond.
Just after climbing aboard our boat a small sport fishing vessel approached and with a smile on his face a guy asked casually if there were many fish down there. Usually I am one to brag about what I see underwater. But this time I was just a little vague.