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Saving the Wrecks

An Interview with Jacques Marc

Jacques Marc is a member of the Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia. He has been sport diving since 1976, but found his love of researching and exploring British Columbia’s coastal shipwrecks in 1982 with the identification of a vessel called VT-100 in Bedwell Bay and the publication of an article on his findings in Diver Magazine. He has been participating in and leading archaeological dives ever since.

What inspired your interest in wreck diving?

As a kid, I watched Jacques Cousteau like everybody else and that got me into diving. I’ve always had an interest in history, especially maritime history.

I was diving on a ship in Bedwell Bay, Vancouver, that everyone called the HMCS Cranbrook. I went back and read the story of that vessel, and I thought, “that’s not what I’m looking at.” It got my curiosity up. Next time I went out, I took a tape measure. I measured the wreck, and it was 136 feet long and had twin rudders – it was a twin-screw vessel. I researched the HMCS Cranbrook and found out that it was a Canadian Minesweeper in the Second World War. It was 120 feet long and had a single screw. After the war, it was sold to a company in Mexico. If it was in Mexico, then that was not what we had in the harbour! I started doing some more research, and I read about a vessel called the VT-100 burning and sinking in Bedwell Bay. That was my first introduction to wreck diving and research.

Early in 1983 I went out to my first Underwater Archaeology Society of British Columbia (UASBC) meeting and I found it interesting, so I started regularly attending meetings and participating in trips. Next thing I knew, I was running around diving wrecks and documenting them. I was tired of just pretty fish and anemones. You get to a point with diving where you need to move on, so the wrecks gave me that next step.

Each wreck is different, each story is compelling. When you read the stories of the Valencia and then you make the dive – it’s like you’re touching history. When you see where she lies at the base of the cliff and you imagine 150-160 people on there and huge swells breaking over it, you’re going “Oh, Lord help these guys.” You can imagine that the fact that 36 survived is incredible, because there was no way out. No way out.

What is your favourite diving site?

Probably one of the top ten is the wreck of the Union Steamship Capilano, off Savary Island. [The steamer Capilano was lost October 2, 1915 off Savary Island in the Gulf of Georgia.] It was a small coastal freighter-passenger vessel that plied the inner coast. Other than the wood, which has disintegrated, the ship lies upright in a white sand bottom. It is quite compelling in the blackness, under 130 feet of water, contrasted with the white sea anemones that cover the ship. It’s sort of like a ghost ship – it’s still sailing under water.

The Vanlene is compelling because it’s a natural wreck – the front half is all flattened by the Pacific swells; the stern is still intact on its side in 130 feet of water. You can still swim through and look at Dodge Colt cars down in the lower cargo hold. It’s not particularly pretty- it’s sort of rusty, but it’s big, very big.

One of my favourites, just from a site standpoint, is the wreck of the USS Suwanee . It’s bright, colourful, and you’re looking at an 1860s paddlewheel gunboat. It’s pretty neat. And the best thing is: half of it’s missing. Where did it go?

How do you prepare to dive a vessel before you enter the water?

In all our projects, research is the primary thing. Before we go looking for anything, I go to the archives. I do research using the old newspapers. You need to know the general vicinity, plus or minus 100 metres, of where the ship was wrecked. The ocean is a huge playground, and remember, under water we can see 20 to 30 feet maximum. So, when we’re searching for wrecks, we have to have a good idea of where they are, and the first step is research. Sometimes you get X marks the spot, sometimes you get a very vague statement, and sometimes somebody says, “Oh, I’ve been there!” Do your research, and then go out and search for it.

There’s a whole variety of search techniques. We did a project in Restoration Bay near Bella Bella and we were looking for two dueling pistols that were thrown overboard by the Captain Vancouver expedition. We had two compass references of the day, but the declination, the magnetism of the Earth, has changed since he was there. We needed to do corrections. We could have plotted them as they wrote them, but we’d be diving for nothing, because that’s not where the ships would be, using our compass points today.

How should people interested in wreck diving begin?

If people only want to dive wrecks and artificial reefs, then I would recommend that they go and take a wreck diving course through their local dive shop. If they are interested in the underwater archaeological aspect – the research, the searching for and the surveying, then they should come seek out the UASBC. We offer a nautical archaeological course which is a NAS [Nautical Archaeology Society] certification. We’ll also take people with basic diving certification who have an interest in history.

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