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Filming reefs of steel

by Andrew Bell

Reproduced from in focus 58 (September 1996)


Underwater photography is a medium that inspires fascination and awe for the environment beneath the waves from divers and non-divers alike. The increasing popularity of underwater video is a medium that can bring this environment 'alive'.

For many years now, I have been producing commercial underwater videos. In doing so, I have received much self-satisfaction from contributing to a heightened awareness of the underwater world.


Some time ago, I was approached to produce a promotional video for the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC). Based in Vancouver, Canada, the Society is a nonprofit body dedicated to the enhancement of the marine environment of British Columbia through the creation of artificial reefs. Formed in 1986, it had the completion of two major artificial reefs to its credit. The GB Church, a 60 metre coastal freighter and Chaudiere, a 122m 366 destroyer escort, are now colonized by a variety of marine life,Each generates $1,000,00 every year to the local economy.

The Society had now found an opportunity to purchase several more retired Canadian destroyer escorts. A video was needed to demonstrate to the provincial and federal government that these ships would be better utilized in its artificial reef programme than being cut down and sold for scrap metal.

With extensive stock underwater footage 'in the can' on the GB Church already, only a few dives on the Chaudiere were required to put the promo video together. The ARSBC primarily wanted shots showing the marine life colonization to clearly demonstrate that these formerly proud vessels were now healthy, living reefs. A few weeks later, I found myself at a float plane terminal early on a Saturday morning.

Local marine conditions were not at their best. There was a thick patch of fog over the harbour and, for a while, all flights were suspended. Fortunately, the wait was relatively short. The fog dissipated and soon I was on my way flying over the Strait of Georgia to the township of Sechelt.


Twenty minutes later, the plane had made a soft landing in Halfmoon Bay, where I was met by Jay Straith, the Society's president. Soon we met other ARSBC members and were cruising up the Sechlt Inlet to the site of the Chaudiere.

On the way, a dive brief was given as to what areas of the ship were to be filmed. When we reached the wreck we found we were not alone. There were at least four dive charter boats already there, showing just how popular the wreck is with scuba divers.

Descending down the mooring line, we reach the hull at a depth of 30m. The site often has clear water; today the visibility was about 27m. Looking through the viewfinder of my video camera, I could see that with the wide-angle lens and dome port we were going to get some exceptional images. Descending down to the keel, we were soon filming the three 12 inch holes chemically burned through the hull to sink the destroyer escort.


At 43m, Artificial Reef Society diver Howie Robbins led the way, swimming through a huge gap right underneath the Chaudiere. Here we found thousands of crystalline tunicates attached to the hull. Turning on the powerful video lights, their ashy white colour was revealed. Filming them wasn't easy.

They were such a brilliant, pure white that the 100 watt lights caused hot spots on the image. However, by backing off a bit from the tunicates and adjusting the angle of the lights the problem was soon rectified. With Howie looking at the deck guns with his torch, I began swimming towards him.


I find this type of shot particularly challenging. It is difficult to keep the camera 'rock smooth'. The slightest shake in the image will give the viewer and unsettling feeling. Preparing for a medium tight shot of the deck guns, we could see clearly that they were overgrown with crystalline tunicates and a few copper rockfish had already taken up residence.

By this time we were running low on air so we headed for the surface. A few hours later we hit the water once again. The plan was to get some images inside the Chaudiere. With 67 diveable rooms there were plenty of locations to choose from!


Inside we found spacious rooms for exploration. However, marine life was not as abundant inside the ship so we focused on 'diver exploration' shots. Most shipwrecks on the British Columbian coastline have been pounded to a state of confusing, twisted metal so having this opportunity to dive and film this particular artificial reef was a very rewarding experience.

A week later, after reviewing the available stock footage, I started to edit the video. This was extremely time consuming but eventually the video was finished and presented to the Society.


The video proved most effective in promoting the benefits of the ARSBC's artificial reef programme to all levels of government. It was even shown during a meeting with the federal minister of defense!

Later the Society received a grant to purchase several more retired destroyer escorts.

Some time later, the HMCS McKenzie was sunk in September 1995. It landed on an even keel in 30m of water. Not long afterwards, on June 22, 1996 the HMCS Columbia was also sunk.

Making a contribution to this programme was very meaningful for me. It was a contribution that will have a lasting impact for the health and future for the marine environment for many years to come.

Reproduced from in focus 58 (September 1996)

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