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The HMCS Annapolis sits in Long Bay off of Gambier Island near Vancouver July 23, 2011 as the ship is turned into a dive wreck. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The HMCS Annapolis sits in Long Bay off of Gambier Island near Vancouver July 23, 2011 as the ship is turned into a dive wreck.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Q&A

How Howard Robins is helping a reef to overcome its great barriers Add to ...

Howard Robins, president of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, has been sinking ships for decades. But the current project he is involved in, scuttling HMCS Annapolis, is more difficult than anything his organization has dealt with before.

It’s not just the size of the ship that’s a challenge – the retired Canadian destroyer is 111 metres long with a displacement of 2,815 tons – but the group also has to meet increasingly stringent environmental standards.

After years of work by volunteers cleaning the ship of all the potential pollutants, Mr. Robins, a 56-year-old who makes stained-glass windows for a living, says the Annapolis just needs to pass a final government inspection before it is cleared to go down.

Your critics say the Annapolis is going to pollute the sea floor when you finally sink it in Halkett Bay.

That’s just not true. We’re going above and beyond the environmental standards that the government requires us to meet. We’re divers, and we know the importance of getting the ship clean.

This has been a challenge because normally we do these ships at dockside. This is the first ship we’ve done at sea and that poses simple logistical problems, because you have to get your work crews there by boat.

So far, over 17,000 volunteer hours have been put in by 1,000 volunteers. That’s a pretty impressive effort, and we’re still working on it. We’ve recycled more material than we ever have in the past – aluminum, steel, copper – and we’ve gotten over the hump. The work is almost done.

But the Save Halkett Bay Campaign is saying that sinking ships to create artificial reefs just doesn’t make environmental sense.

Greenpeace sank the Rainbow Warrior to become an artificial reef. In 1997, the Cousteau Society endorsed our sinking of a ship near Nanaimo to create a reef. Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd offered us one of his ships to create an artificial reef, and I don’t think you could accuse him of not caring about the sea.

We’re being attacked by a small group of people who want to keep Halkett Bay to themselves. … When you break it down, it is an elitist attitude. This is a bunch of rich people complaining about something happening in what they see as their own backyard.

How do you know that these wrecks actually create healthy reefs?

When you dive on them you see a proliferation of marine life. And it happens pretty quickly. The moment the ship sinks, we can expect to see schooling perch above it … the crawling creatures will start migrating up the ship … the organic layers and silt build up. You get clams, rockfish, wolf eels, octopus living in these wrecks.

With the Annapolis, we are working with the B.C. Ministry of the Environment to develop a credible monitoring program that will track the changes over time. It’s a perfect scenario for us because the wreck is just 20 minutes from Horseshoe Bay and we will be able to do lots of site surveys.

How do you manage to sink a big ship like this without it cracking apart when it hits the bottom?

I’ve been at this 23 years now. For these ships it’s our experience the best method is to get it down rapidly. So we use 12 linear-shaped charges, six on each side of the hull. The charges create 10,000 degrees of heat and instantly burn through the metal, making big holes. The volume of water that comes in is so extreme, it’s amazing – and the ship goes down. It’s pretty exciting and it’s over pretty quick. We anticipate it will end up resting on the bottom, on its hull, as planned.

Why do you do this?

A guy needs a hobby. It’s interesting work and I believe what we are doing is the right thing.

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