Dec 052011

Bridge of the ex-HMAS Canberra

About the wreck

The ex-HMAS Canberra was a frigate in the Australian Navy until she was scuttled in October 2009 after a long negotiation and preparation by various groups. The ship was specifically prepared for divers, with entanglement hazards such as wiring and environmental hazards such as the hundreds of tonnes of lead used as ballast removed.

The lead placed in the bottom of the hull to keep large ships upright was replaced with concrete to serve the same purpose once the ship hit the seafloor, and large holes were cut in each room to allow divers to swim through while still being able to see daylight. While entering an underwater shipwreck is a risky business, the preparation of the ex-HMAS Canberra for recreational divers was designed to minimise some of the more significant risks.

This intent was also reflected in the location selected for the scuttling, which was a compromise based on a number of factors. Local dive operators were keen to see the wreck in fairly shallow territory, to allow greater access for divers without deep diving qualifications. Of course, a shallower depth meant more of the wreck intruded into the part of the water generally used by ships entering and exiting Port Phillip Bay, so the ex-HMAS Canberra needed to be placed out of the shipping channels.

Lastly, if the ship settled on rocky reef, it was likely to break up rapidly. To be stable and safe from falling over or listing to one side, the ex-HMAS Canberra needed to sink a number of metres into a sandy seafloor. With the prevailing south westerly swell present in the area, the groups involved in the sinking were keen to see the wreck pointing along the SW-NE axis to reduce the impact of the ocean waves and surge. All of these considerations narrowed down the final location to a spot approximately 2 nautical miles off the coast from Torquay, a 25 minute boat ride from Portsea in flat weather.

Following the sinking in October 2009, we waited for the site to be declared safe before it was officially opened to divers on December 5th, 2009. I first dived the wreck a few weeks later, and after an inspection of the notes on the walls (“Leave sink”, “Cut here”, etc) from the prep team and without sighting a single fish, I decided the wreck needed a little time to mature. A visit over Christmas 2010 revealed schools of juvenile fish had begun to make their homes inside the wreck, and molluscs and other crustations were colonising the available surfaces. Recent diving after a few months closure of the site shows marine life coating the external surfaces, and making good progress on the internal walls.

About the diveLeaving the bridge

One of my favourite parts of this ship is the bridge, mostly because you can pretend to drive. On this particular dive we had progressed through the deeper sections of the wreck, finding sea life such as muscles covering the bathroom sinks. With a small amount of surge, I’d been struggling to manouvre the camera and long strobe arms through the doorways between each room, and it was a relief to come up onto the top deck.

About the shot

The shot here shows the larger bullseyes who are making this new wreck their home, and making for much better photography opportunities than when she was first scuttled and bare of life. Once divers start swimming through the bridge they go and find somewhere else to hang out, so this was a limited time opportunity to get in the right position. Swimming into the bridge at the end of the dive, we did the obligatory sitting in the captain’s chair and waving your hands around to give orders. I snapped the second shot as Mum departed for the safety stop, and I like the contrast between the recognisable door and windows of the bridge and the diver swimming through in mid water.

As always, the difference between taking photos in the crystal clear water of the caves and the slightly surgey temperate ocean out from Melbourne stands out in the backscatter. Despite having my strobes out a foot and a half on each side of the camera, lighting the shot inevitably shows up the specks in the water. Getting up close to the subjects makes a huge difference and unlike marine life, wrecks don’t tend to run away. I’m looking forward to a lot more diving on the Canberra over the upcoming summer months and as the colonisation progresses. More great shots to come.

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