by Nathalie Lasselin
Images courtesy of N. Lasselin
You must have heard that idiom: “The devil is in the details.”
If there is a god for the divers, trust me there is a devil as well.
Let me tell you how I met him.
Everything started years ago, when I began to ask myself a recurrent question. I live in Montreal, and each time I come back home by plane, we fly over the St Lawrence river, and I couldn’t stop asking myself: What would it be like to traverse the entire island of Montreal in that river? If you take a closer look at the St Lawrence from up there, you will see a dark, greenish-brownish body of water flowing with rapids in different sections, being spanned by seven bridges, and containing lots of heavy ship traffic going to the great lakes.
But still, I had to see it with my own eyes, to feel it with my own body! A dive so different from all my past experiences, having dived deeper than 110 meters in caves, in strong currents, in nearly no visibility, filming wrecks, and in the freezing water of the Canadian Arctic. I’d had years of training, teaching, exploring, and had always questioned the best way to do things (meaning the most suitable way to achieve my goals) And now I wanted to check it out, I had to try it. I had to do a lengthy, 70-kilometer/44-mile traverse in an impetuous river. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It looked insane and not sexy at all for a dive plan, but my options were to attempt it, or to one day become an old woman and regret that I hadn’t at least tried. Regret seemed worse.
I started the preparation for my Urban Water Odyssey: The 70-km scuba diving traverse of the Saint Lawrence River from one end of the island of Montreal to the other, knowing I had to be obsessively meticulous about all the little details in the preparation for the dive on many different levels. There would be equipment, logistics, team, training, environment, a dive plan, mindset, as well as mental, physical, and psychological preparation. I was headed for a different kind of dive, one that would involve more than 30 hours of immersion in the water.
So where to start? There was no guidebook, no written instructions for a dive like that. The challenge: A 70-kilometer obstacle course with a total time of more or less 30 hours in water, in rapids, strong currents, in low visibility, with structures—including ships and other hurdles such as big rocks—to avoid.
People didn’t understand why this project was so important to me. I explained that one of the most important reasons for my passionate curiosity about this magnificent river had to do with the fact that the St Lawrence river is the source of drinking water for 80% of Montreal and 50% for the population of Quebec. We humans cannot live without water for more than three to five days, and we tend to take it for granted that clean water will flow when we simply turn on our taps. This alone was enough motivation for me to pursue my ambitious plan.
In addition to the dive, I also wanted to collect water samples from the river, and planned to do so every 15 km/9.3 mi in the countryside and every 4 km/2.5mi in the city over a 350 km/217.5mi distance. My hopes for these samples was to determine how many and what kind of contaminants were present. The analysis would be handled by the chemistry department at the University of Montreal. As an underwater explorer, I felt privileged to be able to witness this environment first hand, and felt the need to do whatever I could to protect this most critical source for all life and make the public aware of the situation.
Preparing To Make The Dive
Going back to the basics, physically I needed to be on the top of my game and be fit for the dive, and I had to train differently to have a perfect core. In order to do the dive safely, I would be towed by a DPV in one direction with a surface marker buoy attached to me that was going to pull me in the opposite direction. My team had to know at all times where I was in order to give me an azimuth to follow so I would stay on my path. Anyone who had ever done a couple of hours of DPV with a CCR, bailouts, and some extra equipment, would understand easily how the pain slowly makes its home in your body.
Of course, even if the water was around 20ºC/68ºF, after hours of immersion, cold could be an extra challenge, and I would have to eat and drink underwater to keep my energy. I trained to use a Kirby Morgan M-48 MOD-1 full face mask. My only option to go from OC to CCR, in order to have communication, would be to remove the mouthpiece part to eat and drink at the same time, as my safety diver would be keeping an eye on me. So I trained myself to be able to eat, drink and even sleep underwater using auto-hypnosis.
More on Nath’s training: Drink, Eat, Sleep Underwater
Mentally, I had to be prepared to face doubt, adversity, fatigue, and pain. I had to trust in the dive plan and my safety team. My motto, once I was in the water, would be that I had one job to do: go from A to B. The rest would not be in my hands anymore.
To complete the picture, the logistics was undoubtedly the most time- consuming and delicate task when faced with the unknown. With a constrained budget, I had to figure out so many aspects to follow: the divers had to be trained to help me replace equipment underwater, to take samples for the scientific aspect of the mission, to obtain all the required pieces of equipment for the dive itself, and finally to put together three independent surface teams to relay with each other at specific points with five different boats. No one boat could follow the entire dive because of the nature of the river.
Over the months of planning, I gathered tons of equipment with the help of partners, manufacturers, and individuals in order to have the famous redundancy for every single item, from different pairs of fins in case it hurt too much on the arch of my feet, to back up CCR, and DPV. I decided to do the entire dive with my AP Diving Evolution CCR except for the 5 km of rapids that I would do on open circuit.
Nearly one-third of the dive is in non-navigable waters. The marine map is just white, no data, which means shallows, insane current, and numerous hazards. In that portion, I would face currents from every direction and intensity, as well as currents that were too strong to fight. Basically the river would beat me up and make me do loops and turn 360 in every direction. So for the rapids, being light on OC seemed to be my best option, which went nearly perfectly.
Asking the Right Questions
Here some tips about how to ask the right questions. When preparing a dive—an expedition—we are not just divers anymore. At the end of the day, diving may be the easiest part, since we have the training, the skills, the equipment, the redundancy, and our regular dive buddy. But before, after, and during the dive, we are a traveler, a potential first emergency responder, a cook, a boat captain or passenger, and a guide. And, we might face adversity we had never encountered before with people in our group that we never worked with during a high stress situation. What we can do to make sure:
- We agree on our what-if solutions
- We know and are ready for our dive plan
- We prepared our dive trip to perfection
- We have a harmonious, collaborative, and fun group of people who all agree on their roles and positions, on their strengths and weaknesses, without judgment.
With all these components, what is funny is that to a certain extent we do have control over them, and that may be why it is easier to list them, plan them and think about them. So if we do your job, a decent one at least, we should be all good to go for our next challenging or adventurous dive.
We took some time with the teams to train the divers and I told each of them, don’t trust yourself, don’t trust me, I may make mistakes. So everything should be double-checked and logged in the “Project Bible’’. As it got closer to D-Day, I asked myself what it was that I hadn’t thought of. I wondered what it was that would be obvious afterwards.
D-Day At Last
My dive started Friday September 14, early in the morning. At that time of the year in Montreal, mornings were usually filled with fresh humidity, and temperatures didn’t rise much. Except that day!
One could think, “Well that was good news for the team on the safety boats. They would just drink less coffee or hot chocolate to keep them warm.” Nobody could be against a warm, sunny day on the river, right? Nobody except me. Because of that amazing, warm temperature, every single person who could take a day off from the office and who had a boat was on the river. Even if the river is pretty wide in Montreal, there is not a lot of water. The deepest part is in the seaway channels that need to be dredged.
So guess what my beautiful path on paper and waypoints on the GPS became in a couple of hours? Nearly useless. Sharing the rivers between marine traffic, pleasure boating, seadoo, kayakers, and stand up paddle boards was not a good mix. Adding a diver into the equation, knowing that most of the people did not understand what a dive flag was, did not bode well for my project.
Finally I ended scootering with the shallows. In the St Lawrence river, like in many other bodies of water nowadays, invasive plants are taking all the sun and warmth of the water to grow up to the surface. In a matter of hours, I had transformed myself into an underwater lawn mower, overusing the batteries of the scooters and having to clean the props way too often.
Nath’s harrowing incident: Close Calls: Nathalie Lasselin
That little warmer weather detail had a huge impact on the entire project. What was supposed to take me an hour, based on all the proof of concept dives, took me twice, triple the time. I did all I could do not to stop, to go in the straightest line possible with my divers giving me a fresh DPV, a syringe of avocado or some high protein soup in a soft bottle.
We worked all together with the first team that was supposed to be out of duty around 1 PM. Instead, by 10 PM, my dive supervisor said, “Either we pull the plug and you try it another time next year, or you agree to get out of the water and wait until sunrise to keep going.” It was true that I couldn’t cross the rapids in the dark. It was too dangerous and the supervisors knew they couldn’t guarantee the safety of not only me, but the entire support team, so they called the dive for that day.
It was my own dear project. A project that couldn’t be completed without a support team, and in circumstances so much more different than any other dive. The entire team of 25 persons involved agreed to stay with me no matter how long it took.
The next morning at sunrise, I dove back in the river for another 15 hours. The challenge was not easier on this day because marine traffic was even more intense than the first day. Being in low visibility, low contrast, for a very long period of time, with fatigue, I started to experience the Charles Bonnet syndrome. Basically I saw things—colors, shapes that did not exist. At first I was surprised and then amused by what I saw as free entertainment to help me complete what was a monotonous scooter dive with not even five feet of visibility. My body was exhausted, my vision was impaired, but my mind was all there, so happy to imagine the point B.
By Saturday at 10 PM, 12 hours after the planned ETA, I finally arrived at the finish line with the support of all my team. After the dive, it took me a couple of days to get back to a normal level of energy without any injury. The dive gave me the media visibility to talk about the adventure, to describe the team work, and to explain about the importance of the river as the source of our drinking water.
My second piece of advice: No matter if it is a small dive or a big adventure, prepare for it the best way you can, with reminders and lists. Practice your skills with well-maintained equipment. By keeping an open mind, a close team working toward the same goal, with the humility and the flexibility to switch to the safest back-up plan, your adventure might be a different one, but still will be the most rewarding one, and the dream of one individual may become larger than themselves, “plus grand que la nature.”
Nathalie Lasselin’s Urban Water Odyssey Facebook Page
Discovery Channel: Nathalie Lasselin prepares for her traverse through the St. Lawrence River.
Nathalie Lasselin is an award-winning filmmaker and producer. She trained at the National Film Board of Canada and is an arctic dive expedition leader, CCR, cave and wreck explorer and instructor. As an international speaker, a writer, and on-camera talent/technical dive specialist for TV shows, she shares her passion for discovery in a challenging environment. For the past years with her project, Urban Water Odyssey, diving the 70 km/44 mile long shore of Montréal, she brings people together to raise awareness and better action towards the preservation of fresh water. She is also a Women Divers Hall of Fame (WDHOF) inductee, Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) member, and a member of The Explorer’s Club.
Finding the Wreck of the “Admiral Knight”
Professional archeologist and tech diver Ewan Anderson recounts the tale of finding the early 1900s steamship the Admiral Knight in British Columbia waters in the spring of 2020—a collaboration of the British Columbia Underwater Explorers (BCUE) and the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC). It’s a tribute to the power of “Citizen Science,” and the joys of diving with purpose. Here’s how they found it.
By Ewan Anderson
“Well… I might have a target for you,” read the fateful email that led to our search for the wreck of the early 1900s Admiral Knight steamship.
It was 2019, and Craig Lessels of the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) had been reviewing multi-beam sonar bathymetry datasets — basically, maps of the seafloor — when he noticed a cluster of features lying on the otherwise sandy seafloor, east of Galiano Island in the Salish Sea off the west coast of Canada.
Thinking the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia (UASBC) might be interested, he forwarded what he had found to UASBC Explorations Director Jacques Marc.
As it turned out, the UASBC had, since 2006, been looking near this location for the Admiral Knight, a steam-powered freighter that sank after an explosion in its engine caused a catastrophic fire on board.
The UASBC search began, as usual, with some serious background research. The research turned up a wealth of information about the vessel’s origins and destruction in 1919. Launched by the Westward Navigation Company of Seattle in 1916 as the Kuskokwim River, the 43 m/142 ft long wood hulled, diesel-engine powered vessel was built to provide freight service between Puget Sound and Alaska. It was re-powered with steam engines in 1917 and renamed the SS Portland, and then renamed the Admiral Knight in 1919 after purchase by Alaska Pacific Fisheries, who may have used it to supply their canneries in Alaska.
On July 26, 1919, a fire broke out in the Admiral Knight’s engine room while the freighter was underway from Seattle to Ketchikan. The crew of 21 barely made it off the ship before it was engulfed in flames; the last six men leaped off the foredeck onto a boat dispatched by the local steam ferry just in time to be saved. Three days later, mariners were still being warned of the burning hulk drifting between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, but there was no sign of the ship by July 30.
The Admiral Knight was forgotten until the late 1950s when a group of divers explored a site near Galiano Island where a local fisherman reported to have snagged his gear on a wreck. In an interview in 2006, one of the divers remembered seeing an intact wooden hull and some machinery matching the Admiral Knight’s description at depths of 55-64 m/180-220 ft; although this firsthand account came with the caveat that they were “narked out of their minds.” This general location became the focus of the UASBC’s field surveys over the next few years, including searches using towed side-scan sonar in 2006 and a multi-beam sonar survey by Parks Canada’s research vessel, the MV David Thompson. Those searches did not locate anything resembling the Admiral Knight wreck, and its location remained a mystery until CHS’s review of data from deeper water in 2019, just beyond the UASBC’s previous search areas.
The CHS target sits in 57 m/187 ft of water, which puts it beyond the range of the UASBC Explorations “regulars” group, some of whom have been exploring and documenting underwater maritime heritage sites in British Columbia and Alaska since the early ‘80s. As a UASBC Explorations regular myself — albeit with only 15 years’ worth of expeditions in my dive log — and member of British Columbia’s close-knit Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) technical diving community, Jacques turned the project over to me and wished me luck. I had been bothering Jacques for several years to give up his wish list of deeper shipwreck targets, and it appeared that this was my chance to prove that GUE tech divers on Vancouver Island could make a significant contribution to the underwater cultural heritage record on B.C.’s coast.
We were ready! In short order, I had a team of qualified and enthusiastic GUE divers, a dive boat, and a dive date in April 2020. And then we were interrupted by the pandemic. Organised diving took a big step back while everyone tried to figure out how to navigate a variety of restrictions and act responsibly in the face of this century’s biggest global health scare. Focus shifted to community-building through impromptu dives, and the big projects, like our plan to identify the Admiral Knight, took a back seat.
Dive boats available for projects around south Vancouver Island changed, too. GUE instructor evaluator and Vancouver Island resident Guy Shockey bought a boat, the Thermocline, brought it up to the island from Puget Sound, then learned how to drive it (possibly in that order). While the boat was still just a twinkle in Guy’s eye, he told me he hoped to make Thermocline a platform for divers to do world-class diving, but for that to happen it was up to the local GUE community to demonstrate that we had interesting project dives to do. He and I agreed that identifying the Admiral Knight fit the long-term community goals perfectly. Soon after the Thermocline arrived at its permanent home in Vancouver Island’s Maple Bay, Guy started referring to himself as “The Boat Driver,” so I knew he was seriously committed.
By early 2022, our diving activities on the west coast were back to their pre-pandemic norms, and the way seemed clear to dive the Admiral Knight. So, on a sunny weekend this past August, with water as calm as glass, I found myself dropping through the cool, emerald-green depths towards the bold future of underwater archaeology in my backyard.
Dropping down the shot line with me was Jason Cook, an instructor and fellow rebreather diver. As we descended, I had a head full of plans and checklists, and handfuls of equipment. Try as we might to keep things simple, we were determined to complete a minimum number of tasks and needed the gear to pull them off. In addition to our JJ-CCR rebreathers and bailout cylinders to do the dive, we had a full-frame camera and two pairs of large video lights to document the wreck (if it wasn’t just a pile of rocks we were dropping onto). Jason had a 120 m/400 ft reel in case The Boat Driver dropped the shot in the middle of nowhere and our identification dive turned into a search for, well, anything. I had an additional large surface marker buoy (SMB) stuffed in my left thigh pocket, which we planned to launch without a line attached to signal the next dive team that we’d found something worth diving. We each had a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) to drag all this stuff around if the current picked up (strong currents are common in our region, but also highly localised, and nobody was sure when slack tide was at this new site).
The visibility on the descent was just over 20 m/60 ft, which is fantastic no matter where you are in the world. As we passed 40 m/130 a huge grey shape swam right in front of me — a shark! — no, just the biggest lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) I had ever seen. As the monster fish disappeared, we hit a layer of low-visibility water hovering about 5 m/15 ft off the seafloor. It appeared we were going to be diving in the dark — and the cold, since it was also suddenly only 9° C/~48° F. Finally, the shot appeared below us, lying on a featureless, sandy plain. There wasn’t even a pile of rocks pretending to be a wreck in sight.
A cluster of Plumrose Anemones, coupled with a large rockfish sighting, signaled that our wreck was not far away — only 10 m/30 ft, with the anemones attached to a driveshaft just forward of a small steel propeller It was a convenient place to tie off the reel, and an auspicious start to our dive. I deployed the SMB, which, unencumbered by a line attached to a spool, careened to the surface, and launched, like a small pink ballistic missile, out of the water beside the waiting Thermocline. The second dive team — Lee Critchley, Conor Collins, and Colin Miller — were into the water in moments to start their dive.
Back at the wreck site, Jason and I started the next phase of our dive: a visual survey of the site. Firing up the DPVs, we followed the driveshafts forward from the propeller. The shafts disappear under a jumble of machinery that will need a more thorough survey to sort through. The large water-tube boilers appeared next, standing upright on their fire-boxes about 2-3 m/6-10 ft proud of the seafloor. Patches of the relatively thin steel encasing the boilers had corroded away, revealing intricate tubing that was cutting-edge boiler technology in the early 20th century. Winches and engine parts formed another pile forward of the boilers, beyond which was the relatively featureless expanse of seabed corresponding to what was once the vessel’s hold. About a minute later, we rounded the forecastle which sat upright about 3 m/10 ft high, the foredeck winch still in its original position. We completed our circuit with a straight run back to the stern, spotting the second drive shaft and propeller.
As the second team arrived on the bottom, Jason and I lit up the wreck with our video lights. I wanted to document the visual survey we’d just completed, so I coordinated with Jason to do a re-run at slow speed. He led and illuminated the wreck, while I followed with the DPV-mounted camera and lights. Keeping Jason in frame made for a good scale reference as we slipped slowly past century-old rust and watchful fish. The end of our video captured the other team swimming around the boilers. Conor was taking still photos while the others inspected the machinery and puzzled out what they were looking at.
And just like that, it was time to go. Leaving the reel for the other team to collect, Jason and I headed back to the shot line and had the usual brief conversation confirming our decompression plan before leaving the bottom. The ascent took us back up to the relatively crystal-clear water above 45 m/150 ft. We crossed the thermocline around 15 m/50 ft and completed our deco in 18°C/64° F water and dappled green sunlight.
Back onboard the Thermocline, we all agreed that the first day of diving was a great success. We had identified a wreck and concluded that it was worth diving again; but was this definitely the wreck of the Admiral Knight? We thought so: it is a steam-powered, twin-screw vessel of the correct size. And we knew the burning hulk was seen by several witnesses drifting in the vicinity of our wreck site in late July 1919. More definitive evidence of the wreck’s identity lies in a closer inspection of the surviving equipment and the cargo. We surfaced with about 10 minutes of good-quality video and some still photos, which Jacques will want to review and comment on.
The two-hour sail back to the dock, and lunch at the marina pub gave us plenty of time to debrief and discuss the details of our dives. We sketched out the goals for diving the next day, and I included a somewhat ambitious list of items to measure and a plan to create a 3D model of the boilers.
Jason and I were back in the water 24 hours after our first dive on the wreck. The shot line had landed right behind the boilers, so we got to work immediately. This time, we planned to document the boilers using photogrammetry. Issues with camera float arms the previous day meant we were not able to carry as many big lights, so I had the camera while Jason handled most of the lighting.
The somewhat poor visibility and missing lighting (though we still had a lot of lights) meant we had to get relatively close to the wreck for well-lit photos. And since the boilers don’t cover a very large area, I decided to park the DPVs and kick. In hindsight, the DPVs might have made things easier, but I didn’t notice the current sweeping across the wreck until after the kicking started. I’m not beyond second-guessing myself underwater, but with only 30 minutes of bottom time to set-up and complete the photogrammetry, there wasn’t a lot of time to reorganise and restart the work. In the end, we managed to get about 470 reasonable photos for our modelling project.
The second dive team, Guy and Jim Dixon, arrived on the wreck a few minutes after Jason and I started taking photos. Guy and Jim had the straightforward task of just enjoying the dive. This seemingly simple job is a common assignment on UASBC dives: divers who are unencumbered with cameras, lights, measuring tapes, and other documentation equipment are free to explore and are likely to notice important features that busy diver-photographers might miss. This team spent some time inspecting two “block” features that I had noticed the previous day; sitting forward of the engines and boilers, the blocks could have been the remnants of the vessel’s cargo, which would be an unusual find because we don’t often see intact cargo on our wrecks. We didn’t manage to solve the mystery on this expedition, and even with Guy and Jim offering detailed descriptions, we’re all still scratching our heads.
Although there were only a handful of divers who made it down into the wreck in August, dozens of people have contributed their time and energy over the last decade and a half to making these successful dives possible. To dive into the unknown just to see what’s there is one thing, but to dive with purpose and come back with valuable information requires dedicated research and planning. Credit for our success (and the pressure to succeed!) in search for the Admiral Knight is largely due to Jacques Marc and other researchers at the UASBC who laid the groundwork for the project.
There is much more to come. We’ve proven that we can add deeper sites to the list of the UASBC’s potential expeditions. Jacques and other UASBC volunteers are turning to the archives to find more targets. By extending the range of what is possible for the local community, we also open the door to exploring deeper into history. Indigenous peoples have lived around the Salish Sea since time immemorial, as indigenous elders and cultural leaders say, and their cultural inheritance includes documented sites spanning the last 14,000 years. The connection Salish peoples have with the sea around us is undeniable, yet tangible underwater heritage sites other than shipwrecks have barely been explored.
As for the Admiral Knight, any uncertainty about the wreck’s identity may be beside the point. The wreck still makes for a great dive, and although it is relatively deep for most divers, many in our local dive community are qualified – or will be soon – to dive it. It’s worth the effort just to see the intact boilers and the entire vessel’s contents laid out on the seafloor, just as they were 103 years ago. The intact sections of wreck and potential cargo provide opportunities for further study and research as well.
See companion stories:
Building Community Through Project Diving By Guy Shockey
Introducing GUE’s New Project Diver Program By Francesco Cameli
Marc, Jacques and Warren Oliver Bush (2021) Historic Shipwrecks of the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.
Ewan Anderson is a professional archaeologist whose work focuses on assessing and mitigating development construction impacts to cultural heritage sites in British Columbia. A consultant for all levels of government, a variety of industries and Indigenous communities, his expertise is in cultural heritage law, cutting edge archaeological methods and Indigenous peoples’ relationships with archaeology and those who practise it.
Ewan is passionate about diving – especially when combined with underwater cultural heritage projects. He is a GUE certified JJ-CCR diver and IANTD certified cave diver. His diving has taken him around the world, even though everything he needs – from wrecks to caves – can be found within a few hours of his home in Victoria, on Vancouver Island.
His professional work and diving almost never mix, for which he is often thankful. Ewan pursues his interests in underwater photography, underwater photogrammetry, and advocating for conservation of marine environments and underwater heritage, free from the yoke of capitalist overlords. He is a regular volunteer on Underwater Archaeological Society of BC expeditions and has served on the Society’s board of directors since 2018.
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