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Wreck In Depth: Prinz Eugen

The second installment of our historical wreck series brought to you by shipwreck diving travel specialists at Dirty Dozen Expeditions. Are you ready to make the jump?

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By Martin Cridge
Header and historical images courtesy of Dirty Dozen Expeditions

The shout from the starboard lookout shattered the silence on the bridge of the British cruiser HMS Suffolk. All the bridge officers immediately rushed to the bridge wing and looked towards the starboard quarter and there they were, the two German ships they had been searching for—the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battleship Bismarck. The year was 1941.

Battleship Bismarck as seen from the Cruiser Prinz Eugen.

Scarily for the crew of the Suffolk,the German ships were less than 11 km/7 miles away and their ship was well within range of the 38 cm/15 in guns on the Bismarck and 20 cm/8 in guns on the Prinz Eugen. Realizing the danger, Captain Ellis immediately ordered the wheel on the Suffolk hard over to port and as the rudder started to bite, the British cruiser leant over and began to come around in an arc and away from danger.

Bismarck focusing it’s entire firepower on the fleeing battleship “Prince of Wales”.

The ships were in the Denmark Strait, a narrow sliver of sea between Greenland and Iceland. The Irminger current splits off from the Gulf Stream on the Icelandic side of the strait, clearing the Icelandic side of ice throughout the year. However, the Greenland side, unaffected by the current, features extending and retreating pack ice depending on the time of year. To further reduce the width of the strait, the British had laid a minefield to the northwest of Iceland. 

At the time of the German ships’ passage, it was estimated that the navigable area between the ice and the minefield was around 97 km/60 miles. It was in this area that the Suffolk and her sister ship, the Norfolk, were patrolling. Conditions were difficult and in addition to the ice and mines; wind, snow, and atmospheric conditions, all of which could play tricks on lookouts’ eyes, meant false reports weren’t uncommon. The cold air flowing over the warmer water towards Iceland also caused dense fog banks to form off the Icelandic coast. The crew of the Suffolk hoped that one of these fog banks would  save them.

The Prinz Eugen in the Panama Canal on the way to Bikini Atoll.

The German ships were expected to come from the northeast, and the two British cruisers steamed up and down the Denmark Strait in a northeast/southwest direction. It was the southwest leg that Captain Ellis feared the most, as the German ships would be coming up behind him and would be hard to spot. Although the Suffolk had radar, the radar of that time wasn’t very effective across the stern arcs of the ship.

His worst fears realized, Captain Ellis now hoped the fog the Suffolk was heading into would hide them from the German ships. He had no way of knowing if the German ships had seen him. The first sign that  the Suffolk was spotted would be when German shells started falling out of the sky around his ship. The Suffolk was no match for the German ships, her role was  to find the German convoy and then direct the heavy British ships that had already left Scapa Flow to intercept. To engage the Germans would be suicide, even if it was just the Prinz Eugen. Although the Suffolk had the same complement of 20 cm/8 in guns as the German cruiser, she was built to the 10,000 ton treaty limit whilst the Prinz Eugen was not—and was, therefore, more heavily armoured.

In the fog, Captain Ellis allowed the German ships to draw past his position before coming around and latching onto their port quarter at a distance of around 19 km/12 miles: the limit of the radar set onboard.

The German ships had been hoping to reach the Atlantic ocean undetected in order to start commerce raiding activities, disrupting the Atlantic convoys to and from the USA and Canada. Now that they had been spotted, Admiral Lutjens on the Bismarck had a choice: he could turn and attack his pursuers, or he could press on and hopefully get into the wider Atlantic where he had a better chance to shake them off. He chose to press on. Unbeknownst to Lutjens, the British battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship HMS Prince of Wales were steaming out to confront him before he could disappear into the vast Atlantic. 

At 05:37 on May 24, 1941, the Prince of Wales sent an enemy sighting report saying they had spotted the German ships at a distance of 27 km/17 miles, and seven minutes later the Hood sent a similar report saying the Germans were now at 23 km/14 miles. Admiral Holland, in charge of the British ships, ordered them to turn 40 degrees in order for him to shorten the range to the German ships. Unfortunately, only the forward turrets of the British ships could fire on the German ships, but Holland knew if he could get closer and turn, he could fire a greater broadside than the Germans could. Also, at greater ranges, he knew that his ship the Hood was in danger of being hit and damaged by a plunging shell due to her lack of deck armour, and that this risk decreased the closer he was to the German ships. He was also concerned about the Prince of Wales—rushed out of the shipyard, she still wasn’t battle ready—in fact, she still had civilian employees onboard trying to fix various issues, especially with her guns.

Holland made another signal, and the two British ships turned another 20 degrees toward the German vessels. Slicing through the ocean swell at 28 knots, both British ships closed in on the Germans, the Prince of Wales 750 m/0.5 miles or so behind the Hood.

The four ships were now just over 19 km/12 miles apart. On the German side, the Prinz Eugen was leading the Bismarck. On the British side, the Hood was leading the Prince of Wales. Holland’s plan was to concentrate the attack on the Bismarck first. At 05:52, the fire gong sounded on the Hood and she fired her first salvo of shells—not at the Bismarck, as planned, but at the Prinz Eugen. The Hood had misidentified the German vessels. The Prince of Wales, realizing Hood’s mistake, immediately started firing upon the Bismarck. Within minutes, all four ships were firing at each other. 

Guns of Prinz Eugen.

The Germans were concentrating their fire on the Hood and quickly found her range. After the third salvo of shells from the German ships, the Hood was hit, possibly by shells from the Prinz Eugen, starting a fire on her boat deck. 

Now at around 13 km/8 miles apart, the fifth salvo of shells left the German ships. Whilst they were in the air heading towards his ship, Holland gave another order for the British ships to turn to port so that they could bring a full broadside to bear on the Germans. As the bow of the Hood started to come around, there was a massive explosion, and almost instantly the ship broke in half as a massive column of smoke and fire shot high into the air.

The Prince of Wales, following close astern, had to make an emergency turn to avoid the wreckage of the Hood. As they passed the scene, the stern of the Hood had already disappeared, and the bow rose up and into the sky before slipping back into the deep, dark ocean. In that brief moment, 1,415 people lost their lives. Only three survivors were ever found.

Bismarck firing on HMS Prince of Wales.

With the Hood gone, the Germans now concentrated their fire on the Prince of Wales. Just after 06:00, a 38 cm/15 in shell from the Bismarck tore through the compass platform, killing or wounding everybody there except the ship’s captain. Having received a number of hits from both the Prinz Eugen and Bismarck, the Prince of Wales made smoke, turned away, and broke off the engagement.

In less than 10 minutes, it was all over. The British had received a bloody nose, which caused a serious loss of morale in the UK when the news broke, but the British weren’t in favor of letting the Germans get away.

Fortunately for the British, the Prince of Wales had managed to hit the Bismarck three times, and two of these hits would prove decisive. One hit forced the Bismarck to shut down two of her boilers due to flooding, which caused her to lose speed. Also, a hit forward caused more flooding that left the Bismarck trailing streams of heavy fuel that the British could follow.

Lutjens knew that he couldn’t carry on his mission without getting his ship repaired first, so just after 08:00, he changed course for France. Suffolk, Norfolk, and the Prince of Wales, still following the German ships, altered course as well. They all headed towards the French coast.

Later that day, Lutjens gave orders for the Prinz Eugen to carry on the raiding mission by herself and gave permission for the ship to detach. Just after 18:00, whilst the ships were passing through a rain squall, the Bismarck turned to confront her pursuers. This unexpected maneuver startled the British, and both the Bismarck and Prince of Wales started firing at each other. Whilst neither side scored any hits, the Prinz Eugen had managed to slip away undetected and head into the Atlantic ocean alone.

Then followed one of the greatest naval chases of all time. Every British naval ship in the area headed out to cut the Bismarck off from reaching the safety of the French coast. In the end, they succeeded, and the Bismarck was finally sunk at 22:40 on May 27.

The Prince of Wales would be repaired and returned to service only to be sunk by Japanese airplanes on December 10, where she became the first battleship to be solely sunk by aircraft in open seas.

The Prinz Eugen ultimately had to abandon her commerce raiding mission due to fuel and machinery problems and headed to Brest for repairs docking on June 1.  

The contract for building the Prinz Eugen was placed with the Krupp Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel, Germany, in November 1935 with her keel being laid down the following April.

Prinz Eugen in all it’s glory, docked in Kiel.

In the presence of Adolf Hitler and other select guests, the ship was launched down the slipway on August 22, 1938, to much fanfare.

Also in attendance was the Hungarian Regent, Vice-Admiral Mikios Horthy de Nagybanya, the last Fleet Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, and briefly Captain of the Austro-Hungarian battleship Prinz Eugen during World War I.

The German Navy was originally going to call the Prinz Eugen “Tegetthoff,” after Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, who had delivered a crushing defeat to the Italian Navy during the Seven Week War in 1866. Hitler, however, not wishing to offend Mussolini and his new Italian allies, decided on naming the ship Prinz Eugen instead.

After her exploits with the Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen spent the rest of 1941 docked in Brest. With her were the German battleships Schamhorst and Gneisenau. There they became the focus of regular bombing attacks by the RAF, and it quickly became clear that their situation would soon become untenable if they stayed in Brest.

Hitler decided that the ships should be redeployed and that they should make for Norway to support operations there. The ships had a number of options for the journey to Norway. Prinz Eugen could retrace her steps and follow the route back through the Denmark Strait that she had taken with the Bismarck, or she could take the shorter but more dangerous route through the English Channel. Hitler decided the ships should make a daring dash through the English Channel. 

On February 11, the three German ships and their escorts managed to slip undetected out of Brest and  started their perilous journey toward the English Channel. Although both the Schamhorst and Gneisenau hit mines, they all managed to slip by the British forces and, once again, the Prinz Eugen had humiliated the British.

That humiliation, however, was short lived again on February 23. During their journey to Trondheim , the British submarine HMS Trident managed to hit the stern of Prinz Eugen with a torpedo, causing serious damage. After repairs in Germany were completed, the Prinz Eugen spent the rest of the war in Baltic waters. Prinz Eugen saw out the war supporting German forces on the Eastern Front as they were pushed back by the Russians. In March, she fired almost 5,000 shells from her 10 and 20 cm/4.1 and 8 inch guns, bombarding Russian-held positions. Prinz Eugen sailed for Copenhagen on April 19 where she joined the German light cruiser Nürnberg.

Captains Graubart (USN) and Reinicke (Kriegsmarine) aboard cruiser Prinz Eugen in 1946.

As the war in Europe headed towards its conclusion, the Prinz Eugen was ceremonially decommissioned by her crew on May 7, and was taken over by the Royal Navy the following day. From Copenhagen, the Prinz Eugen was escorted to Wilhelmshaven by the British cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Devonshire; once there, the Prinz Eugen was dry docked.

Although the Americans didn’t have a use for the Prinz Eugen, they were keen for the ship not to end up in Russian hands. In the end—to stop the arguments—the remains of the German fleet were divided up into a series of lots which were drawn from a hat. The Americans drew the Prinz Eugen. The Prinz Eugen was commissioned as a war prize into the US Navy on January 5, 1946. She soon departed Bremerhaven for Boston with a mixed American-German crew consisting of 574 German officers and sailors, supervised by 93 American officers and sailors under the overall command of US Navy Captain Arthur H. Graubart.

After an uneventful journey, the Prinz Eugen arrived in Boston around January 22, and the US Navy began examining their new prize. The large, passive sonar array that had proved so valuable to the Prinz Eugen for detecting other ships and submarines was removed and installed on the submarine USS Flying Fish for testing. The ship was then moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where investigations of the Prinz Eugen’s fire control system could be carried out, leading to the removal of her front 20 cm/8 in guns. 

By May 1, the last of the German crew had left the ship and were returned to Germany. The Prinz Eugen arrived in Bikini Atoll the following month with just a skeleton American crew onboard to be used as part of Operations Crossroads nuclear testing.

Operation Crossroads, Target Fleet. Photo by US Navy.

For the first nuclear test designated “Able,” the Prinz Eugen was moored around 1,100 m/0.70 miles from the planned zero point above USS Nevada; for the second test, “Baker,” the ship was moored around 1,600 km/ 1 mile from the detonation point under LSM-60. After both tests, the Prinz Eugen was relatively undamaged but—as with other ships that survived the second explosion—she was now highly radioactive. Along with a number of other vessels, the Prinz Eugen was towed to Kwajalein for decontamination and was largely forgotten about until December 21, when she was observed to be listing with her stern low in the water.

Attempts were made to beach the Prinz Eugen on Enubuj Island in Kwajalein Lagoon, which ultimately failed when the ship grounded on a coral ledge just offshore. The ship continued to take on water and capsized in the early hours of the following morning. Due to the radioactive contamination, not much could be done and the ship was left where it was. The ship was resurveyed again in the seventies and found to be radiation-free, although the report noted that all the ordnance still onboard and residual fuel would need to be removed before salvage operations could be carried out; so, once again, nothing was done. The report did state, however, that all the fuel should be removed within the next 30 years whether the ship was salvaged or not.

In the end, it took until 2018 when a US Navy-led salvage team from the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) successfully removed 229,000 gallons of fuel from 173 tanks on the Prinz Eugen. Using a method called hot tapping, the fuel was pumped onto an oil tanker moored nearby for disposal and recycling. The tanks were then resealed to prevent leakage of any residual fuel left in the tanks.

Oil removal from Prinz Eugen. Photo by US Navy, Leighahn Ferarri, Chief Mate, U.S. Naval Ship Salvor

Diving the Prinz Today

Nowadays, two of the ship’s three propellers can be seen poking out of the water at low tide. The third was salvaged in 1979 and is now on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial in Kiel, Germany. From the stern, the upturned hull stretches out and disappears into the crystal blue water of the lagoon. Divers can drop down to the seabed 12 m/39 ft below neat rows of portholes that allow them to peer into the aft compartments. Toward the bow, the seabed slopes away leaving the bow hanging in mid-water at around 36 m/117 ft.

The 8-inch guns at the stern of Prinz Eugen. Photo by Martin Cridge.

As divers head toward the bow, two barrels of the aft 20 cm/8 in guns come into view as they lie on the seabed. Above the gun barrels is a hatchway into the wreck that offers divers the chance to explore the aft compartments inside the wreck. As the ship capsized, most of the ship’s upper superstructure was crushed underneath the ship as she rolled over. Some parts of the superstructure broke away, however, and masts and gun directors lie scattered in the sand around the vessel. On the vessel itself, divers can find anti-aircraft guns and torpedo launchers still armed with torpedoes. An open hatch allows divers to view racks of spare torpedoes in their storage compartment.  

An overgrown torpedo on the Prinz Eugen. Photos by Martin Cridge.

Various openings allow exploration of the topsy-turvy world inside the vessel. Off the main corridors are cabins with upside down beds and tables fixed to what is now the ceiling with chairs that have fallen to the now floor. Some lines have been laid inside the vessel in the past, but these shouldn’t be relied upon for navigation. Divers glancing out into the blue from inside the ship will often see reef sharks and eagle rays cruising by, and the crevices on the upturned hull are favorite hiding places for the many octopuses that can be found on the wreck.

Photo by Martin Cridge.

Venturing deeper into the wreck, machine and generator rooms can be found along with galleys, mess decks, heads (toilets), bathrooms, and storage rooms. Even though the Prinz Eugen isn’t a particularly deep wreck, one’s time underwater soon comes to an end. With so much exploration to do, the time passes quickly. 

Prinz Eugen, propellers. Photo by Aron Arngrimsson.

As we like to say at Dirty Dozen, “So many wrecks, so little time.”

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Exploration

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.

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By Ewan Anderson

The Admiral Knight, formerly the SS Portland . Courtesy PSMHS Williamson Collection, Neg. no. 2877

“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 Search

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.  

Multi-beam sonar image of the wreck. Credit: Canadian Hydrographic Service

The Plan

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.  

The Dive

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.

Like the optimist he is, Jason quickly got out his reel to tie-off and start a search.  I, on the other hand, stared dejectedly into the gloom, where I could just make out some white blobs in the distance. But wait a second — the blobs must be plumose anemones (Metridium farcimen), and anemones must be attached to something! I got Jason’s attention with a flash of my light, and we headed off towards the anemones.

It turned out that our search for the wreck was brief — the anemones were only about 10 m/30 ft away, 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.

Water tube boiler and engine parts; screen grab from video survey. Photo by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

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.

Jason Cook lighting up the foredeck winch; screen grab from video survey by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

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. 

Dive teams on deco; from left to right: Jim Dixon, “The Boat Driver,” Jason Cook. Photo by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

The Rediscovery

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.  

Jason Cook preparing gear. Photo by Ewan Anderson/UASBC

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

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: How to Become an Explorer: Passion, Partnership, and Exploration

Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia 

Thermocline Diving 

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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