Updated: Sep 19, 2019
In the summer of 1999, four Chinese vessels crossed on to Canadian seas. These ships carried a combined total of approximately 600 illegal immigrants attempting to sneak into Canada. The coast guard on duty stopped the ships and appropriately dealt with the situation. But, this event gained a large amount of interest and sparked the creation of one of Port Alberni’s most popular diving sites while simultaneously becoming a large part of our maritime history.
The Chinese immigrants ventured on this difficult journey with the promise of “amnesty and a better life” (8arm.com). As many of them didn’t have adequate funds for the price of the trip, $30,000 each, the immigrants were told that they would have to get jobs once they’ve arrived at the better land to pay off the debt. Much to their dismay these jobs involved prostitution and gangs. The migrants faced numerous challenges during their stay aboard the vessels. They were kept in the holds of each ship and were never permitted up on the top deck. Holes only large enough to pass through rice and vegetables were punctured in the decks as their only connection to the outside. Pots, used as toilets, were dropped into the holds irregularly and were hardly ever properly cleaned. It constantly reeked of gasoline, body odor, feces, and rotting food. Since the immigrants’ arrival, many of them have been sent back to China.
The first boat called The Blue came into Canadian waters carrying 123 immigrants. Its journey was 39 days long until it reached Gold River on July 20, 1999. This ship measured 128’ long and 22’ wide. The second vessel, The Rusty, had 130 immigrants and arrived in Winter Bay. It had a
length of 130’ and a width of 23.6’. A Korean freezer ship named The Black Dragon was also among the fleet. It held 147 immigrants upon its approach in Queen Charlottes. It was 128’ long and 30’ wide. The fourth vessel transported 200 immigrants to an unknown location. This final boat measured 210’ by 30’.
The Snakeheads, Chinese gangs who traffic illegal immigrants into foreign countries, are to blame for this situation. To this day the Snakeheads and the crew have not yet been identified or prosecuted due to a lack of evidence. None of the four vessels were ever claimed by their owners therefore the ships became the Canadian Federal Government’s property. $100,000 was put towards the cleaning and decontamination of the boats. Almost 55 tons of garbage, feces, and vomit were disposed of, and the interior of all four vessels were chemically stem cleaned to rid of any leftover biological contaminates.
The Port Alberni Reef Society developed a public awareness project to highlight how the people aboard these vessels were treated. Director Brooke George suggested a proposal to the Canadian government to purchase the ships. He said, “it was an invaluable opportunity to preserve something that played such an important role in lives of some of Canada’s newest immigrants” (pacific-rim-mag.com). The government sold the entire fleet to the society as a package deal for $1,000 and the boats were then towed to Port Alberni’s China Creek Campground. The Canadian Federal government gave $75,000 to fund the project. Also, the National Sportsman Fund donated $10,000, while George and fellow Port Alberni Reef Society member/diver each spent $5,000 of their own savings into the ships’ salvage. Currently, a combined amount of approximately $3 million has been put towards the project.
Members of the Port Alberni Reef Society and other volunteers got straight to work when the vessels arrived. The plan for the first two ships, The Blue and The Rusty, was to sink them off the beach at Underwood Cove in China Creek Campground to create an artificial reef. The third was to be sunk at Seachart in the Barclay Sound, and the fourth was in a good enough condition to still run therefore it was not sunk. Thousands of dollars were spent to further clean the boats so they would meet Environmental Canada’s regulations. Director of the sink, Paul Blake, explains there is “the most stringent regulations in the world to build an artificial reef”. Any excess fuel recovered from the ships was sold locally to the McLean’s Mill Steam Train. Sinking of these vessels will also make certain that they will not be used for smuggling immigrants ever again.
Word of this project spread fast, locals and people from all over Vancouver Island ventured out to China Creek Campground to witness the progress. Interest was so notable that before the sink the Port Alberni Reef Society conducted tours of the ships by donation starting the weekend of May 15, 2000. On goers that ventured aboard the boats described it as disturbing yet important history to understand. “People came off crying,” (Pacific-rim-mag.com) shared one volunteer. Knowing the intense stories of these ships make the dive a much more surreal adventure.
On June 10, 2001, a little over a year after purchase, the 3 vessels were prepared to be sunk. Due to the frail
conditions of the boats it was a complex process requiring a lot of careful work and patience. Each was to be moored to the seafloor with 1,800 kilogram blocks. While The Rusty sunk as planned, The Blue did not go down quite as smoothly. The Blue was the rustiest of the ships, during the sinking it slid down too quickly and now sits at a depth of over 90 meters underwater. The third ship was successfully sunk as a shallow artificial reef at Barclay Sound and can be accessed via a nearby vacation lodge.
The dive site at China Creek Campground is popular for all-leveled divers. The seven to eight minute swim, depending on one’s pace, is perfect for first time divers and is a recurring spot for veterans alike. The marine life aboard the site is incredible. With octopus inhibiting the ships and using them as their hunting grounds there are copious amounts of Dungeness crab and other pray, the occasional wolf eel, and various other species of fish and anemones. This dive site at China Creek Campground is the only artificial reef accessible by land, via beach, in all of North America.
Written by P. Tardif
Blue (nee Yuang Yue 603). 8arm.com. Retrieved from http://8arm.com/blue_(nee_yuang_yue_603).html
CBC News. (2000). Migrant ships now tourist hit on west coast. CBC News Canada. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/migrant-ships-now-tourist-hit-on-west-coast-1.228668
De Monyé. F. (2003). The Fate of the Immigrant Ships. Pacific Rim Ma gazine. Retrieved from http://langaraprm.com/2003/community/the-fate-of-the-immigrant-ships-they-came-but-never-left-the-immigrant-ships-find-a-permanent-home-in-port-alberni/
Diving at China Creek Marina – Shaw TV Port Alberni. (2011). [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYUN5-6s0KA&sns=fb