The ships that carried the migrants all ended up on the ocean floor — some more than once.
Unclaimed by whoever owned them before they left China, the rusted-out hulks became the property of Canada’s Federal Crown Assets Department, which sold all four to the Alberni Reef Society for $1,000.
The vessels were supposed to have been scrubbed clean and stripped of nasty bits in preparation for sinking as diving reefs, but arrived in Port Alberni with plenty of work still to be done.
The non-profit Reef Society found 12,000 litres of diesel on one boat, so sold it for maybe 10 cents a litre. Some people used the fuel to run their fishboats, others to heat their homes (though, being of a grade more suitable to the tropics, some of the diesel thickened in the cold).
Vandals scuttled two of the vessels near Port Alberni’s Harbour Quay one night in 2001. The boats were refloated, towed eight kilometres to China Creek, then sunk again — though one took on a mind of its own and kept on sliding down the sandy bottom until it came to rest in 90 metres of water, too deep for a diving reef. The other lives on as a rarity, a sunken ship accessible to divers from shore.
A third vessel now rests on the bottom off Sechart in Barkley Sound, sitting up nicely, though it’s fairly remote, tricky to find and pretty deep. “It’s just within recreational diving limits,” says Kathy Johnson of narby Rendezvous Dive Adventures. “It has become a nice reef for shoals of rockfish.” Nudibranchs abound. Kelp greenling lay their eggs in the links of chains, or in the hollows of rusted-out railings.
The fourth ship was full of refrigeration gear — and therefore ammonia — that the Reef Society didn’t want to mess with, so it was sold to a pair of brothers for $1. Alas, it sank while tied to a navy buoy in Mayne Bay in Barkley Sound, so had to be refloated at a $100,000 cost to the taxpayer. It was being towed to Ladysmith as scrap when it again sank in 45 metres of water off Cadboro Bay in December 2003.
For those having trouble keeping track, that’s four boats and seven sinkings. “We got more bang for our buck,” says Paul Blake, who was involved with the Alberni Reef Society at the time.