The death count is now five. The latest, on December 1, was a 26-year-old woman. Her body was found aboard the Yukon. It’s a story that is doomed to be repeated for as long as it takes steel to decompose in salt water. As long as the destroyer escort HMCS (Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship) Yukon, sunk in July of 2000 off the coast of Mission Beach, remains as she is, each scuba-diving death — and there will be more — will require the retelling of the story
As a certified scuba diver, I know exploring a ship is one of the most dangerous adventures a diver can experience. But that’s not the kind of dive site the Yukon was originally conceived to be. It was supposed to be an inviting dive site for beginning and intermediate divers. But it has become a death trap for those who thought they knew what they were doing.
The last time I saw the Yukon was Thursday, July 13, 2000, around 8:00 p.m. My flight to Kansas City was the next day at 8:00 a.m, and the big festivities for the sinking of the Yukon were set for noon. The 366-foot-long ship would be sunk during a ceremony punctuated by fireworks. I wished I could see it. Little did I realize that, in fact, I was one of the last people to see the Yukon…afloat, that is.
The Canadian naval ship was purchased for $250,000 by the San Diego Oceans Foundation, then gutted and cleaned to become an environmentally-friendly artificial reef. The San Diego coastline has several well-known diving wrecks, and the Yukon was planned as the latest addition. Several holes were cut through the sides of the steel hull in order to allow scuba divers to easily swim through the ship. These holes were covered with plywood, which would be removed just prior to the sinking of the ship.
The ship would be towed out about 1½ miles out from Mission Beach on a Wednesday. On Friday, the ship, rigged with explosives (set by U.S. Navy SEALs) would be sunk in front of thousands of spectators and a flotilla of boats.
The plan was to sink the ship straight down, with the bottom of the ship flat on the bottom of the ocean. It was to be sunk in about 130 feet of water. The ship, from the bottom of the hull to the top of the antenna, is about 70 feet tall. Beginning scuba divers only go down about 60 feet, so even an amateur diver would be able to see the ship if visibility were okay. Recreational divers descend to 100 feet, so they would be able to pass through the ship. The very bottom, at 130 feet, is considered a technical dive, and requires special scuba-diving training and gear.
The excitement level in San Diego, at least for scuba divers, increased during the week. The newspapers carried the story about the scheduled sinking of the Yukon, and the hotel rooms filled with scuba divers.
On, Wednesday, July 12, 2000, the Yukon was towed out. Several times, I rode my bicycle to the end of Loring Street in Pacific Beach to look at it. Even though it was over a mile out it looked huge compared to any of the other boats usually found that close to shore. The plywood covering the large holes in the sides of the hull was plainly visible.
On Friday morning, very early, I rode my bike over to the end of Loring Street in Pacific Beach one last time, to see the Yukon before going to the airport. It was not there.
Sometime just before midnight, the waves had picked up by to two to three feet. This was one to two feet more than expected — the ocean is usually flat around that time of the summer. The plywood failed. The ship took about an hour and a half to sink. And instead of sinking straight down, it listed to one side and came to rest flat on its port side.
The local morning news reported on the incident. There was only one very short, grainy video of the sinking. One of the two men onboard just before it sunk said, “It was the greatest thing I ever saw!”
Because the explosives on the ship were never set off, only the Navy SEALs were allowed on the wreck for several weeks. Out-of-town scuba divers went home without diving the Yukon.
Instead of the ship being an easy diving site for beginning divers, it has become a deadly tourist site. Because of the position in which the ship is lying, a diver has to go down 70–80 feet before seeing the wreck. At 100 feet, a diver only has 17 minutes of air. And instead of having a clear pass way through the holes cut in the hull, a diver who enters the Yukon can easily become disoriented and not be able to find a way out.
This seems to be what happened on December 1 to Staci Johnson, a 26-year-old Marine from Camp Pendleton. Johnson was an experienced diver, as she was taking an advanced diving class with an instructor and a couple of other students when she died.