The Canadian destroyer escort Yukon steams along during her active-duty days.
  • The Canadian destroyer escort Yukon steams along during her active-duty days.
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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 ship now lies on her side a mile and a half off Mission Beach. Five divers have died in and around the wreck.

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.

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Comments

escortalex Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:20 a.m.

Good story, as a "look back." I remember seeing the Yukon off the beach, and thought it was a pretty cool thing to do with it. And I remember that things didn't exactly go as planned, but I didn't really understand the nuances. This story put all the pieces together.
But Captain Obvious kinda missed the point. There's no dannger, no threat to anyone, except those who choose to go into it. And as the story points out, diving on wrecks is dangerous business.
Dunno whether an artificial reef's worth a quarter-million bucks, but it wasn't tax dollars that paid for it. But it attracts more than fish...tourists who dive aren't exactly low-rent folks; when they come to dive on Wreck Alley, it's good for our economy. One final note: I seem to remember that one of the deaths was from a medical problem, not necessarily from the diver being lost inside the wreck. That person might have died just being at that depth, and kicking around an open, sandy bottom. Again, that's the way it was reported in the news. I think.

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Ian Pike Dec. 21, 2012 @ 2:42 p.m.

Does anything prevent a team from going down and cutting some big holes in the side that's facing up?

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LaBufadora Dec. 23, 2012 @ 8:40 a.m.

There needs to be a federal ban against recreational wreck diving, and high capacity scuba tanks.

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wreckeddiver Aug. 21, 2013 @ 1:05 p.m.

Why must we nerf the world if people knowingly take the risk to dive a wreck and they don't come up so be it. There is no reason to ban wreck diving or high capacity tanks. We do not need more regulation trying to make the world perfectly safe. Taking risks is an important part of life, Government regulation particularly in California has already taken alot of the fun out of life and bored people are dangerous people.

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buzo Dec. 31, 2012 @ 2:13 p.m.

@LaBufadora - Yes, by all means, lets get the Federal Government involved and have the them make diving a wreck illegal. Lets just outlaw diving... At the same time maybe they can outlaw skateboarding, bicycling and mountain climbing at the same time since those also kill people. Oh, and maybe we can pass a federal law that we all have to wear helmets 24/7 whenever we leave the house for our own safety... (Sarcasm Intended)

Diving is dangerous at 30 feet or 130 feet, reef or wreck. I've dove this wreck and was just fine. I didn't go inside A) because it's dangerous and B) viewing the outside was quite thrilling enough.

The Grand Canyon claims lives every year, maybe a Federal ban to not visit is in order? What say you?

@ Russell Goltz - the author of is this article - The Yukon has not killed anyone. Your articles is poorly titled. Additionally, diving Nitrox 32% you have 30 minutes at 100 feet and with 36% you have 40 minutes. As far as what happened to Staci, I don't believe a final report has been released so you don't know what happened. If she were taking an advanced diver class she wouldn't be entering the ship at all. So, that doesn't seem to be what happened.

I do know this. That weekend the conditions were bad everywhere off San Diego, we canceled our dives as a result. They just shouldn't have been diving at all that weekend.

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Twister Dec. 31, 2012 @ 8:41 p.m.

"Nine-tenths of the hell being raised in the world," said an author whose identity now escapes me, "is well-intentioned."

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natural Feb. 9, 2013 @ 11:47 a.m.

What About getting a bigger boat and cables and turn the thing to the designated position. Good training for US Navy Engineering folks also.

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Bill_Powers Sept. 10, 2013 @ 10:20 a.m.

Late to the conversation, but:

The author makes three (actually more) GLARING errors in this strangely-worded article:

1) He says the very bottom (where the Yukon lies) is "130 feet" of depth. FAIL. The sand at the Yukon is 100 feet (+/- for tides). To get to 130', one would have to dig a hole in the sand ~30 feet deep. Too, the author claims 130' is a "technical" depth. FAIL again. 130' is the maximum limit of what is regarded by the major certifying agencies as Recreational depth. NOT a "technical" depth.

2) Author erroneously states Jackson "seems" to have become disoriented and died inside the Yukon. Medical Examiner's report states she (and her partner) were tumbled on the OUTSIDE of the wreck, separated in the low-vis water, and that Jackson had a head injury consistent with striking the hull of the ship or her partner's tank and likely lost consciousness (and expired). None of which happened on the inside of the ship.

3) Author asserts the "death count' is now five for the Yukon. FAIL. Only one person has ever died inside the Yukon. Steve Donathan, a tech instructor, purposefully entered a forbidden (unsafe) area of the ship and paid for it with his life. That's the only person to die inside the Yukon.

The author referring to the Yukon as a "deadly tourist site" is like me referring to Iron Mountain or Cowles mountain as a "deadly tourist site for hikers" (people have died on those trails)... or to Big Bear as a "deadly tourist site for skiers"... or, more saliently for us San Diegans, to Mission Bay as a "deadly tourist site for swimmers". Sensationalistic dreck. I don't know what Cracker Jacks box the author got his diver certification from, but he needs to give it back.

There were many problems with Jackson's dive that day, but none of them were caused by a "killer ship". Geezus.

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