Reefs bring dollars to town

As porpoises dance in the distance, divers prepare to sink beneath the chop to find the buried treasure below.

It’s early on a Sunday morning and these divers from a club in Moncton are eager to check out HMCS Saguenay, sunk as an artificial reef in 1994.

They’re in Lunenburg Bay, about 30 minutes by boat from the town, and it’s the first dive on the ship this season.

But the first diver in the water, who volunteered to tie a rope to the bottom for the others to follow, rose back to the chartered boat with bad news: The helicopter hangar attached to the ship had fallen victim to winter storms.

“The diver-friendly swim-through is gone,” said diver Dave Cormier from Fredericton.

“It’s just Mother Nature taking care of things down there.”

Regardless of the now detached hangar, the Saguenay – sitting at around 90 feet down – is always an exciting dive.

“There’s something different every time,” said Kim Langille, who has dived the Sag 20 times.

Many divers explore the outside of the 366-foot-long vessel before trying out the inner passageways and rooms.

It’s a little spooky as the Sag takes shape through the gloom, said Connie Bishop of Fredericton.

When she swims through the passageways, she likes to imagine what the ship was like when it was in service.

“You see a ladder and I like to go to the bottom of it and make my way up like I’m walking up to the top of the next deck to look around.”

Among the recreational divers on this expedition was a real pro: Steve Lewis is a trainer in technical diving instruction – scuba diving which requires decompression – with a Maine-based company.

His purpose, besides diving the Sag for the first time, was to test the site for it’s training possibilities.

“I’m looking at it as a future training site to be able to bring instructor candidates here to actually train them in wreck penetration,” said Lewis, who now lives in Lower Sackville.

Out of the water, Lewis gave the Sag the thumbs-up.

Both Lewis and Langille said an artificial reefs program like the one in British Columbia would be welcome here.

“I don’t think it should be contained to just Nova Scotia. I think all of the Maritime provinces should be involved in that sort of thing,” said Langille.

“When you consider there’s probably 400 people trained every summer in Halifax, the community is definitely growing every year.”

Lewis said more artificial reefs in the area would significantly boost tourism.

“For a place like Lunenburg to have another artificial reef in this area, I think economically it would do incredible.

When you’ve got one, you become a centre, when you’ve got two, now you’re a destination.”

Shortly after the sinking, organizers started tracking the spending of visiting divers. Everybody who travelled to the Saguenay was required to fill out a form that asked how long they were staying and where and what they were spending.

Big bucks

Scuba-diving tourists spend money related to the sport (boat charters, equipment, etc.), but also on hotels, bars and restaurants.

Results from the first two years were encouraging, surpassing even the organizers’ expectations. Visiting divers in Lunenburg spent an estimated $250 per day.

In all, that meant between $1 million and $1.5 million in economic spin-offs for Lunenburg. Since then, numbers have remained stable, estimates the local reef association.

With artificial reefs, there is also the possibility of repeat visits since the site changes significantly over time. New life plant sprouts up and new marine life inhabits the structure.

With loyal divers that want to return, that means repeat customers.