The 14th December marks the 19th anniversary of the first scuttling of a former RN Warship as an artificial reef:
Final preparations for the sinking of the former Royal Australian Navy Destroyer Escort, HMAS Swan, were completed a few minutes before 11.00 am on Sunday, the 14th December 1997. Stripped of weapons, radar and communication systems and with gaping holes cut into her hull she floated abandoned and alone, a derelict awaiting her fate. With a final salute to the former warship, the last departing boat, carrying Clearance Divers from AUSCDT Four, joined other craft moving towards the safety perimeter.
Now the centre of attention for the fleet of over 600 spectator craft and estimated crowd of more than 10,000 people thronging the near-by shore, the 113-metre long, former destroyer sat low in the water just 1.3 nautical miles off of Point Piquet and within sight of the lighthouse on Cape Naturaliste, the westernmost point of Geographe Bay, (landmarks that French explorer and navigator, Nicolas Baudin, named for his two vessels, the ‘Naturaliste’ and the ‘Geographe’, when he charted that region of the Western Australia coast in 1801).
In a scenic area marked by soft rolling hills and magnificent vineyards centred on the tiny township of Dunsborough – a pleasant three hour drive south from Perth – HMAS Swan was moments away from becoming the first vessel in Australia to be purposely sunk as a tourist attraction.
The end, when it came, was as sudden as it was spectacular. A sheet of bright orange flame silhouetted against billowing plumes of black smoke briefly enveloped the superstructure, a scene followed almost immediately by the sound of a dull ‘CRUMP’ as the series of linked explosive charges opened her hull to the sea. Partially hidden by the surrounding clouds of smoke, HMAS Swan, clung to the surface for a second or so before capitulating to the ocean that rushed into her deck spaces through open hatches, doorways and holes. Two minutes and fifty-three seconds later the water closed over the top of the mast as the Swan, leading by the bow, settled onto the sand twenty-nine metres below.
For a short while air trapped inside the compartments continued to disturb the otherwise calm surface and then all was still with no trace of oil or debris, apart from a small handful of quickly recovered insulation material, to mark her passing.
Entering service with the Royal Australian Navy as an anti-submarine warship in 1970, HMAS Swan was decommissioned in September, 1996, and subsequently gifted to the Geographe Bay Artificial Reef Society Inc., (G.B.A.R.S.), an organisation of businesses and interested individuals formed in 1995 to lobby for the use of the vessel as a major dive wreck and artificial reef.
Work began immediately on preparing the vessel for her eventual role. Adhering to strict guidelines laid down by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – a body also instrumental in helping to determine the final location of the Swan – scores of volunteers devoted their week-ends and free time to dismantling and cleaning the ship of all potential contaminants that might impact on marine life.
With all of her machinery, weapons systems – including her 4.5-inch gun turret – miles of electrical wiring and all loose fittings removed, the Swan gradually assumed the appearance of a hulk. All traces of oil were cleaned from the fuel tanks and bilges. A series of large holes were cut into both of her sides above the waterline, while hatchcovers and watertight doors were either removed, welded into the open position or, as in the case of the engine room compartments, permanently sealed.
Intended as a penetration wreck with appeal to divers of every level of experience, nothing had been overlooked by Project Director, Geoff Paynter, in making the shell of the Swan as practically and environmentally safe as possible.
Immediately following the sinking the tender carrying members of Australian Clearance Diving Team Four – the men who had previously laid the demolition charges – moved into position over the wreck while its divers checked that all the demolitions had fired as planned.
Satisfied that the wreck had settled safely and that there were no apparent dangers the RAN Divers gave the ‘All Clear’, the signal for a team of cave divers to enter the water and carry out a penetration dive into the hull compartments and passageways. An exercise designed to ensure that HMAS Swan had suffered no major structural damage that might pose a danger to divers entering the wreck.
At the same time – and less than two-hours since the sinking – I joined a small group of divers privileged to be among the first to view the wreck.
With its stem nestling a metre or so into the coarse sand surrounding the area the ship had come to rest with a fifteen degree list to port. A light current running across the hull had already opened up the visibility to 18 plus metres and, looking forward from the quarter-deck, it was already possible to make out the mast and bridge areas.
Below the stern the port propeller shaft and ‘A’ bracket were bedded down onto the sand. The starboard shaft – because of the slight list – standing proud of the sea floor by a metre or so while the huge rudder remained firmly locked into the mid-ship’s position.
Hatches and doorways beckoned as we traversed the length of the weather decks past now empty boat davits up to the bridge. With all the windows removed and a hole cut in its deck head, bands of light filtered through into the barren space that had once been the ‘eyes’ of the ship. Immediately in front of the bridge – in the area previously occupied by the gun turret and where a gaping circular hole led down into the magazine – the clean sweep of the focsle was interrupted by two anchor cable winches.
Penetrating the hull had been made easy. With entry ports cut into the ship’s sides and hatch covers removed natural light filtered through into a majority of the compartments, allowing divers to freely move through the below decks areas.
Still an imposing structure, the mast continued to dominate the wreck. With its platform less than eight-metres below the surface it provided a clear view of the major decks beneath and proved a perfect place from which to begin and end the dive.
Saved from the ignominy of being sold as scrap metal by the efforts of the Geographe Bay Artificial Reef Society Inc., HMAS Swan now rests in a designated Exclusion Zone with access to the limited number of moorings denied to all but licensed vessels. Governing the behaviour of vessels (and divers!) within this Exclusion Zone, the Society has put in place a strict Code of Practice designed to both restrict the number of divers using the wreck at any one time and to protect the reef’s development.
Despite this apparent ‘red-tape’, necessary measures if the HMAS Swan Artificial Reef is to achieve its full potential, dive charter operators will be able to take full advantage of the unique opportunities presented to them in having a wreck of this calibre right on their doorstep.
With three fully equipped and purpose built dive vessels, a brand new shop-cum-training facility that ranks among the country’s best and most innovative and just minutes from the wreck site, Bay Dive & Adventures, in Dunsborough, are already geared up to offer visitors the full spectrum of diving experiences, from snorkelling and introductory resort dives through to the advanced levels of technical diving – including Nitrox, rebreather training and Wreck Specialty courses.
A new icon in Western Australia’s growing international reputation as a dive tourism destination, the HMAS Swan Reef dive adds a fresh dimension to the area’s other underwater attractions, like Busselton Jetty and Naturaliste Reef.
Although presently nothing more than a grey and sterile shell, HMAS Swan will soon begin its, “sea-change into something rare and strange.” Carried southward by the warm summer waters of the Leeuwin current, coral spawn will settle onto the steel plates. Algae will begin to bloom across the decks and guard rails. Colonies of soft sponges and anemones will blossom, turning stark, bare compartments into grottoes of colour. Fish will breed and grow in the hidden recesses of the hull and – in a short space of time – life will once again flourish on and around HMAS Swan.
HMAS SWAN STATISTICS
Launched: 16th December, 1967
Commissioned: 20th January, 1970
Displacement: 2,750 tonnes
Length: 112.8 metres
Beam: 12.5 metres
Speed: 30 plus knots
Complement: 205 Officers and Sailors
Armament: Turret of two 4.5 inch guns.
– 6 MK32 anti-submarine torpedo tubes
Machinery: Boilers and geared steam turbines
For further information on HMAS Swan, the artificial reef project or the Code of Practice governing the HMAS Swan Exclusion Zone, contact the Geographe Bay Artificial Reef Society Inc., PO Box 1408, Busselton, WA 6280.
The above article first appeared in Scuba Diver Magazine in January 1998