Wrecked with Tony: The Wreck of the Clare Lilley

By Tony Sampson | Atlantic Boating Contributor

Photos by Bob Daly and John Wesley-Chisholm

Clare Lilley, what a beautiful name.

It is a name that you would think belonged to a charming young lady, not a deadly tangled and twisted mass of steel, chain and munitions that lies just a stone’s throw off shore in beautiful Portuguese Cove, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On the 17th of March 1942, the American munitions ship, the Clare Lilley, ran aground close to the shore and wrecked containing tons of ammunition and explosives for the war effort.

This is always an exciting dive for me as I never know what that white witch called the North Atlantic will expose as she races towards the shore on her watery steeds ripping and clawing at the bottom before finally crashing on the shore.

We certainly got lucky on this day as the weather is sunny, 20 degrees Celsius and almost flat calm. There is a slight wispy breeze out of the south to keep us cool as we start donning our dry suits and wetsuits to enter this alien world.

My fellow divers, John, Kayla and Bob, are excited also as today we are filming an episode of Secrets of the Sea for the Bell network. Just to add a little more tension to an otherwise beautiful day, we notice a shark 100 feet away cruising the area where we are about to enter the water.

A quick call to my friend Dr. Chris Harvey-Clarke, a shark expert from Dalhousie University, confirms there have been a number of great white sharks spotted in this area recently. With our warming waters and rising seal population off the coast of Nova Scotia, this is just part of our new reality.The sharks have always been here, there are just more of them now.

Gazing into the teal blue water, I am amazed to see the anchor line snaking it’s way beneath the surface, this is awesome visibility.

I am the last to enter the water and we check each other out for gear issues and slowly descend down the line to inner space. The gentle rocking of the current drifts through our bodies as if to choreograph our movements in unison. Our numbers for the wreck (latitude and longitude) are perfect as our anchor is laying only a short distance from a giant steam boiler. I loop my reel line just above the anchor on the chain and start spooling out towards the boiler.

The marine growth on the wreck is fantastic to see, a beautiful carpet of kelp has grown over the site since I was last here.

A few years back, sea urchins ferociously nibbling away at the kelp had turned this area into a virtual moonscape. Now this area is a healthy marine ecosystem, with fish darting in and out of the skeletal remains of this once proud ship. Making their home between the rocks and the debris on the bottom, we see lobsters and crabs and anemones.

Every crevice, nook and cranny is now home to a myriad of sea creatures waiting for their next meal. A quick shiver runs through my body as I remember the shark we had seen before entering the water, reminding me that we now look like seals. In saying that, I also know that there has never been a diver taken by sharks in Nova Scotia waters.

As Kayla and I push the gently waving kelp aside, we discover with ease Clare Lilley’s dark dirty secret. Encrusted in the concretion of this decaying wreck is live ammunition. Lines of 50-calibre rounds lay just below this bed of kelp, evenly spaced like rows of miniature soldiers. Many of the casings have been broken open by our violent North Atlantic storms revealing the powder or propellant inside that looks like tiny black licorice.

Moving our fins gently from side to side, an art called frog kicking, we weave our way through the larger pieces of the wreck our path illuminated not only by the natural light filtering through the water column like ghostly fingers, but also by Bob and John’s camera lights. It does not get much better than this. I am so pleased to have these conditions today to film our exploration of this wreck.

Poking my head inside a large cave-like feature created by part of the wreck structure and the surrounding rocks, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Shining my underwater torch over to the left I see a massive lobster, probably 20 pounds or more, backing up into another part of the wreck. It has claws the size of cast-iron frying pans and it appears he can hardly lift them. There is no way this grandad lobster would ever fit in a normal lobster trap and I am not keen for him to latch on to me either.

I keep laying line out from my reel as we now drop into a small kelp carpeted gully. The lights from John and Bob’s camera’s glint back on larger projectiles scattered under the kelp. On closer inspection, these cone shaped objects are graduated with small cog like teeth on the bottom edge and they sort of remind me of giant brass egg timers.

We are now slightly off to the north of the main wreck and I can feel the surge picking me up and pulling me back with a little more intensity, this indicates that conditions have changed a bit on the surface.

I am using a wireless underwater communications mask for this dive which gives me the luxury of being able to talk to the team topside. Zack, our skipper, lets me know that the wind is picking up and it is now time to return to our terrestrial world. I slowly start reeling in my laid line as we frog kick and helicopter turn above our thin white marker that leads through the maze of twisted steel and kelp back to the anchor line.

Bob and John start their ascent shooting footage of Kayla and myself from just above. This slow trek back to the surface and safety stop, or deco stops depending on the dive, is always my time to reflect on what Secrets of the Sea we have been able to see.

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