My buddy and I were the first to descend to the wreck that day. If not for the blizzard of blacksmith fish over the hulk, we’d have likely seen the wreck after dropping just 20 feet. At 40 feet the school of fish parted, and I could see this was going to be a great day for diving the Yukon, the largest ship ever intentionally sunk off the California coast as an artificial reef.
At 366 feet long, even in good visibility and a long dive, it is hard to fully comprehend the size and scope of the wreck. This was my 14th dive on the wreck and I was still discovering new nooks and crannies. And in the over half a dozen years since it was sunk, more and more marine life are calling this place home.
That was the whole point of the Yukon being sunk in 2000 — increased marine life and enhancement of the marine environment. Survey divers that checked out the site in the late 90’s found mostly barren sand and mud plain. Now, thanks to the Yukon, this place, just 1.85 miles off Mission Beach, is thriving with fish and invertebrates — “biomass” scientists call it. In diver terms, this means lots of critters to see and photograph.
Like most divers we chose descending the mooring line amid ship held fast near the starboard railing at about 65 feet. Depth to the bottom here is 100 feet and the ship lies on her port side. That gives you some kind of idea of just the width of this massive ship. We headed toward the bow and probably the most popular part of the ship, the forward gun turret.
In descent visibility, the gun turret makes for fun yet challenging wide-angle underwater photography. You will have to use ambient light as the gun barrels are quite long. A bit of trivia: these gun barrels are not the real ones that were removed but actually fake piping put in their place. No matter what, they make for good images.
We head back toward the wheelhouse. Metridium anemones dot the wreck. I love metridium anemones. This cold-water creature makes for excellent photographs with its white plume and cream-colored stalk against green water. Metridium anemones are rare to Southern California within diving depths as they prefer cold water, but here they are prolific. Contrasting the white and cream are the patchwork of much smaller pink and lavender corynactis anemones. In our exploring around the wheelhouse and tower, we came across two small sheep crab feeding on a jelly wedged in a crevice, cabezon, painted greenlings and more reef fish. Dropping to the bottom we spook up a large halibut and find a lingcod resting in the sand near the hull. Larger predators such as these fish like the wreck for its ready food supply.
There is no time to visit my favorite part of the wreck, the “propellers.” Before the ship was fully decommissioned from service as a Canadian destroyer, she was used dockside as training ship. Conditions of full propulsion were emulated with odd-shaped “training propellers.” In the number of times I have been here I always find a new and unusual nudibranchs to photograph. The odd shape also makes for interesting wide-angle photography.
Once again I came out of the water over the Yukon with a smile on my face but hungering for more. There are holes to penetrate (with proper training and equipment, of course), the underside of the hull to look over (one of the most ignored portions of the ship) and a bow to see (a place I have yet to explore). One thing is for sure; you will see me again soon on the wreck of the Yukon.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: 1.85 off Mission Beach, San Diego. GPS coordinates: 32º 46’ 48″ N, 117º 17’ 7.2″ W. Marked with mooring buoy(s).
Access: Boat only. Boat ramps for private boats out of Mission Bay. There are several dive charter boats out of Mission Bay.
Skill Level: Intermediate or better. Special training and gear required for penetration.
Depths: 65 to 100 feet. Average dive depth 80 feet.
Visibility: Highly variable due to plankton blooms. 10 to 60 feet.
Photography: Excellent wide angle with great wreck angles. Good macro for many creatures medium sized and small.
Hunting: Please honor gentleman’s agreement to not hunt on the wreck.
Currents: Steady but usually mild. Watch out, however, for surge creating suction near openings in the wreck.