Diving Jasper's Habbakuk Wreck

January 3, 2017

 

Project Habbakuk was a top secret World War II project that was conceived in Great Britain in 1942 by Mr. Geoffrey Pyke, a scientific advisor to Lord Mountbatten. He suggested that ships could be made of ice. After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, an international ice patrol had tried to destroy icebergs. The discovery that glacial ice was virtually indestructible gave Pyke his idea to build floating airfields of ice.

 

Between Jan to April 1943, the Canadians did their part in the Allied crafted plans & built a 1/50 scale model (the plans for a full scale aircraft carrier would be 600 meters by 90 meters and 45 meters deep) on Patricia Lake in Jasper which during the war was a very remote location, easy to keep secret. Code named Habbakuk, it was constructed out of wood, refrigeration pipes, tar and ice.   Later, the potential of ice mixed with wood pulp, called Pykrete came from research work done in Ottawa, Montreal and at the Universities of Alberta, Manitoba & Saskatchewan and even ice experiments done at Lake Louise in Banff.

 

Under the watchful eye of the RCMP, the Habbakuk was built by "conscientious objectors" and help prove the concept was possible. Without even knowing it, a group of peace-loving conscientious objectors under tough "work camp" conditions helped build a top-secret model for the concept of the largest warship of all time. This ship of ice would have been over 2000 ft long, that is about 2 1/2 times longer than the Titanic.  Estimates revealed cost of building the "first bergship" would be approx $100 million and need over 35,000 men to help construct with Cornerbrook, NF chosen as the build site.  

 

CO (conscientious objector) participant in the construction: a very young Henry Martens remembers being puzzled about the work done at the time of the build and still carries the scars of burns received from the hot tar.  He spoke at the unveiling of "U-Haul's" truck design of their super graphics of the Habbakuk Ship of Ice:   During his speech at the ceremony, in Jasper, on July 19, 2010, he commented that in hind-sight, after learning of all the horrors of the WWII,  he was proud of his contribution to the war effort & science even though Project Habbakuk was unknown to him at the time.  

 

By the end of 1943 the battle of the Atlantic was finally turning in favor of the Allies. Convoy escorts equipped with new anti-submarine devices, such as centimetric radar, began to disable U-boats in increasing numbers. These new bombers were capable of flying greater distances and with established air bases in Iceland gave more protection to the essential Allied Supply Convoys feeding the war effort in Great Britian. This, along with a pushed up timetable for D-day, and the actual estimated high cost of a fleet of ice ships forced the cancellation of the Habbukuk project.  A favourite project of Churchill's, Habbakuk's plug was pulled late in 1943 and the remains of the model (disguised as a boat house) on Patricia Lake slowly melted and sank to the bottom.

 

Scuba diving the Habbakuk takes a little more effort than most of the dive friendly & very easily accessible Jasper lakes due to the logistics of getting to its location in Patricia Lake. The actual wreckage lies on the south shore towards the far west end of the lake.

 

Directions: once at Patricia Lake, there are different ways to get to the site, the most common is to load your dive gear in a row boat or canoe (motorized boating prohibited) and most leave from the road side pull out (by the roadside Habbukuk display sign) with parking for a few vehicles along the road to Patricia & Pyramid Lakes above the town of Jasper.

 

Or alternatively cast off from the boat launch belonging to Patricia Lake Bungalows (with their permission). It has also been done by swimming from there (very, very long 45 minute swim in scuba gear), and by scootering 20 minutes with a high end scooter. Many also hike the horse trail - a real pain in the rear with 20 minute (or more) hike with heavy gear, easily over-heating in your wetsuit or drysuit.  Even once by ice diving- a lot work hauling gear across the windswept, frozen lake (no snowmobiles allowed) only to cope with free-flowing regulators underwater. Parking is always an issue for the nearest business; Patricia Lake Bungalows. Do not park within the property - only further along the access road and you'll help keep the business as friendly to divers.

 

Once you're on the lake in a boat - remember no motorized boats allowed - paddle past the Patricia Lake Bungalows and continue at least 15-20 minutes along the shore looking for a fairly wide opening below a slope. Or while hiking along the shore's horse trail,  you need to look for black tar going up from below the waterline up towards the waters edge.  Along with these clues, there is a metal eyelet sticking from the ground near the shore (used to tie up the Habbakuk) and also a cross board nailed high up in a tree.  If boating do not anchor but beach boat/canoe up on shore.  Here is where you carefully enter in the water.

 

Once in the water, head straight down the very steep slope and you should hit the wreckage starting at about the 45 foot depth. The model's wreckage lies diagonally on a steep slope. The lake is at an elevation of 4200 feet and the water gets very cold & dark below the thermocline so plan accordingly. The shallowest part of the wreck is between 45 to 50 feet then angles down the slope to almost 95 feet. Nearby the lake bottoms out at over 130 feet so be aware of your depth. What you're going to see is a hodge-podge of timbers, boards and refrigeration pipes as the only remains left behind after the "Habbakuk" model melted.

 

The last time we were diving there (2009) - one lone wall of the prototype structure was still standing. Just above the shallowest start of the wreckage, there is the underwater (Alberta Underwater Archeolgy Society & AUC) plaque commemorating the Project.  Once you see that continue down and the wreckage will become apparent but remember to watch your depth and time.  Thermoclines are extremely cold and dramatic so drysuits are recommended.

 

Scuba divers need to control their buoyancy & be aware of the soft glacial silt or rock flour. Try not to stir it up and everyone else to follow will thank you. Even donning your fins along the shore - just above the wreck can result in rivers of silt flowing over the u/w cliff's ledge upon divers below obscuring the wreckage. Visibility can be poor at the best of times, especially during summer algal blooms making this a deep, dark & cold dive.   In our experience diving here, the best visbility conditions were late spring, late fall & under the ice.

 

Remember, please be sure not to remove any souvenirs or deface the Habbakuk in anyway(for example: scraping your initials in the algae on the wood), as this wreckage is also in a national park and therefore doubly protected by law.  Don't "wreck" it for future divers!

 

The Habbakuk is one of a kind. The only scale model ever built. So it is a rare historical artifact whose brilliant, daring concept was spawned from very desperate times. During the Second War, all the top leaders of the Allies were involved in the planning of this top secret project. All made their contributions to the Project - Code Name Habbukuk including Britain's Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten, America's President Roosevelt and of course, Canada's PM: McKenzie King.

 

Please keep all this history in mind while diving on it.  While it is not a "true shipwreck" it's facinating story makes it worth the dive as only a very few scuba divers have completed the expedition effort to see the remains of the Habbakuk with their own eyes.  

 

The cold, dark environment has contributed to protecting the Habbakuk for this long - please do your part to protect it from the further ravishes of time itself for future scuba divers to enjoy!

 

AUC Note: Underwater Plaque shown below was installed by volunteer divers of the Alberta Underwater Archaeology Society, supported by Parks Canda, Archaeology Society of Alberta and the Alberta Underwater Council: July 31st, 1988.

 

AUC thanks to Susan Langley, Ph.D for her generous sharing of her Ph.D dissertation research on Project Habbakuk & her dedication to the Alberta Underwater Archaeology Society.  Volunteer divers also assisted in placing this plaque underwater: Gordon Ross, Dianna Ungarian & numerous others.

 

 

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