The Age, 11 June 2008

On way to a naval hideaway beneath the waves

On way to a naval hideaway beneath the waves

By Carolyn Webb, The Age

Wednesday, 11 June 2008 — There were no cannon-fire salutes, brass bands or accompanying flotilla when HMAS Canberra passed quietly through Port Phillip Heads yesterday.

A handful of lucky sightseers at Point Lonsdale's Rip View lookout were treated to a fine day and a splendid view of the warship on its way to its final journey.

The 4100-tonne, 138-metre-long guided-missile frigate served the Australian Navy for 24 years. It had a crew of 210 when fully operational.

It covered almost 1.3 million kilometres, including military stints in the Persian Gulf, off the Solomon Islands, east of Africa and south of Russia, and an exciting customs job chasing Patagonian toothfish poachers in the Southern Ocean.

HMAS Canberra was decommissioned in 2005, and 18 months ago the Victorian Artificial Reef Society (VARS), a dive industry lobby group, fended off a Sydney consortium to win a Federal Government tender to have the vessel scuttled. It will be sunk two nautical miles offshore, in 30 metres of water between Point Lonsdale and Barwon Heads, to become a scuba diving attraction.

The Federal Government contributed $7 million and the Victorian Government $1.5 million to the project. HMAS Canberra spent the past week being towed from Perth and today will dock in Geelong, where it will spend the next 10 months being prepared for sinking.

VARS president John Lawler said the ship would be stripped of all safety and environmental hazards, including 25,000 kilometres of wiring, its insulation, oil, flooring, and 95 tonnes of lead ballast. Access points will be cut through the vessel so divers don't get trapped. After it is towed into place, charges will be positioned to cut holes in the hull so it sinks on detonation.

Tourism Victoria has estimated that the sunken ship will inject $1.3 million annually into the state's economy.

Dr John Hawkins, chairman of the Scuba Divers Federation of Victoria, said the ship would thrill divers because it was so complete; most existing wrecks had broken up.

Jason Salter, director of Queenscliff and Portsea company Dive Victoria, said the Port Phillip Heads area already boasted abundant fish and reefs and hundreds of shipwrecks and scuttled ships.

But he predicted that the Canberra would be "the jewel in the crown", attracting tens of thousands of overseas and interstate divers because of its historical value, physical features and as a home for marine life.

Lynne Clarke, of Geelong, who enjoyed yesterday's sail-past at Point Lonsdale with her friend Hilary Roath, of Pakenham, said scuttling the Canberra was "an exciting idea".

"It's a good use of an old piece of equipment," she said, and the area's marine life was "amazing".

The Age, Online

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