When Sir Richard Branson and Unite BVI, a non-profit organization; an entrepreneurial group, the Maverick1000; a team of artists called Secret Samurai Productions and a dedicated dive company, Commercial Dive Services all pop up in the news something unique must be afoot. The story and ensuing project would not have happened had it not been for the enquiring mind of amateur maritime historian Mike Cochran.
During a sailing vacation in 2012 Mike spotted a derelict ship, the Kodiak Queen, tied up in a floating scrap yard in the British Virgin Islands’ capital, Road Town. His research led him to the ship’s origin and its historical legacy as a decorated survivor of the Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. Originally the YO-44, a fuel supply ship of the US navy, was one of only five survivors of the horrendous assault on the US Pacific fleet in 1941.
The ship survived the war, was decommissioned and became a commercial fishing vessel in the northern Pacific. How she ended up in the British Virgin Islands is a mystery but it was Mike’s desire to save the ship. His website quotes his wish: ‘It could be too far gone to save … but it served us once, so maybe, with some optimism, we can return the favor’.
An employee of Branson’s, Owen Buggy, with a keen interest in shipwrecks, noticed the derelict vessel and after some on-line research suggested to his boss that the decorated WW2 relic could make an interesting dive site. A nod from Sir Richard set the wheels in motion. Lauren Keil, manager of the non-profit Unite BVI, was instrumental in bringing key players together to eventually transform the ship into a unique art project and underwater scuba attraction. It has been named Project YOKO BVI Art Reef.
Maverick1000 is a social justice oriented group whose aim is to ‘give back’ to worthy causes. The group includes Sir Richard Branson, Mike Cline of Secret Samurai Productions and Matt Curry, amongst many others. They joined the effort and provided insight and funding.
Secret Samurai Productions was brought on board. They describe themselves as an art production and solution engineering team. “We make weird, wacky, ‘impossible stuff’ that solves complex challenges.”
This innovative company with Aydika James and Mike Cline as founders, came up with the idea of creating a kraken, a mythical sea monster, cleverly sculpted to look as though it had dragged the ship down to a watery grave. The team used steel rebar and wire mesh to create the giant cephalopod, making sure the tentacles and head were sufficiently large for divers to swim through. Other aims were to ensure that the project would become a successful combination artificial reef, marine habitat, and science lab.
Scientists from another non-profit, Beneath the Waves, will use an emerging technology called environmental DNA to monitor the success of marine repopulations. Water samples are taken from the area and DNA testing is conducted on them to determine what marine life is present and in what quantity. For scientists, it’s a way to judge fish presence and diversity without having to interact invasively with the species.
The ship has been sunk off Virgin Gorda’s west coast in about 60ft. Apart from being a new and wonderful scuba diving site. It is also being heralded as an educational site for children and an exciting attraction for locals to learn to swim, and dive, and offer an opportunity to understand marine ecosystems.
The entire project is a good example of how visionary and well intentioned people can come together to save and even highlight a bit of maritime history, inspire unusual art, encourage reef and fish regeneration, improve an economy, advance marine science and perhaps, best of all, to provide a park for the pure joy of underwater exploration.
YO-44 FUEL BARGE (SELF-PROPELLED):
Laid down at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, CA, 01 April 1940
Launched, 17 September 1940
Commissioned USS YO-44, 3 January 1941
Allocated to the 14th Naval District
During World War II USS YO-44 was assigned to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater and was present at
Pearl Harbor, 07 December 1941
Struck from the Naval Register, date unknown
Converted to a fishing trawler for commercial service
Named Vardshov in 1961, owner E. Jorgensen
Renamed Kodiak Queen in 1967, US registry (ON 507891)
Renamed Global Queen in 2007, Panama registry
Renamed Kodiak Queen in 2010, registry unknown
Final Disposition, laid up and possibly abandoned at Road Town BWI, circa 2010
USS YO-44 earned one battle star for World War II service