Birthday for a mermaid

Anniversary marks submerging of the Emerald Princess

She sank below the green waters 25 years ago this week, on March 11, 1989.

The Emerald Princess, locally called the mermaid, has watched marine life flow around her and divers pass by ever since. Next weekend they will come to share her anniversary at an un-sanctioned dive at Mermaid Cove near Saltery Bay.

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Sculptor Simon Morris will be among those visiting his two-and-a-half-metre bronze work. The idea first came from Jim Willoughby who was the dive master at the Beach Gardens Resort and Marina at the time. Willoughby met Morris at Expo ‘86 (the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication held in Vancouver) and suggested it. “At the time I was working on abstract pieces in welded steel,” Morris recalled. “We knew steel would rust so I suggested bronze. Jim asked me if I had any experience with bronze, and in one of those off the cuff comments that change your life I said ‘No I don’t, but it can’t be that difficult.’”

Bronze proved to suit Morris. “It’s an incredibly magic medium that takes on the chemistry of the ocean around it.” Today, Morris is a successful bronze sculptor with several installations under the sea, including the Emerald Princess’s twin sister, off the Grand Cayman Islands.

Morris remembers the day the Emerald Princess was submerged as one of the top days of his life. “It was an emotional day,” he said. “Over 1,000 people were at the boat launch and a military jet with smoke flew over. We put her on a boat to take her around to the cove.” The cove would soon be named for her.

Powell River waters are among the richest in the world, according to Morris. Fast currents bring nutrients from deep water to the surface, and it is well oxygenated. This allows “incredible marine life to grow,” and quite a lot of it grows on the mermaid.

Diver and photographer William McKinnon was opposed to cleaning anemones, tubeworms and other life from the mermaid when he first moved here. “I thought the artist put it in the sea, so that was what he wanted.” After a few years of not cleaning she was almost completely covered. Both Morris and McKinnon agree with her regular cleaning now.

Graceful and regal, the princess was sunk in some of the best local shore diving waters. Willoughby’s idea, coupled with his enthusiastic promotion, built Powell River’s reputation as a dive destination. But the mermaid’s 25th birthday comes at a low point for diving in Powell River. The only dive shop closed early in 2013 and despite arrangements for filling oxygen tanks, it is not convenient for visitors to dive here now. McKinnon said the local diving community has been hurt by the loss of the shop too. “I don’t think anyone realized how important that focal point was.”

McKinnon runs a small dive charter company. He has noticed a drop in business, but remains “highly positive about the diving here.” The life and outstanding winter visibility mean that he has never had a bad dive. His photographs bring some of the wonder to the surface, and can be seen online.

McKinnon looks forward to meeting both the artist and the visionary at the mermaid’s anniversary this weekend. “I think I bought my first mask and snorkel as a kid from Jim Willoughby’s shop in Vancouver,” McKinnon recalled. “He is a wonderful ambassador for the sport.”

Morris and Willoughby will be at the 25th anniversary celebration 6 pm on Saturday, March 15, at the Beach Gardens. Details are available at 1.800.663.7070. They will both be at Mermaid Cove from 11 am to 3 pm on Saturday to say hello to Emerald herself.

Copyright © Powell River Peak

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