The Ballenas-Winchelsea Archipelago consists of 19 islands just off the east coast of Vancouver Island, from Lantzville north to Parksville. Recognized for their unique ecology, these islands provide important habitat for birds and sea lions.
South Winchelsea was purchased by the Land Conservancy in 1998 for its rare wildflowers and garry oaks, and is a favourite stopping place for kayakers. This a stark contrast to the Canadian Forces station on North Winchelsea Island which monitors the area for boats. If you paddle too close, naval personnel appear and shout at you to stay clear. Welcome to Whiskey Golf military test range.
Whiskey Golf is a military test range (shown on Canadian charts 3463 and 3512) just north of Nanaimo. It is the most important of the four test ranges maintained and operated by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Keyport (NUWCDIVKPT), jointly operated by the United States and Canada. Over 56 square nautical miles are monitored.
Whiskey Golf occupies the Ballenas Basin which is the deepest part of the Strait of Georgia with an average depth of 400 metres. During a period of glacial advance in the early Wisconsinan epoch, southwesterly flowing valley glaciers carved the basin to great depths. The Ballenas Basin covers an area which is 24 kilometers long by eight kilometers wide. It has a relatively flat bottom with bedrock outcrops and mud composing the seafloor surface in the area. There are thick sediments on the western side of 21 metres from the Fraser River which deposits about half a centimetre annually.
Because of its depth and flat bottom, Ballenas Basin was chosen for testing military warfare equipment, especially torpedoes, sonar, and sonobuoys. Due to the large number of submarine cables terminating at Winchelsea Island, a no prawn or crab fishing (no bottom contact) and no anchoring zone exists within this area.
The Nanoose Bay torpedo testing range located in the Georgia Strait off Vancouver Island, (officially the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental Test Range) has been operating since 1967.
The range tests between 300 to 400 torpedos annually, most of them American. Almost all are launched from surface craft. There have been 31,000 test firings since the range opened. An average of two submarines and six surface ships visit the range each year. Since the range opened, as of 1999 there had been 246 visits by U.S. surface ships, 162 by U.S. submarines, six by Canadian submarines and 254 by Canadian ships. A Chilean submarine visited Nanoose in 1994.
The range employs 57 people, including 11 Canadian military naval officers and six U.S. civilian technicians. The U.S. has invested $170-million in the facility. Canada’s investment is $47-million. In 1996, the U.S. Navy said it had saved $2 billion over 30 years by using Nanoose Bay.
There has been some controversy about ownership and rights in the area. The Canadian government owns the land used for the range. The foreshore is owned by B.C. and used by the federal government under a sixty-year agreement signed in 1988. The Nanoose Bay seabed was also owned by British Columbia and leased to Ottawa for a $1 per year.
The provincial government sought to deny U.S. access to Whiskey Golf over salmon fishing rights in 1997 and nuclear weapons. In 1999, the Canadian government promised to pay BC $125 million over 30 years, however, talks fell apart when BC didn’t want to allow nuclear-armed ships to enter Georgia Strait. Subsequently, the federal government expropriated 217 square kilometres of Georgia Strait and paid BC $1.88 million in compensation.
On December 17, 1999, the Government of Canada announced a ten-year extension of the agreement with the United States to allow the U.S. Navy to continue to be the primary user of the Nanoose Bay testing range.
When Whiskey Golf is active
When Whiskey Golf is active, no vessels — pleasure craft or commercial — are allowed to enter. A safe transit corridor of 1/2 nautical mile north of Winchelsea Island and 1/2 nautical mile east of Ballenas Island is available for passage.
Additional information as to active hours may be obtained from:
- Continuous Marine Broadcast (CMB) WX1 and VHF 21B (listen only)
- Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres (MCTS) located in Comox and Victoria (to shut down permanently in 2015)
- Winchelsea Island Control VHF Channel 10 or 16