Unlike the ocean's saltwater, the Great Lakes' supply of cold, freshwater creates the perfect conditions for shipwreck preservation, with many wrecks found in pristine condition two centuries after sinking. For Ontario, that means a growing dive tourism business, with people travelling here from around the world to explore our many shipwrecks. The Brockville and Kingston areas are popular in Eastern Ontario, with Fathom Five a favourite on Georgian Bay and the Pelee Passage growing in popularity on Lake Erie.

Conservationist divers take on dual roles of cop and teacher
in growing movement to preserve Ontario's shipwrecks

With shipwreck diving a growing tourism industry in Ontario, conservationists are calling for stepped up enforcement in order to ensure the submerged schooners, barges and ships that lie at the bottom of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River retain their cachet as the world’s best dive sites.  

“There is adequate legislation in place to protect our shipwrecks, but unfortunately enforcement is thin,” Michael Hill, president of the provincial heritage organization Save Ontario Shipwrecks, told “There will always be a minority who will take artifacts regardless of the penalties.”  

Ian Marshall, a member of the Niagara Divers’ Association, agrees. He recounts an incident in which the crew on a private boat was preparing to lift an anchor off a wreck and into a sack large enough to hold a 2,000-pound cargo. Luckily, the boat was spotted by divers deploying mooring buoys in the area and took off. “The people who are policing it are the clubs and the divers themselves,” Marshall told  

In Kingston, an out-of-province group suspected of removing the brass number plate on the generator of the Munson, a dredge that sank in 1890 while being towed to Belleville, experienced a dose of diver self-governing when they came back to town the following year. Not only were the suspect divers warned that such behaviour is not tolerated, conservationist-minded Ontario divers stuck to the group like glue as they dove area shipwrecks, ensuring nothing else went missing.  

While the majority of Ontario divers and charter operators today follow a “look, don’t touch” policy that slowly evolved when diving started to become more popular back in the 1950s, it wasn’t always that way.  

“Years ago, everyone took a little piece of the shipwreck home with them,” said Marshall, who has been diving since 1967. “In those days, it was normal — you never went diving anywhere without taking something off the wreck.”  

'Looting of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes became endemic'

According to the Ontario Ministry of Culture, when SCUBA equipment became widely available for recreational use 50 years ago, “the looting of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes became endemic.”  

“Souvenir hunters and wreck strippers can seriously degrade or destroy both the historic and commercial value of a submerged site,” the ministry said. “Some newly discovered shipwrecks have been reduced from pristine time capsules to stripped hulks in as little as two weekends.”  

The Great Lakes are known worldwide for their many well-preserved shipwreck sites, thanks to their cold, fresh water that is capable of keeping many sunken vessels in stunning condition. The discovery in June of the 291-foot-long L.R. Doty, which sank in Lake Michigan during a ferocious storm on Oct. 25, 1898, is a good example of how fresh water can act as a natural preservative. Divers found the wooden ship intact sitting upright in 320 feet of water, with the cargo still in the hold.  

In oceans, where treasure hunting is both a sport and a business, wrecks deteriorate faster, reducing their allure. And that’s why divers from around the world come to Ontario to explore and photograph shipwrecks.  

“We have a draw here,” Edie Benish, who owns Seeway Vision Dive Charters in Brockville with her husband, Kevin, told “Eighty-five per cent of our clientele is from out of town, with about 80 per cent of that from the U.S. — Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, the whole Eastern Seaboard.”  

Benish said the Brockville and Rockport areas are considered “the best freshwater diving in the world” because of the quantity and quality of the wrecks, good visibility up to at least 70 feet, an even temperature from top to bottom and currents that make every dive unique.  

Her charter alone brings in up to 1,800 divers each year, including groups from Switzerland and Germany. With another 10 or so dive companies operating in the Brockville area, the economic impact is huge, not only for charters, but for hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and other local businesses. 

“And that’s just a drop in the bucket,” Benish said of diving’s popularity. “This industry is still in its infancy.”

It was in an effort to protect the shipwrecks and promote diving tourism that MPP Toby Barrett in 1999 introduced the Ontario Marine Heritage Act as a private member’s bill.

The bill, which included hefty fines for anyone damaging a shipwreck or removing an artifact, was met with widespread opposition, primarily because it would have forced divers to obtain a licence in order to enter a wreck. Others argued that the proposed law was unenforceable and would do little to preserve the shipwrecks.  
“ ... this proposed legislation is not intended to be a barrier to recreational divers,” Barrett told the legislature. “It is meant to educate people that shipwrecks are a precious and non-renewable resource.”  

While the bill never became law, parts of it made their way into the amended Ontario Heritage Act, which until 2005 made no specific mention of  “marine culture.”

Access restricted to permit holders where warranted

Under the Heritage Act, the province has the power to inspect sites under archeological licence to monitor compliance and can prohibit access to site-specific shipwrecks where warranted. The Ontario government did just that in 2006, restricting access to the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck in Lake Superior and the Hamilton and Scourge sites in Lake Ontario to those who obtain a permit from the province. Special protection was needed, the province said, because the sites contained human remains which must be treated with care and respect.  

And while fines for the illegal alteration of archeological sites or removal of artifacts was increased to $1 million under the Heritage Act, nothing addresses the issue of policing or shipwreck protection other than damage or theft.  

That’s where Save Ontario Shipwrecks and like-minded organizations come in. SOS pioneered the concept of low-impact diving — which means not touching or bumping heritage sites. This hands-off approach begins with moorings to get divers down to the wreck, where they can swim in and around it without touching anything.   

“Before our mooring program, boats would drop anchor and end up pulling part of the wreck with them when they moved,” said SOS’s Hill. “Now, the most popular dive sites all have moorings.”  

The mooring buoys, which are maintained by volunteers and must be replaced every four years or so, make it easy to identify a wreck site. And with trailing ropes for divers to attach themselves to, there is no longer any need for boats to drop anchor to hold themselves on the dive site.  

While identifying wreck sites might seem to be inviting trouble from the treasure hunters who aren’t aware of the laws governing shipwrecks in Ontario, charter companies such as the one operated by Benish in Brockville are quick to set visitors straight about the rules. “We tell them you don’t take anything from the bottom,” she said. “We very much promote the no-touch policy. Once they hear why we’re doing it, they understand and it’s not an issue.”  

Marshall, of the Niagara Divers’ Association, said wrecks more likely to be plundered are those recently found or not marked. “Usually it’s someone from the saltwater states, with their own boat,” he said of those who don’t respect the wrecks. “It’s a different mentality.”  

SOS, which believes in leaving artifacts in place — rather than putting them in a museum on land where costly preservation methods will be needed to replace their protective freshwater coating — was formed in 1981 to change that mentality. “When diving really took off in the ’60s and ’70s, it was clear to preservationists that something needed to be done to prevent looting,” Hill recalled.  

'When you remove objects of interest, you remove the interest'

All agree the moorings and education about low-impact diving are the keys to conserving Ontario’s shipwrecks. “It’s more important to dangle a carrot than wave a stick,” said Hill.  

Before the spread of conservation diving, it wasn’t unusual for divers to get their pictures taken holding the ship’s wheel. It might seem harmless, but the result of so many hands touching living history is many a wheel with half the handles missing.  

Damaged or missing, it all adds up to a major loss. “When you remove objects of interest, you remove the interest,” said Hill. “You also change the cultural record and confound archeologists who need to see evidence to complete research for accurate record-keeping.”

While hands-off diving has not taken the fun out of it all, the zebra mussels might. The mussels that helped clean up the lakes and allow divers to see in deeper water are now covering many of the submerged vessels, so much so that there is often only a “faint shadow of a wreck.” Some wonder how long it will be before the mussels take over completely.  

SOS hopes that its newest education tool — marine heritage study — will create a new generation of marine detectives who can not only research and study existing wrecks before they disappear, but help find new ones for the record books.  

SOS in 2009 became the licensing authority in Ontario for a maritime archeology education program developed by the Britain-based Nautical Archeology Society. Courses teach everything from how to date a vessel to how to measure a wreck to how to write a report and submit it to the government. The courses are available across the province to divers and non-divers — photographers, historians, researchers etc. — who must participate in a survey of a shipwreck or site to be certified.  

Fathom Five National Marine Park world famous

There are potentially hundreds of shipwrecks yet to be found in the Great Lakes, including that of the Griffon, which disappeared in 1679 after French explorer LaSalle watched it set sail on Lake Huron. Ontario’s most well-known dive site is Fathom Five National Marine Park in Georgian Bay off Tobermory. The park is home to 22 shipwrecks, some of which are in such shallow water close to shore you don’t need to be a diver to get a good look. A tour in a glass-bottom boat will also get you up close with the park’s shipwrecks.  

Parks Canada, which is in charge of setting up a national system of marine protected areas — called National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) — is being lobbied by Great Lakes municipalities to designate Fathom Five-type parks in their areas.

NMCAs, to be created under the National Marine Conservation Areas Act of 2002, are “protected from such activities as ocean dumping, undersea mining, and oil and gas exploration and development. Traditional fishing activities would be permitted, but managed with the conservation of the ecosystem as the main goal.”

Under NMCAs, Parks Canada “is responsible for both protecting these ecosystems and managing them for visitors to understand, appreciate, and enjoy in a sustainable manner.”

To date, there are no official NMCAs in Ontario, though two — Fathom Five and Lake Superior — are on their way to officialdom. Although Fathom Five received NMCA approval by the federal government in 1987 (it had been operated by Ontario as an underwater park), it won’t be “official” under the act until the lakebed is transferred from the province to the federal government. 

And before that happens, the boundaries might change, as according to Parks Canada, “studies have indicated that Fathom Five is not fully representative of its marine region.”

Western Lake Superior, meanwhile, passed initial federal approval in 2007 as an NMCA. An interim five-year management plan, which must be approved by Parliament, is now being negotiated.

Lakes Ontario, Huron and Erie are also on Parks Canada’s list of future marine conservation areas, but work is still in the early stages.

While the presence of shipwrecks is not specifically mentioned as one of the criteria for NMCA designation (only “archeological and historic features” are mentioned), the town of Leamington is hoping that the rich shipwreck history of the Pelee Passage that lies beyond its shores in Lake Erie will help make its case for marine conservation area status.  

According to Parks Canada, Point Pelee/Pelee Island, also known as the Pelee Passage, is among three preliminary representative marine areas to be identified on Lake Erie. The others are Long Point and Rondeau Point. The next steps are studies to confirm these areas meet the criteria for marine conservation status, followed by selection of the preferred candidate. Once the federal government approves the new national marine conservation area, years of negotiation on a draft management agreement to make it official will follow.  

275 ships lost in Pelee Passage on Lake Erie

ErieQuest Marine Heritage Area was created in the late-1980s in an effort to conserve the shipwrecks of the Pelee Passage and promote diving tourism in the Leamington area. A total of 275 ships have been recorded as being sunk in the Pelee Passage since the mid-1800s. So far, 50 shipwreck locations are known, and 15 of them are marked by mooring buoys.  

Art Krueger, chairman of the ErieQuest committee of council, which helped to establish a marine interpretive centre in uptown Leamington and is working to have the remains of a shipwreck moved to the waterfront for display, said a marine conservation area designation would do wonders for this part of Ontario.  

“If this area was chosen, it would mean a lot of money the government would be putting in, for an information centre, a museum ... it would be a tourist attraction,” Krueger told   

According to Diver magazine, the western end of Lake Erie “is fast becoming North America’s dive centre.”

Other areas are also well-known for their diving. On Lake Ontario, Parks Canada identified Prince Edward Point and Wellers Bay as possible marine conservation areas, before settling on Prince Edward as the preferred candidate for more study. The waters around Prince Edward Point are reported to contain a number of two- and three-masted schooners, brigantines, barges and steamships.  

Back in Brockville, Seeway Vision’s Benish said shipwreck diving tourism in Ontario needs more support at the local and provincial level. “We need to establish artificial shipwrecks to take the pressure off the older wrecks,” she said.  

Benish said the last vessel to be sunk for divers in the St. Lawrence River area was in 1999 at Prescott when a 30-foot boat was put under as an artificial reef, complete with underwater playground. “It’s a wonderful place for beginners.”  

According to the Ontario government, the Great Lakes, with their many well-preserved shipwreck sites, “have become one of the greatest ‘outdoor’ museums of shipping history in the world.”  

But while the shipwrecks are visible to all in Tobermory, that’s not the case elsewhere. And that, said Benish, is why municipal and provincial governments aren’t promoting diving tourism as much as they should, despite the fact it is a growing multimillion-dollar industry. “In this region, the issue is you can’t see it, it’s underwater. If it was a mountain that everyone could see, then they (government) would be all too willing to promote it.”  

Until they do, groups such as SOS and charter dive companies will have to keep doing the work for them, all while keeping an eye out for plunderers. — July 2010