Established in 1987, Fathom Five National Marine Park, in the cold waters of Georgian Bay off Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula, is designed to protect shipwrecks and lighthouses and the area’s unique freshwater ecosystem. The park is a snorkeling and scuba diving paradise, with caves, wrecks, and underwater geology to explore. It is Canada’s only national marine park, although there is another marine conservation area in the St Lawrence, and two more are planned: in Lake Superior and Haida Gwaii on the West Coast. The cold, clean water is particularly good for preserving the wooden wrecks.
The park is named after a line in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, reflecting that the 22 ships scattered around the park met their fate in storms. “Full fathom five thy father lies,” begins the second stanza of Ariel’s “song” to Ferdinand, whose father has been shipwrecked. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay were busy areas for shipping and the weather can turn nasty very quickly, especially in the autumn and winter. Big and Little Tub harbours, off Tobermory, would represent safe haven but many ships never made it, foundering on the rocks off the islands around the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.
Nobody knows how many ships have been wrecked in the Great Lakes as a whole. Estimates range from 6,000 to 25,000, and the waters are so deep that we will never know. Still missing is perhaps the most exciting shipwreck of all: de la Salle’s ship, the Griffin, the first European ship to sail on the Great Lakes. It disappeared in 1679 after it sailed off on Lake Huron. Divers in Lake Michigan think they have found it, but there is no solid proof yet.
Fathom Five Park consists of 20 islands and 130 square kilometers of water, with an average depth of 200 metres. There are a couple of wrecks in Big Tub harbour that are visible from the surface. The Sweepstakes and the City of Grand Rapids both lie in shallow water and are popular with snorkelers. The Sweepstakes was a schooner, built in Burlington, Ontario, in 1867. She was damaged off Cove Island and then towed into the harbour where she sank in 1885. Although the hull is intact, divers aren’t allowed to go inside. The prohibition isn’t to protect them: it’s to protect the wooden structure from exposure to the oxygen in their breath.
The passenger steamer City of Grand Rapids burned and sank in October 1907. Lying about 100 metres from the Sweepstakes in shallow water, much of the ship’s structure can be seen from the surface.
The other 20 wrecks are in deeper water and must be reached by diving. One of the most spectacular, the Arabia, sits upright in deep water with her bowsprit intact. Only groups under a dive master are allowed to explore in the area because the depth and the currents make diving here dangerous. Georgian Bay is notorious for fatal diving accidents.
A group of four sunken tug boats (Alice G, Robert K, John and Alex, and Bob Foote) are visible from a wooden boardwalk, for those who prefer to stay on shore.
Parks Canada has a long research project, looking at ways to preserve shipwrecks. Fresh water preserves shipwrecks much better than salt water, which is corrosive. Ocean currents and sea life also play a part in destroying wrecks on the sea floor.
Fathom Five has some of the world’s best wreck diving. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous divers steal artifacts from the wrecks, including anchors and figureheads. Ontario has strict laws against this, and the diving community exerts peer pressure to stop people taking things. They can’t do much to prevent treasure hunters in private boats, but if these people are spotted, they have both the police and the locals to answer to. Public education will also go a long way to protect shipwrecks from looting. “When you remove the objects of interest, you remove the interest,” says one official, explaining how he tries to persuade divers to leave wrecks intact for others to enjoy.
One of the most famous wrecked ships in Canada, Roald Amundsen’s Maud, lost in 1930, has recently been raised from Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, after six years of planning. After Amundsen’s expeditions in search of the North Pole, he went bankrupt. He sold his ship to the Hudson’s Bay Company for use as a warehouse and after ten years, she sank. Now, one hundred years after she left, Maud is returning to Norway.