|Can you imagine what it would be like to dive on a ghost ship In cold, deep water you see the faint outline of its bow cutting through water misty from a fine suspension of sediment. Hovering over the jib boom you see two large anchors lying on deck. Chains and ropes fall from the deadeyes and pulleys that line either side of the hull, and just ahead of you the main mast hangs over the port railing.
Could this be the perfect shipwreck An image straight from your childhood dreams Looking over the side you would expect to see a treasure chest full of gold. But this isnt a dream. The wreck of the barque Arabia stands upright on the bottom of Lake Huron, Ontario, almost as intact now as it was when it sank in 1884.
Over 100 years old and still relatively unaffected by the environment: how can this be possible
In Lake Hurons waters, natures own preservation process takes over. These waters freeze from December to April, and the combination of fresh water and lack of destructive marine organisms means that, storm effects apart, the wrecks remain undamaged.
What nature couldnt stop was a small number of rogue divers and their purely selfish interest in these wrecks. By removing artefacts, they did more to damage Canadas marine heritage than decades of natural forces. To protect that heritage, the Fathom Five Marine Park came into being.
Its early May in the village of Tobermory, the launching point for the park at the end of the Bruce Peninsula. Under clear blue skies, the vastness of the lake stretches out towards the horizon. Its hard to believe that, only a month or so before, packs of ice covered this expanse.
Ray Davies, one of the parks most experienced dive operators, jokes that there are only two water temperatures here: liquid and frozen.
As we prepare for our first dive were joined by Canadian divers Rob and Niels. Its their first dive since autumn and theyre keen to check out new sites and test equipment. Theyre a resourceful lot, these Canadians. Seeing a B52 bombers oxygen cylinder for sale has given Rob an idea for a new air tank. This is to be its initiation test.
Our first dive is just outside the parks boundaries on the San Jacinto, a two-masted schooner that sank in thick fog in 1881. As I drop to the lakebed through what seems like a light fog made up of fine sediment, the icy water bites into any exposed skin. We follow the glacial grooves in the lakebed to the bow.
Here we find deadeyes and pulleys still attached to the hull. The windlass lies unaffected by more than a century of submersion. Most of the midships area has collapsed in on itself, the weight buckling the hull outwards.
At the stern were presented with a mystery. Standing almost upright is the anchor, its 3m wooden stock pointing up to the surface. Nature couldnt have placed it in a more picturesque position, but what is it doing at the stern
How did the crew manage to arrange that, as their ship sank beneath the waves Im diving with some of the areas most experienced divers, but none can answer this conundrum.
Our next dive is inside the park, on the steamer City of Cleveland. Its vast size and visibility of over 20m has made this one of the areas most popular sites. No part of the wreck is in more than 10m, so its a perfect second dive.
The engine machinery still stands intact and parts of the boilers can be entered. They lead to the giant pistons that make an impressive backdrop against the propeller, which is still fixed upright against the main shaft.
The deck has collapsed, forcing the hull out, but this allows you to see how such a ship was built - its as if the skeleton has been laid out flat on the lakebed for inspection. There is little in the way of marine life, only the odd goby-like fish and a few layers of zebra mussels. If youre not fascinated by wrecks themselves, these dives wont interest you.
That evening I meet Stan McClellan, the parks first superintendent. He tells me how it was initially formed as a provincial park in 1971 to protect all non-renewable resources under and above the water. Stan had been diving and researching the areas wrecks for many years, so was the perfect candidate for the job.
I ask about the anchor on the San Jacinto and Stan smiles. When we first discovered this wreck it wasnt there. It was only on a later dive that we found it, close to a nearby island. This gave us a clue as to what steps the crew had taken to save the ship.
Its only there now because a group of divers raised it and placed it back on the wreck. They thought it would look good - except that they put it at the wrong end!
Stan shakes his head. Thats why the park is so important. A lot of this sort of thing goes undocumented and in years to come will puzzle archaeologists.
These wrecks are an important part of our marine heritage, as most of the ships of this era havent survived the years. In the park they can be researched in situ by historians and protected from disturbance by divers.
I ask about the Arabia. We discovered it in 1970. Well, thats not entirely true, the fishermen in the area knew there was a wreck there long before us. If they fished too close theyd snag their nets. They also found that the fish they caught around it often had corn in their bellies, so they called it the Corn Wreck. When we found it we couldnt believe our eyes - an almost intact 19th century sailing ship.
A number of artefacts were removed for the museum in Tobermory before the holds were explored. Thats where we found the cargo of corn. We brought some up and sent it off to a laboratory. Being perfectly preserved it could tell historians something about farming in that period.
After the scientists had finished their work one of them decided to see if the seeds would grow. The amazing thing is that some did. After germinating they grew for quite a few days. However, after taking a quick look at the world they withered and died.
Stan has one more thing he wants to clear up before I leave, about the name of the park. Most people think its because the average depth is five fathoms, but its actually named after a line from Shakespeares The Tempest. It reflects the history of the park, in that most of the shipwrecks arrived here because of a storm.
The next days diving is shore-based, as the wind is preventing any dive boats launching. My buddy is Scarlett, a doctor of archaeology, but she doesnt seem particularly interested in the wrecks.
What fascinates me about this area is the opportunity to study and collect the aboriginal artefacts that can be found on the lakebed, she says.
She explains how objects already discovered have provided invaluable information about how the natives of this area prior to the last Ice Age lived.
Tobermory has several sheltered dive spots, the best known being by the lighthouse at the entrance to Big Tub Harbour. After a giant-stride entry off the rock next to the lighthouse, we drop down a small wall. There are giant boulders, overhangs and some slopes that drop down to 30m.
The whole dive seems remarkably familiar - the conditions are almost identical to those in many UK quarries. The only life I see consists of small freshwater crayfish and this site doesnt have much to offer that you couldnt find in Stoney Cove or Dorothea quarry.
Our second dive is on the wreck of an old fishing tug, the Alice G. Its in only 7m of water about 20m from the shore outside Little Tub, Tobermorys second harbour. As a wreck site its unimpressive: a small boiler and a steam engine inside a hull that retains its original outline. A large pike-like fish is hovering by the wreck. Anywhere else this would be fairly unremarkable, but in the often lifeless marine park this is a rare and exciting sighting.
Next day the weather has picked up and we at last get to dive the Arabia. At 34m in cold, dark water, this is an advanced dive. We go through the dive plan with Ray several times: he has reason to be cautious, as several divers have died here, mostly through inexperience.
We descend a buoyed line to one of two chains that lead to the wreck. This line leads to the stern, where the first part of the ship to come into view is the afterdeck. Part of it has collapsed onto the lakebed, next to the starboard quarter. Fixed to the wooden decking, the ships wheel still stands upright. As we fin along the starboard side of the hull, we examine the pulleys and deadeyes that line the railings.
I imagine the Arabias crew battling against the storm that sank her in the early hours of an October night in 1884, hands heaving against the wind on the ropes that line these same pulleys and deadeyes. Against the wheel the helmsman would have fought to hold the ships course, despite vast waves crashing over the side.
The captain eventually saw the futility of this battle against the elements and gave the order to abandon ship, shortly before the Arabia slipped under the surface to land upright on the lakebed.
Fulfilling all my childhood dreams, it is without doubt the most amazing wreck I have ever dived.
Our next dive is at Flowerpot Island, so named for its unusual above-water rock formations. The underwater scenery reminds me again of a British quarry, and all I can think about is getting back to the Arabia.
On the way back to the harbour Ray jokes about how diving it has spoilt me for any other experiences in the park - which, he says, is why he always leaves this wreck until the end of a diving trip.
Its a perfect early evening. The wind has dropped to nothing, leaving the lake mirror-calm. Ray takes us to one of the wrecks in Big Tub harbour, the Sweepstakes, a schooner that lies in only 6m. It was sunk here after a salvage operation in 1885.
Although most of its superstructure has been stripped away, the Sweepstakes remains one of the most important historic wrecks in the region. From the surface the water is so clear that we can see it in its entirety.
Despite being infected with the Arabia bug, we cant resist another dive. We find much of the wreck intact, including windlass, railings and the entrances to the cargo holds.
For anyone interested in the historical aspects of shipbuilding this wreck is perfect, as many of the points of interest have been marked and tagged.
The next day we revisit the Arabia, starting at the bow, as intact, including chains and ropes, as it was the day it went down. Finning around the deck, we find the collapsed masts and the entrance to the holds. With the depth, cold and lack of ambient light we decide not to descend into them, and fin back to the bow along rows of deadeyes.
Before heading back I spend a few moments stationary, just ahead of the bow. Its an eerie sight. My buddy is just a faint outline hanging beneath the jib boom. He joins me, and we head back to the mooring buoy. The Arabias bow slowly disappears back into mist.
GETTING THERE: Numerous airlines fly into Toronto from various UK airports. Avoid Canadian Airlines, which offers the worst service and standards of any transatlantic carrier Ive flown with (lost luggage, overselling seats, rude cabin crew etc). From Toronto you need a hire car. The drive to Tobermory takes four or five hours. All Canada Travel can arrange flights and hire car (01502 565690)..
Several dive operators in Tobermory cater for all levels. Bruce Peninsula Outfitters can arrange both diving and accommodation to suit individual needs, as well as outdoor adventure packages (519 596 2735 or e-mail: email@example.com). Ray Davies also has a larger live-aboard dive boat that he uses for week-long treks to dive some of the larger and deeper wrecks in Lake Huron. Contact him at Tobermory Adventure Tours (519 596 2289 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)..
This varies from small hotels and guest houses to self-catering cabins. You can book this as part of a diving package such as that offered by Bruce Peninsula Outfitters..
MONEY: So long as the Canadian dollar remains weak against the pound, everything in Canada seems remarkably cheap. The government also has a scheme whereby you can claim duty back on goods purchased or accommodation used..
FURTHER INFORMATION: Fathom Five National Marine Park (519 596 2233 or e-mail: parkscanada.pch.gc.ca)
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