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Tobermory, ON Through the Eyes of Rick Howard

Tobermory, Ontario, Canada
Fathom Five National Marine Park
Dive Trip Report – July 13th – 17th, 2015

When you google wreck diving in Canada, you get Parks Canada – Fathom Five National Marine Park – Diving, and along with that you get the Sweepstakes (the one you can see in Google Earth). The web site list a brief description and a few pictures of ghostly ship wrecks dotted around the tip of the Bruce Peninsula outside the harbour town of Tobermory. Preparing for the trip and watching the YouTube videos left me wondering if it would be as awesome as people say. In July of 2015 myself and a group of 19 divers from DiverCity Scuba found out!

 

On the flight home, daydreaming about the weeks diving, I have to admit we did some awesome dives. In total I visited 13 sites, visibility ranged from incredible to stupendous, depth ranged from ~150ft to ~20ft, bottom temperatures didn’t range that much though, a pretty constant 39degF, but the surface weather was great, mostly sunny and warm every day. We dove on some of the best preserved wooden ~150 year old schooners, steamers and barques I’ve ever seen. We also had the opportunity to dive on the Niagara II an 80 year old Steel dredge purpose sunk in 1999.

Amazing to think that one destination can offer so much!

Tobermory Scuba Diving

On Day One, the thing I didn’t expect when we sank below the surface on our first dive was the Caribbean visibility. Sunday evening around 6:30pm we decided to take advantage of the lake shore behind the Trails End Lodge and go for a swim. I was a little concerned that we didn’t have our big lights and it was getting late. No problem, 10 minutes into the dive we were at 100ft cruising along a nice wall with no lights enjoying the sights.

Day Two was the first of the two tank “walk on” diving with Divers Den aboard the Deep Obsession. The first dive was the Forest City a propeller steamer that  rammed Bears Rump Island in a heavy fog an sank on a steep incline in 1904 – length 216ft – depth 60-150ft. The wreck is in good shape with plenty to see including the boilers and the intact stern. A careful watch must be kept on your depth as it is very easy to get enthralled in the wreck follow the incline to the bottom.

The second dive was the Arabia, a three-masted barque and one of the best dives in the park. An advanced dive, for being deep and cold,  but worth the effort to visit. Coming down the line you begin to see the shape of the ship materialize. It takes a few fin kicks from the mooring block to finally get your first good look. The bow rises from the bottom and the ship appears to be sailing across the lake floor. The bow of the ship has the windlass and two anchors still in place. The stern has collapsed but the ships wheel and a plaque have been mounted on the starboard side.

The Arabia – Foundered off Echo Island in October, 1884 – Length 131ft – depth 110ft

After all the excitement of the Forest City and thethe entry point  and went a little deep (45ft) on our way out to the Alice and swam past her for about 20 minutes. We found her on the way back though, and in addition to being buzzed by the Wreck Specialty Class saw a couple of large fish. An hour and 20 minutes just cruising along, excellent way to end the day.

On Day Three all of us joined up with the group of divers doing their PADI Wreck Specialty Course with Divers Den and did a two tank dive on the Niagara II. The Niagara was built in 1930 in England as a tanker and was later used as a sandsucker. It was sunk as a dive site in 1999 and sits upright in 100ft of water, just outside the park.  Length: 182ft It is well prepared and has lots of swim throughs and places to explore.

Day Four was the first day of the boat charters arranged by DiverCity for the group. The weather in the morning was not cooperating so the decision was made to dive four of the close, sheltered wrecks.

It seem like all the dive briefings this day began with “It was a dark and stormy night…..” .

 

The Philo Scoville was the first, and the surface was crazy, once you got down a bit all was calm. The Scoville was caught in a storm one night in 1889 by Russel Island, she was 139ft long and rests on an incline from 30 to 90ft.

 

The W.L.Wetmore sank on a dark and stormy night… in 1901 she was 214ft long and rests on 20ft of water. The site is very interesting as the ship obviously sank up right and over time the sides have collapsed outward laying the whole ship out to be viewed. For the ship builders a good opportunity to see how ship of the era were made.

The James C King was next. It sank on the same dark and stormy night… as the Wetmore. It was being towed by the Wetmore and floundered in the same storm. She was 175ft long and rests on an incline from 20 to 90ft.  The weather had improved dramatically by this dive and we had stopped for lunch prior to. Being full, fat and happy this dive was very laid back and relaxing.

The Newago was the last of the days adventures and was a little disappointing. The ship was 196ft long and was sunk in 1903 on yet another dark and stormy night… She lays 25ft of water and is essentially flat with very few features left that have not been damaged by storms and ice. We went looking for some of the other pieces of the wreck that are widely scattered but did not find any.

The final day of diving was the second boat charter day and the weather was perfect. The decision was quickly made to go to the Arabia for a second dive on this site and then on to the San Jacinto and the City of Cleveland.

In June 1881, the San Jacinto struck a rock on Manitoba Ledge and sank She was 130ft long and rests at 85ft. I guess because of all the diving we had done and the incredible visibility this dive did not feel like 85 feet. More like the 20 and 30 foot dives we had been doing the day before. Either way it was a fascinating dive as this was another ship that had collapsed by laying open the sides flat on the bottom.

The final dive of the trip was the City of Cleveland, and although it was only 20ft deep it had the most to see. The ship was carrying iron ore  and was 255 ft long when it sank in 1901. The massive steam engine, boilers and 12′ propeller are must sees and a fair amount of time was spent there by everybody.

 

While I was impressed by the topography, the wrecks, the absence of rubbish and very little evidence of human degradation, I was stunned by the fact that there were no fish. Even on the shallow 20ft dives there was nothing. I think everyone on the trip saw one or two fish that was about it. Plenty of Zebra Mussels though.

 

The trip concluded with a quick drive by of flowerpot island.

 

The Diving Procedure

All dives from the Deep Obsession and the shore in and around Tobermory are completely at your own pace and plan. From the boat, the Captain would give a short but detailed briefing of the wreck and the dive site itself. Sights and hazards would be covered and then it was into the water with your dive team. No maximum times, no minimum pressures, just the clear instruction to be safe and have fun. The deck was spacious enough for 12 divers and their gear and the mid ship cabin could hold another 10. There was an platform at the rear with a solid ladder that allowed divers to exit with all their gear, (fins and all). The captain and crew were very helpful and friendly. It was all very easy.

 

The Trails End Lodge

The Trails End Lodge has a lot of history itself. Formerly known as the Tobermory Wireless Station, built in 1912 for the Canadian government’s Department of Naval Service, the station was operated by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company and provided weather reports and communications with ships navigating the reef strewn waters in the entrance to Georgian Bay. During World War One the station was under the protection of a detachment of soldiers whose job it was to prevent the enemy agents from sabotaging the radio equipment. There are 7 rooms that have a queen and double bed each and 2 that have queens. There is are two large outdoor decks back and front along with a screened in veranda in the back that covers the complete width of the lodge. Spent a lot of time there. The lodge has two large living rooms, a complete kitchen and a pantry with fridge. Staying here gets you the use of your room and the common areas but your on your own to cook your meals.

 

The Final Word

As with all diving holidays, some dives are better than others. We had some great dives and some so-so ones. However, when you consider the variety of experiences we crammed into 1 week, there can only be room for amazement that Tobermory has so much to offer. I came away from this trip with memories of brilliant dives on the Arabia (not everyone gets to this site even once during their holiday let alone twice) surrounded by old and new friends and the beautiful topography of Lake Huron and the Georgian Bay. The Forest City, Arabia and City of Cleveland will also linger long in my mind. However, the time spent over a few beers, telling stories in the lodge after the days diving will probably stay with me the longest.

 

Written by Rick Howard, July 2015