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Picton club divers take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but bubbles

The City of Sheboygan shipwreck (Cheboygan) off Amherst Island photographed by Dan Lindsay, shared to the Save Ontario Shipwrecks Picton Facebook page.

By Sharon Harrison
Local shipwrecks, dating from the late 1700s, 1800s and even the 1900s are numerous in the waters surrounding Prince Edward County, and diver Corey Phillips says a lot can be learned from the maritime history here.

Phillips, mooring director with the organization Save Ontario Shipwrecks (Picton chapter), spoke to his hobby and passion, and the state of shipwrecks to more than two dozen people at Mariners Park Museum in South Bay Saturday afternoon.

The Great Lakes, and especially Lake Ontario, hold a trove of shipwrecks of varying conditions and depths, and a fair number of them are in waters off the County due to its precarious positioning, shallow shorelines, exposed shoals, and its sudden violent storms where weather can change on a dime on the lake.

Phillips shared information on multiple facets of the dive industry, how underwater heritage is being preserved, as well as do’s and don’ts and legalities of diving wrecks deep below the surface.

With well over 900 dives under his belt in Canada and the United States, along with a host of other diving-related experiences and accolades, Phillips comes with an impressive background – one he calls “a bit of a crazy journey” since Valentine’s Day 2002 when his wife, Holly (also in attendance), gifted him with getting open-water certification.

“I had a bit of a stressful job and I needed something for stress relief, and she said, ‘you’ve always talked about’… my wife comes up with the most amazing gifts”.

“Once I had in-water skills, I wanted to go places that hadn’t been explored in some time, usually long-forgotten shipwrecks, using a “shotline” as my only guide to the bottom.”

Twenty-two years on, with diving skills, knowledge and experience under his belt, he says much of the diving is now second nature and something he doesn’t have to worry about to the extent he once did when he first started, enabling him now to photograph and video dive sites.

In the interesting facts department, he said it is believed there are around 6,000 to 8,000 wrecks combined in all of the Great Lakes.

It is said there are up to 500 shipwrecks in Lake Ontario’s eastern basin, many off the County and most in the “Marysburgh Vortex” triangle from Wolfe Island, Oswego, New York, to Point Petre. It is named such due to a magnetic field that offsets compasses.

Among main wrecks divers visit in the County are the 95-foot Katie Eccles off Point Traverse, the Annie Falconer off Timber Island, the Olive Branch near False Duck Island and the Oliver Mowat off Main Duck Island.

While he does most of his diving in Lake Ontario, he has dove on Canada’s east and west coasts, as well as Florida. “If it is underwater, I will probably dive it,” he adds.

Dives can be from anywhere from five-feet in depth, to 250-feet deep, in Lake Ontario, and Phillips has been down as far as about 175-feet in a wreck south of Point Petre.

He said the water temperature can be anything from zero degrees Celsius, up to 21 degrees Celsius, and while the bottom doesn’t have much current, usually about one or two knots depending on location, he said you can be blown off-course that far underwater, something he has experienced first-hand.

Visibility underwater can be anything from five-feet, to 100-feet. “I like the 100-foot days, which usually come early in the season.”

Shipwreck diving is an expensive hobby, he notes, but worthy, because they enjoy it. He also teaches and mentors, but he particularly enjoys teaching students.

Diving is regulated both provincially and federally and typically divers are not allowed to touch or remove objects from shipwrecks without appropriate permits.

Phillips said there are three wrecks that cannot be dived because they are at depths beyond regular recreational diving depths, but also because they are war graves. Those include the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Hamilton and the Scourge (the latter two schooners both sank in 1813 in Lake Ontario, and were from the War of 1812; the Fitzgerald is more recent and sunk in 1975 in Lake Superior).

“Well Preserved” at The Katie Eccles Shipwreck, a 19th century schooner off Point Traverse – photo by Corey Phillips

There are a number of websites and resource tools accessible to the public, documenting local wrecks, with photographs and sometimes video too, including now three-dimensional images. He said while he can’t explore the 2,000 shipwrecks (as much as he would like to), these tools allow him to learn more about those wrecks he is unable to dive himself.

“Anything you find under water, you are supposed to report as well, so if you find something of significance you are supposed to notify the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Gaming.” Conservation reporting is also part of the diving experience, where he cites spotting of the American eel as one example.

He also spoke to what happens to wrecks over time, and the deterioration and corrosion they may face from the elements.

“We are really lucky in Ontario as we don’t have all the things that salt water brings, as you get on the east coast,” he said. “The idea is wrecks should be preserved. Your bubbles can do damage and there is wear and tear just by having people on these.

The Save Ontario Shipwrecks mantra is ‘Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles, and give our past a future.’

Phillips spoke to the diving community and how all the work they do, and the images and information collected, is shared on dive-specific websites.

“The whole point of what we are doing is we are trying to build community, and this last year we are starting to see it, and we are starting to get a little bit more competitive now, which is actually neat to see.“

He also explained how some wreck sites are being documented with updates being done every few years, with photographs, video and drawings, to see if and how much a wreck may be deteriorating.

“Some of these sites are a distance from shore, some are swimmable, some are not, some are scooterable (underwater scooter), and where it gets a little bit more dangerous, they put signs out saying it’s not safe for recreational diving.”

Every dive scenario is different. In one example of a wreck dive, he said they had permission to visually search and videotape, but did not have permission to touch anything.

“If you say I want to go out and find ‘this’, you cannot do that with sidescanner (an acoustic survey device used for underwater imaging) in Ontario without a licence. If I say, I want to go out and find an Avro Arrow model, I’d have to apply for a licence, which the government may or may not give me.”

He adds that if human remains are found, diving immediately ceases, and authorities are notified.

“Everything underwater is protected. There is an owner for everything under water.”

While much work and effort is being done currently to locate, document and preserve local shipwrecks, Phillips talked about those who came before him.

“I acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of legends in this area, and without these people who ran charters, who did the research, my job would be a whole lot harder standing here.”

While many shipwrecks have been visited, documented and known about for years, there are new wrecks being discovered all the time, and wrecks yet to be discovered.

However, Phillips notes the industry is in decline, as “the number of divers has diminished hugely over the years, exponentially.

“It’s unfortunate, but I think there are so many different reasons. One of the things is that you can now do all these extreme sports and things for relatively low money (skydiving, for example). I don’t think people have the money, and I don’t think some people have the attention span required for it.”

He said when he first started in 2002 there were probably 15 dive boat charters out of Kingston, and there are only three now.

Save Ontario Shipwrecks (SOS) is a not-for-profit Ontario organization focusing on the preservation and study of Ontario’s marine heritage, dedicated to the marine heritage conservation where they identify, evaluate and monitor marine heritage sites.

They are dedicated to stopping the destruction of marine heritage sites, where they conduct projects which contribute to the knowledge and understanding of Ontario’s maritime history and provide the diving community and the public with opportunities to learn and understand more about the value of the local marine heritage resource.

Dan Lindsay photo shared to Save Ontario Shipwrecks Picton Chapter Facebook

Find out more about Save Ontario Shipwrecks – Picton Chapter on its Facebook page,
and about wrecks off Prince Edward County at the Shotline Diving website

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