Ontario Diving Stories
These stories are a collection of articles that have been written by Canadian Diver involving diving in my adopted province. The Great Lakes are, I believe, one of the great undiscovered diving treasures of the world. They’re all about wrecks, often in pristine condition. The diving is challenging--cold and dark--but just as rewarding as diving in the tropics on a coral reef once you’ve mastered a few skills.
“Tobermory Under Ice”
Diver Magazine, Fall 2015
A unique image is a rare occurrence. These days, if I see one at all, its usually associated with world’s I’ve never experienced—deep space, unexplored regions of the oceans, sometimes the discovery of a new species. Certainly I was not expecting a startling new image to come out of Tobermory, Ontario. Billing itself as the dive capitol of Canada, Tobermory is for Ontario divers what peanut butter and jam is for school lunches—a comforting old standby that still has the capacity to please. But last winter my perceptions were turned upside-down. That began when someone began to post photos in a Facebook dive group called Canadian Diver. The images grabbed my attention immediately, Tobermory like I’d never seen it before. As the winter passed, more images appeared, each more startling and beautiful than the last. I set out to find out more about the man and the pictures.
(Picture Courtesy of Jerzy Kowalczuk)
What I found was quite remarkable. The man behind the pictures is Jerzy Kowalczuk. He came to Canada 22 years ago from Poland (via an 8 year stop in South Africa) and what’s really astonishing, is that he only started shooting pictures seriously in the last few years. Clearly his progress has been nothing short of spectacular. He got the idea for his ice diving series in April of 2014 when he got a call from is friend Zsolt Vincze. Vincze lives and works in Tobermory. He asked Jerzy if he was interested in coming up and doing a little winter diving. That got Jerzy’s creative juices flowing: “I started wondering what the light would be like passing through the ice,” says Jerzy. He decided to go up one weekend and see. So he recruited dive buddy Steve Kim and the two headed up one to take some photos.
Now April may not sound like much of a challenge for some divers in Canada, but you have to remember that last two winters in Ontario have been brutally cold—featuring record cold snaps. You also have to remember that Tobermory is in northern Ontario. I’ve dived the area in mid-May when the water was hovering at just above zero. Under those conditions my max bottom time was about 25 minutes and I surfaced with a blinding headache, burning hands and a determination to never get in the water that early again.
Undeterred by the cold this group set out to begin what would become a two-year project that would involve six trips and a lot of very cold diving. Vincze was the advance man. Jerzy explains, “Zsolt lives in Tobermory and runs a business there. He was our scout to see if conditions were perfect for our shots.” Perfect, meant shifting ice that would allow the group to get maximum light under the ice. They began by identifying the perfect spots for their dives. This wasn’t going to be typical ice diving with a hole cut in a solid sheet of ice, a tender and lines connecting all divers to the surface. “This was more like diving among ice floes,” says Jerzy, “We had to find a protected area where the wind would not blow the ice in and seal off our entrance.” They identified two potential dive sites: The Lighthouse, an entry point on the north side of Big Tug Harbour; and The Tugs, another shore dive located on the east shore of Little Tug Harbour. They recruited a surfaced tender and treated the whole dive as if it were a cave dive, running a continuous line from their entry point to where they went to work. Jerzy noted that the system worked well but that he kept a very close eye on the surface, “if something moved, I signaled my group and we moved closer to the entrance.”
Their luck didn’t always hold. Kim says “The last time we went the ice blew in and covered our exit point.” The divers kicked their contingency plan into gear and moved towards a backup exit point. “We knew the area so well, we found another exit point. Tobermory is like diving in my living room I’ve been there so much,” says Kim.
Aside from the ice, they also had to deal with the bitter cold. Their longest dive was 62 minutes. “At the end of that dive, my fingers were so cold,” Jerzy noted, “I couldn’t feel it when I pushed the shutter.” Kim says the cold didn’t bother him. A former South Korean Navy saturation diver, he says that he grew so used to the cold that it doesn’t even register anymore.
But at the end of the day, the results of enduring the challenges speak for themselves. “It was the beauty of the light passing through the ice that drew me in,” Jerzy notes. He says he didn’t machine gun shoot the subject, rather he watched and waited for the right shots to come along. “I watch the surface. I’m looking for the light and the ice composition.” Initially it took a little experimentation to see what worked. “I try to get shots from deeper areas to get my divers in silhouette, then I set up my strobes for maximum light to get the divers faces.”
His favorite dive site—the wreck of the Alice G. Jerzy says in his opinion that’s the most photogenic background that the team worked in. His biggest worry—there may be no chance to do this in the foreseeable future. “The last two winters have been exceptionally cold, we may not get this chance for some time.”
There’s something surreal about the village of Tobermory. It’s about four hours drive from Toronto. The last hour through typical Canadian bush: scrubby pines, heavy granite outcrops and sparse civilization, nothing strange there. Then you turn a corner and from out of the wilderness, suddenly find yourself in what looks like a fishing village transplanted from the coast of New England. A tiny harbor filled with fishing boats. Quaint little stores lining the waterfront and charming houses stacked up on the hill receding back from the docks. The only thing missing is a sign telling you you’re in “Bar Harbor” or “Mystic.” The first time I pulled into Tobermory if someone had told me I’d just popped through some space time continuum from Ontario to Maine, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. And here’s the real draw. Added to that charm is some of the best freshwater diving I’ve ever experienced. The town likes to call itself the “Diving Capitol of Canada.” Think tropical visibility—80 feet is not uncommon, think rock formations and swim-throughs. Think wrecks that may challenge you’re preconceptions of what’s possible. Six years ago when I surfaced from my first wreck dive I asked the skipper when the boat sank. I thought he’d say 10 or twenty years. “She went down in the late 1800s.” I was stunned. The hull was intact. I’d just gone inside for a swim around and the structure looked sound. The secret to that longevity lies in the one drawback to diving Tobermory. It’s cold. Very Cold. So cold that wood just doesn’t rot. Regardless, I come back here as often as I can. This year, within minutes of pulling into town I had my gear on board “The Deep Obsession” and we were gently chugging out of the harbor.
“Scuba Diving Magazine”
Our first dive is an artificial reef, The Niagara II. She’s an old lake freighter that was cleaned up and intentionally sunk in 1999. The Niagara II is 182 feet long. Her bridge sits at about 60 feet and if you really get down and dig a hole in the sand you could probably hit 90 feet at her keel. We get to the marker buoy and my buddy, Jeff Shirk, and I are already geared up and ready to go. We sink down the descent line. Almost immediately we can make her out sitting on the bottom. We swim to the bridge and play the usual cornball games—I stand behind the wheel and pretend to steer the ship and check the radar screen. We flick around the side of the superstructure and visit the toilets in the living areas. We check to see if the table is still set in the crew mess hall (it is.) And finally, we work our way up to the top of the smokestack. to turn on our lights and drop down the smoke stack. It’s about fifteen feet in diameter and at the end of the descent there’s a convenient hole cut into the side. You emerge into the engine room. where a large door welded open actually lets you see the outside. It’s not really wreck penetration; there are escape holes cut within easy reach of most of the interior. You can also swim the length of the hold, but this time our air is getting low and we’re forced to head for the surface.
Wreck number two is the schooner, Caroline Rose. She’s in shallow water—about 50 feet—so this one is popular with relatively inexperienced divers. And although winter storms have busted her up a little, it’s still a worthwhile dive. The hull is split open and laying flat on the bottom, but there’s a lot of detail still to see. Parts of the railings are still intact, some of the machinery—winches, parts of the engine—is still scattered around. Even the propeller is still attached. And it’s quite permissible to sort through the smorgasbord of artifacts spread out on the cement mooring at the bottom of the descent line. A shallow dive, I’m usually driven to the surface by the cold long before I get low on air and this time is no exception. Still, I’m content--content because Tobermory offers a range of hedonistic delights to fill your surface intervals. I’m talking about butter tarts and fish and chips. Now you may not find much haute cuisine in this village, but the basics are to die for. Start with a massive pile of crisply battered whitefish fresh from the lake and buried in a mound of home cut fries. If that heart stopper isn’t enough, end with a quick trip to the town bakery for a flaky gooey butter tart the size of your hand. And here’s the beauty of it all. Because you’re diving all day in cold water you can pretty much justify eating anything. At least that’s what I tell myself.
On day two we’re diving two of the deepest wrecks in the area: the Forest City and the Arabia. The tone on the boat is different. When we arrive at the Forest City the dive briefing is intense and instructions are precise. That’s because the stern sits in 150 feet of water. The skipper warns us several times: no one will stay long enough to go into decompression. The Forest City hit the side of Bear’s Rump Island in 1904. She slid back as she sank and lies on the side of a steep wall. The normal dive profile is to descend to the stern and then immediately turn around and begin a slow ascent up the length of the wreck. My buddy today, Ken McPherson, and I follow the dive plan to the letter. We pass through at least two thermo clines and the normally clear blue water turns a deep hunter green color. We hit the stern railing and I glance at my computer—133 feet, seven minutes bottom time. We start back up. The wreck is in pretty good shape at the stern but as you climb it slowly gets more and more busted up. It makes sense: the Forest City hit the island bow first. Our second dive is the Arabia—often called the jewel in the Tobermory crown. She sank in 1884 with no loss of life. Ironically, since found in 1971, 11 have died on this wreck . That’s nearly as many claimed by the Andria Doria. This dive is for advanced divers only. It’s deep (110 feet), cold and there’s often a strong current. But today it’s clear and sunny with no current running. As we hit the bottom of the descent rope the bow sprit appears before us looking eerily intact. Her anchor is still catted up tightly to the bow. Even her anchor chains are still draped casually around her winches and across her deck. I hang over the front deck looking appreciatively down the length of the ship. The Arabia is covered with a beard of fine shaggy weed. But it suits her. She looks like some old and dignified mariner who’s earned the right to look a little weather beaten. I check my computer. We have enough time to do one circuit of the wreck and then we’re forced to head for the surface. I feel a little cheated. I’ve barely started to absorb and appreciate this wreck and the dive is over. As we head back towards the harbor I take a little comfort in knowing that I’ll be back again next year and that these wrecks will still be here for me to explore—protected by the cold water and the marine park they rest in. I take even more comfort in knowing that, after six years of diving here, I only know three or four of the wrecks very well. There’s more than a dozen in total--so there’s still lots of great diving ahead. And never forget, Tobermory offers more than wrecks, more than diving. It offers a hedonistic pleasure that can be summed up in one phrase: butter tarts.