As readers of this fine publication[ DIVER Magazine] already know, Canada offers some of the best diving in the world, and the city of Brockville, Ontario tops the list as one of Canada’s hottest freshwater diving destinations. This St. Lawrence River community has shipwrecks, shore diving, good visibility in warm water and a growing underwater sculpture park - and it just recently opened state-of-the art Aquatarium (equal parts aquarium and shipwreck attraction – see below).
Brockville sits across the St. Lawrence River, from Morristown, in New York State, in an area known as the Thousand Island Region. Along a stretch of the River between Rockport and Brockville, there are more than a dozen wrecks to explore.
Helen Cooper has been operating Abucs scubA Charters and the Dive Brockville Adventure Centre for over 22 years. Although there is friendly competition amongst the city’s dive boats, Cooper has the largest and longest-running operation in the Thousand Island Region. She has four dive charter boats and Brockville’s only full service Dive Shop.
“The warm waters of the Upper St Lawrence River have always been a draw - averaging 72-75 degrees Fahrenheit [22-24°C] in the summer months, with no thermoclines and 40-50 foot [12-15m] visibility,” says Cooper, explaining why Brockville is getting international notice these days. “It really is the Canadian Caribbean here!”
“In addition to the balmy, clear waters, the world-class shipwrecks are a big drawing card - wooden schooners from the 1800s, still pretty much intact, last much longer in fresh water that is cold most of the year," she continues. “We have exciting drift dives, where you can find torpedo bottles and clay pipes on the River floor, in addition to seeing the many different fish. The recently developed Sculpture Park gives divers something new to explore, right from shore!"
Underwater sculpture park
The Canteen Memorial Sculpture Park is directly off-shore, from Brockville’s downtown Riverside Canteen Park and a block from Cooper’s shop. There are currently fifteen statues placed on the Riverbed, in two concentric rings. There are standing figures, benches and sturgeon placed at the cardinal points of the radius.
The sculptures were cast in concrete and sunk to the bottom, by members of Save Ontario Shipwrecks (SOS) and civic-minded volunteers. For the most part, the statues were made by students, in art classes from Thousand Islands Secondary School and Brockville Collegiate Institute, who worked from molds, created by artist/retired art teacher/diver Dave Sheridan and SOS member Tom Hatch.
The Park is a work in progress. In June of this year, a team of volunteers put ten life-sized works onto the bottom. There are now 25 pieces in the Park and additional sinkings are in the works.
“We are building a memorial underwater at Centeen Park,” says artist Dave Sheridan. “There is a grand plan to all of this. It is more than just a dive attraction. It is meant to honour the scuba divers who have died in the St Lawrence over the years. Because the Park is relatively shallow and just a quick swim from the shore, a lot of new Ontario, Quebec and New York State divers are making their first open water dives right here. It is accessible and it is also a reminder for all divers to play it safe, no one is immune to the dangers of the River.”
The dive community, working with the city, charges $10 for a season’s pass to the underwater Park, for shore dives. The money is being used by the city and SOS to maintain the Park and to pay for the commission of more sculptures.
Easy shore dives
In addition to the underwater Park, many of North American’s most-visited freshwater shore dive sites, are in the Brockville region. These sites are shallow shipwrecks, within snorkelling distance of the shore. Each weekend, hundreds of divers dive along River-hugging Highway 2, stopping at parks near the more popular wreck sites, where people can dive in safe, close-to-shore sites, for free! One such popular dive is the “Rothesay,” a wooden side-wheel passenger steamer that sank in 1889, 300 ft. (91m) from shore. Augusta Township, (west of Brockville) has built a park and change rooms for divers, off Highway 2, to make it easier to access the dive site.
Novices and photographers like the shore dives, but there are plenty of boat dives in the areas, and, “Brockville attracts tech divers as well,” says Cooper. “There are more challenging wrecks, like the “Jodrey,” which lies at 240 feet (73m), and the “JB King,” at 140 feet (42m). These are popular dives, because the shipwrecks are pretty well intact. There is an opportunity for penetration, into the shipwrecks, too.”
Novices, photographers, tech divers, free divers… everyone is coming to Brockville, and in big numbers. Tourist officials say that divers are coming from Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto, and from all over the USA – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and even California! and the numbers are growing.
It only makes sense that Dave Sheridan, diver, underwater sculptor and educational Programmer at Brockville, Ontario's Aquatarium, would use the word “anchor’ when talking about the new Riverside Shipwreck Museum and Aquarium, called the Aquatarium.
“This is the city’s anchor attraction – not just for divers, but for all tourists who have an interest in history, aquatic life and, of course, shipwrecks,” said Dave Sheridan. “The new Aquatarium has the look and feel of the Thousand Islands. Anyone who has taken an island tour will have seen the historic Boldt Castle, the Castle’s Yacht House is the architectural inspiration for what we have here.”
The $25-million, 27,000+ - sq.ft. (2500 sq m) attraction is a learning and discovery centre located on the waterfront in the heart of Brockville. There are fresh water fish-filled aquariums, underwater shipwreck exhibitions, interactive adventure and experiences that are meant to give visitors an appreciation of the unique history, culture and ecosystems of the 1000 Islands Region.
There is a lot to see inside the new waterfront attraction of note for divers.
A ‘fish eye view’ into the sunken “Keystorm” pilothouse, The “Keystorm” was a 258-foot (78m) cargo steamer, built in Britain in 1909. She stands submerged in the St Lawrence and is a popular diving destination. The “Keystorm” pilothouse has been carefully reconstructed inside the Aquatarium exposition.
There is a new working dive tank at the facility; inside are the replica remains of the St. Lawrence River shipwreck, the “Sir Robert Peel”, a Canadian steamboat that was seized and burned by real-life pirate Bill Johnson; visitors get into the exhibition, through a gaping hole in the bow of the “Sir Robert Peel” and explore the bowels of the pirated ship; inside, trained divers interact with guests, from the depths of the wreck tank.
The dive tank is fully equipped for dive certifications and other training, making it one of the most state-of-the-art dive attractions, in the 1000 Islands. Dive classes are scheduled to start later in the year. (For more information visit www.aquatarium.ca.)
By Steve Weir
Steve Weir is the Travel Editor of Diver Magazine. He also writes travel stories, cultural stories and housing stories for a number of daily newspapers in Canada. For thirty years he has researched, watched and written about the history of diving in the movies. In the pages of Diver Magazine and a variety of other publications, his articles have been titled Blood And Bubble movies. In fact, he has documented over 3,000 movies, dating back to the 19th century that show actors/actresses diving or snorkeling on film. Visit his website to see his videos, three separate Blogs and a photography section representing his work. firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in Diver Magazine, .. date to come.