Clandestine Artificial Reefs in Canada?

In recent years a new type of dive site has been popping up around the Greater Toronto Area. There are at least 7 such sites that have been made public in the past two years. From wrecks to unique underwater displays of collected items, GTA divers have more options than ever to dive without traveling.

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This should be great for the industry, local dive stores and charter businesses. The nature of these attractions however may be putting the brakes on what some may have planned to be a local diving boon.

These new dive sites are essentially someone else’s trash and while they may be vessels on the bottom of the lake, they are not in fact shipwrecks. On closer examination these vessels have unique features that set them apart from their historical counterparts. Many of them are modern, have no damage to their hulls, lack many of their fittings and some inexplicably have a secret cargo of cement bags.

DIS Wreck
Photo by Warren Lo

Various cities and organizations in the United States and Canada have sunk vessels to attract both divers and marine life. In salt water they are appropriately called “artificial reefs”. Not long after sinking they are teeming with corals, fish, divers and sport fishing enthusiasts. The reefing projects as they are known are accompanied by media attention, public and government involvement. The vessels themselves must go through rigorous and expensive decontamination and inspections to ensure minimal impact to the environment. The mountain of paperwork and fees that accompany such a project can sometimes stop a project before it has been started. 

Here in Canada fees in the thousands of dollars are needed just to apply for an assessment of your reefing idea. If your proposal gets turned down, your money is gone along with your dreams of creating an artificial reef. Local, provincial and federal agencies will be involved, public meetings held and the project can only move forward if everyone can agree. In British Columbia one group had all their ducks in a row until the nearby town decided that they didn’t want a shipwreck in their backyard. Applications and fees had to be refilled, a new site chosen and new studies commissioned. This illustrates just how hard it can be to get your project off the surface and on the lake bed.  It appears that as of late, individuals have expedited the process and begun sinking vessels on their own schedule, with no permits, applications or cleanup. Their motivation is unclear and so are the benefits. After all, in Lake Ontario there are no corals and after long enough under water the most you can hope to attract are zebra muscles and gobies, both are invasive species that don’t need encouragement to reproduce.   From a different point of view, these wrecks may not be very worthwhile as dive sites either. Most of these wrecks are relatively small and lack permanent buoys that more popular dive sites maintain. In comparison to enormous vessels sunk in Florida, British Columbia, Tobermory and elsewhere, these are 20-100 foot long boats, not even considered ships. Most have little to no historical value and cleanup of these vessels is not monitored or inspected by anyone. A few have had their power plants and fuel tanks removed, but a greater number do not. This means that oil, fuel and other chemicals may be leaking into our lakes for years to come. 

Oakville Rum Runner
Photo by Warren Lo

Even if these sites were of interest to local divers, it is not as if the individuals who arranged the transition from dry dock to lake bed will be taking out an advertisement in the local newspaper. The act itself and the exact location are kept secret, the reefers invariably fuming mad when they find out that the GPS co ordinates have been posted online. With the tight knit community, modern navigation and remote sensing equipment it is not long before they are found.  

These hulks on the bottom are unlikely to entice anyone to travel to the Toronto area specifically for diving. What may have started out as a well intentioned idea, just ends up littering one of our greatest natural resources. Efforts would be much better spent searching for the thousands of existing wrecks just waiting to be discovered. 

This author does not care much for secrecy when it comes to these covert wrecks and has begun using them for training, practicing skills associated with underwater archaeology, historical research, etc. So while not useless to everyone, the impact on the environment through, lack of controls and the impossibility of publicity to stimulate the local diving industry makes the proposition a losing one. 

Chris Phinney
Liquid Archaeology

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About Chris Phinney

An IWMS Systems Manager and part time student at McMaster University. Chris is studying anthropology, more specifically archaeology working towards his BA. Chris was formerly a dive shop manager and is factory trained in regulator and equipment service. Chris enjoys research and studying fine details.

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