Permit Peril

A Look at Unraveling the Arguments Against Marine Archaeological Permits in Ontario

 As a Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) Senior Tutor for Save Ontario Shipwrecks and the co-founder of an avocational archaeology group, Liquid Archaeology, I am often challenged by well meaning divers with ethical dilemmas surrounding underwater search and survey work. There are two hot button questions that I’d like to address in order to educate divers, dispel some rumors and hopefully guide passionate wreck divers into compliance with our provincial heritage act. Please keep in mind that many of the opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect an official position of the Ministry (Culture, Tourism and Sport), SOS or the NAS.

Lets get started;

1.     Why do I need a permit to simplylookfor a shipwreck?

Especially in my role as the Sr. NAS Tutor and a Director with SOS, divers love to tell me about the work they are undertaking in searching for our lost marine heritage sites. Nine times out of ten when it comes to the question of permits, divers shut down or get their backs up. Now it is easy for me to say that the Ontario Heritage Act prohibits the active searching for sites without a permit and leave it there. But for most folks, this isn’t good enough. They want to know why.

Let us draw some parallels on land first, just from a rights aspect. Consider a scientist/researcher studying a particular woodland animal and searching for its nesting location utilizing high tech equipment. Most reasonable individuals would agree that before said scientist was going to traipse across your personal property, poking into nooks and crannies, carting loads of scientific equipment, they should ask permission. Equally, if that scientist was going to be cavorting around on government lands, they would, out of due diligence, ask the managing agency for permission as well (seeing as scientists are generally a polite bunch).

Now, there is some misconception out there when it comes to public resources. Just because you are a citizen and pay taxes does not entitle you to run amok on public lands or resources. Just as you wouldn’t set your tent up on the lawn of city hall, you are no more entitled to do whatever you wish underwater either. As a public resource must be shared by all of us and belongs to all of us.

In the case of lakes and waterways in Ontario; the ‘land’ (lake / river bed, etc) is owned by the Province and managed by several ministries. When it comes to submerged cultural remains, these fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport.

Many of my fellow divers however will remain unconvinced. Their next line of argument inevitably turns to; If you are just looking, what can that hurt? I still shouldnt need a license’. Well, define looking. Wasn’t Jacques Cousteau just ‘looking’ at the 1812 vessel Hamilton when he amputated its mast? Even when it comes to sidescan sonar, wrecks can be damaged by accident.

 But archaeological licensing isn’t just about preventing damage to sites. If you are going to be scanning the lakebed; through the permitting process you can find out if other researches have already scanned the area, or even planning to do the same project, saving precious time and fuel. Adding your data to the archive also helps the Province manage this resource. If everyone was just scanning away, the amount of redundant, overlapping work without feedback to managing bodies would be an incredible waste of resources for everyone.

Under the Heritage Act you are required to report any site located; be it the site you were looking for or anything else you happen upon. With no permit, the likelihood of voluntary site reporting is extremely low. As part of the permit; the sites and your data are part of your report back at the conclusion of your project.

What about confidentiality? If I report a site, everyone will know and I wont get a chance to survey it, or worse, it will be looted!

Let’s be clear, just because you report a site, the government of Ontario doesn’t hold a press conference and tell the world. Even the Freedom of Information Act won’t give the casual inquirer the coordinates to your site. Members of the public would have to apply for the records and be specific about what they are asking for. Even if they did so, there is quite a bit of discretion allowed based on the significance of your find. I would theorize that unless you locate a site and brag in public about it and rub it in people’s faces that it is a secret; you have very little to risk by reporting a site to the Ministry.

As far as searching for wrecks, I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument against licensing. Keep reading and I will outline just how painless the licensing and reporting process is.

First I’d like to run through another scenario that I encounter from some passionate divers who want to know more about previously located wrecks or wish to capture detailed records of their find, both of which are worthy undertakings and should be encouraged.

2.     Why do I need a permit to survey, film or photograph a wreck?

 When it comes to professional grade field work on our sites, rarely will anyone argue that those circumstances warrant a license. After all, large complex projects are costly, involve equipment and protocols that will be invasive and risk damage to a site. Archaeological field work, especially when excavation or disturbance is involved, cannot be undone.

If you are a recreational diver who dives of a wreck with your friends and take photos of your fellow divers and interesting components of a wreck, there is really no need to file for a permit. The legislation does not cover that kind of activity. This happens almost daily, year round. I am sure that the Ministry is not equipped to process or manage all of the ‘data’ that would be coming at them, even on a voluntary basis.

What you do need a license for is focused, directed and comprehensive efforts to collect data (including video and photos) of a site. So if you are aiming to do a photo mosaic, an archaeological survey, an artistic rendering, or documentary on a wreck or site; you are required under the Heritage Act to get a license.

Now, most of these activities pose little to no risk to the site depending on their scope. For example; photos and videos by divers do not even require touching the wreck. A typical pre-disturbance survey such as the ones taught in the NAS Part 1 program also has close to zero site impact.

So why do I need a permit if I am nothurtingthe site?

This really goes back to managing the resource. There have been approximately 4700 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes in recorded history. To quote SOS Vice President, Krissy Nickle; “Ontario has significant marine heritage resources. One sixth of our province is covered by lakes and rivers, most of which have, at some point, been conduits of travel, trade and settlement. The cold, fresh water in Ontario’s lakes and rivers make them an ideal environment for archaeological preservation: staggering examples of preservation on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world”.

It is simply not economically viable for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport to properly catalogue, survey and record all of the possible sites. They simply don’t have the budget or resources. While many divers would argue that our maritime heritage is among the finest preserved in the world and a priceless resource, the majority of the public wouldn’t appreciate the budget required to properly manage it.

As part of the Ministry’s management plan, they rely extensively on avocational groups like SOS, Preserve Our Wrecks, Liquid Archaeology and other enthusiastic non professionals to provide data on the current and changing status of sites.

One of the ways they promote initiative is by the funding Provincial Heritage Organizations like SOS. Save Ontario Shipwrecks is a great way to give back to the diving community and pursue your passion at the same time. SOS has hundreds of members who care deeply about marine heritage, many of whom are competent, experienced field workers. Chapters have resources including tools, equipment and finances. In addition the SOS Board of Directors manages the Heritage Fund, which can be applied to by any  members of SOS for additional project funding and support.

When your project is complete, the data, surveys, photos and videos are used by the Province to monitor known sites through comparative study, and catalogue new discoveries as discussed above in the section on searching.

So what if I still don’t want to get a license?

Some folks just won’t buy the arguments I make in this article and that is ok by me. In the end I can’t make anyone do anything. Just know that violations of the Ontario Heritage Act can come with fines of $50,000.00 or more as well as a jail term. Not only do I want what is best for the wrecks, but I wouldn’t want anyone I know to be a test case for prosecution under the Act. Nothing I am going to find and no amount of accolades for being an ‘explorer’ or being ‘first’ are worth that kind of hardship.

In the end, the whole permitting process, be it for searching, surveying or documenting is about four things;

Ensuring that the province is aware of what archaeological field work is being conducted.

  1. That the field workers, project managers and other volunteers are suitably trained and qualified for the type of project being undertaken.
  2. The extent of the resource is known for future management planning.
  3. Data used to determine the state of the resource through comparative analysis is centralized and accessible to the Ministry staff charged with making recommendations on future management.

Oh, and did I mention that the whole licensing thing is easy? Read on.

How arduous is the licensing and reporting process?

When it comes to the licensing process, I’ve heard many stories about how complicated and difficult it can be. While the main application is primarily land based and available from the Ministry in a paper only format, once you have filled out one, it is extremely easy to do another.

 Once granted a license, you carry out your field work as specified in your application. At the end of the season, in the winter months, you gather your field notes, reports, sketches, images, video, etc and prepare a written report. The report does not need to be lengthy, just a description of what you and your team accomplished and a copy of your raw data. There are sample reports available on for anyone who needs a hand getting started.

In order to assist my fellow avocational archaeology enthusiasts I am releasing a copy of the permit application which has been made ready to be filled electronically. Please be aware that if you do not have the full version of Adobe Acrobat, you cannot save the contents. It is advisable that you keep the bulk text in a word-processing document until you are ready to print for filing. I have also supplied you with a sample application from a 2011 Liquid Archaeology project. Using these tools it should be very easy to prepare an application for your own project.

I hope after reading this article, the Province’s motivation for requiring an archaeological license is much clearer and you are now equipped to succeed with your own project. If in doubt, there are plenty of resources available. Consider joining a local chapter of Save Ontario Shipwrecks where you gain access to training, experienced peers and the world class NAS Foreshore and Underwater Archaeology educational program.

Best of luck in your diving adventures!


A Marine Archaeological Site:
An archaeological site that is fully or partially submerged or that lies below or partially below the high-water mark of any body of water. (Ontario Heritage Act Regulation 170/04)

Marine Archaeological Site Types

–        Shipwrecks
–        Submerged landscapes
–        Settlement sites
–        Ports & harbours
–        Fish traps
–        Coastal landscapes
–        Aircraft

An object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest

Tips for License Applications

The main areas to prepare for on the application are as follows;

  • Who will be the license holder? Usually the project coordinator.
  • Purpose for the license request
    • Reason for Project
    • Research Objective
    • Plan to Achieve Objectives
    • Outline of Current Knowledge
    • Where? Either the location of the site to be surveyed or your planned search area including the depth and bottom composition if known.
    • Qualifications of senior project personnel
    • Estimated Project Schedule and Budget
    • Diving / Archaeological CV for each participant in the project (can be updated if additional resources are recruited). The ministry likes to see relevant experience or at the minimum some basic underwater archaeology training such as the NAS Part 1 program available through SOS.

In the opinion of the author, proceeding into a project without the above items already determined is asking for issues. Therefore this data should be easy to pull together for a license application.