There’s something odd about the village of Tobermory. It’s about a four-hour drive north of Toronto, the last hour through typical Canadian bush: scrubby pines, heavy granite outcrops and sparse civilization. Nothing unusual there. Then you turn a final corner and, from out of the wilderness, you’re suddenly in a village that looks like a transplant from the New England coast. A tiny harbor filled with colorful boats abuts quaint shops lining the waterfront. Charming houses stack up on the hillside receding back from the docks. The only thing missing is a sign announcing your arrival in Bar Harbor or Mystic. Add to that topside charm some of the world’s clearest fresh water and it’s easy to understand the appeal of scuba diving in Tobermory.
The town bills itself as the “Diving Capital of Canada,” which is not unreasonable given the seemingly tropical visibility: 80 feet (24 meters) is not uncommon. Picturesque rock formation and dozens of pristine wrecks dating from the 1800s and early 1900s fill these waters. The area between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay is peppered with reefs and subject to sudden and radical weather shifts. In the age of sailing, that meant Tobermory was a virtual ship graveyard. The whole area is part of Fathom Five National Marine Park so you need a dive tag to explore the wrecks ($5/day, $20/season).
What’s perhaps most remarkable about scuba diving in Tobermory is the wrecks’ condition. If you’ve been diving on mostly saltwater wrecks, you know that they slowly rust away to nothing. When I surfaced from my first-ever wreck dive here, I asked the skipper when the boat sank, thinking he’d say 10 or 20 years. “She went down in the late 1800s,” he said. I was stunned. The hull was intact. I’d just gone inside for a swim and the structure looked sound. The secret to that longevity lies in the one drawback to diving Tobermory — it’s cold. So cold, in fact, that wood just doesn’t rot. Hearty divers might get away with a semi-dry wetsuit, but to be truly comfortable you’ll want a drysuit. Expect 40 to 45 F (4 to 7 C) at depth year-around.
The park features over 20 dive-able wrecks, but below is a sampling of a few Tobermory favorites.
The Forest City
Forest City is arguably the area’s most advanced dive, as the stern sits in 150 feet (46 m) of water. The steam-driven cargo ship Forest City hit the side of Bear’s Rump Island in 1904 during a dense fog and slid back as it sank. The wreck now lies on the side of a steep wall. You’ll normally descend to the stern (up to recreational dive limits, unless you have the proper certification) and then turn around and begin a slow ascent up the length of the wreck. You’ll often pass through at least two thermoclines, where the normally clear, blue water turns a deep hunter green. The wreck is in decent shape at the stern, but as you climb it becomes more and more broken up.
A 130-foot schooner, the Arabia is the jewel in the Tobermory crown. On October 5, 1884, it was hauling a load of corn between Chicago and Midland, Ontario. It began taking on water during a storm at the entrance of Georgian Bay and sank with no loss of life. Ironically (and tragically), 11 divers have died on this wreck since it was discovered in 1971.
This one is for advanced divers only. It’s deep at 110 feet (33 m) and there’s often a strong current. But if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, it’s an amazing dive. The bowsprit on the old ship looks eerily intact. Its anchor is still catted up tightly to the bow, and even the anchor chains are still draped casually around its winches and across the deck. Many of the railings are still in good shape for a ship that’s over 120 years old. Parts of the wreck are covered with a beard of fine, shaggy weed. The look suits the wreck, which seems like some old, dignified mariner who’s earned every wrinkle.
The Niagara II
This old lake freighter was cleaned up and intentionally sunk in 1999. The bridge of the 182-foot (55 m) wreck sits at about 60 feet (18 m), but if you get down and dig a hole in the sand you might hit 90 feet (27 m) at its keel. Start at the bow and swim toward the stern. This involves ducking down into the hold, a massive area with lots of escape holes cut for exits. Come up just underneath the bridge and swim up to the wheelhouse to warm up a little — the thermocline often cooperates with a 5-degree jump in the water temperature on the top deck. After exploring the wheelhouse, take time to swim to the smokestack and then descend into the engine room. Finally, explore the crew quarters until it’s time to surface.
The Caroline Rose
A 131-foot (40 m) schooner built in the 1940s, the Caroline Rose is in only about 50 feet (15 m) of water, which makes it popular with relatively inexperienced divers. A group of divers towed the boat to its present location and sank it as an artificial reef in the 1990s. And although winter storms have busted it up a little, this is still a worthwhile dive. The old wooden hull is split open and lying flat on the bottom, but there’s a lot of detail still to see. Parts of the railings are still intact and some of the machinery — winches and pieces of the engine — is scattered around. Even the propeller is still attached.
Divers can sort through the smorgasbord of artifacts spread out on the cement mooring at the bottom of the descent line, but the items are only for looking, so don’t get any ideas about souvenirs.
The Sweepstakes offers one of the shallowest dives in the park and a beautiful example of how well preserved these ships are. The Sweepstakes, a schooner built in 1867, was damaged during a storm in 1885 a few miles from Tobermory. Hoping to save the ship, the crew towed it to Big Tub Harbor, but it sank anyway in the bay’s shallow water. The Sweepstakes sits in only about 30 feet (9 m), but the hull and many of the deck features are beautifully preserved. Take note especially of the windless on the foredeck that almost looks as if its in working condition.
Being so shallow, you’ll have lots of bottom time to explore the 119-foot wreck. Enter the forward and rear holds of the ship and have a look around. Wire mesh restricts free swimming around the hold to help keep the wreck in good shape. Photographers take note: the shallow depth and clear visibility make for excellent shooting opportunities. The water is usually much warmer here than elsewhere in the park as well. If you’ve got time, swim over to the adjacent wreck, the City of Grand Rapids, for a look around.
This great shore dive is perfect for an afternoon dive after a morning on the charter boats. Scattered around the mouth of Little Tub Harbor lie the wrecks of four small steam tugs. Per , they are the Alice G, the Robert K, the John & Alex and one unidentified wreck. You can park right beside the entry point, and there’s a nice wooden deck with stairs leading into the water for easy access. The water is always clear, mostly warm compared to the rest of the park and the depth is only about 50 feet maximum (12 m). There’s a nice wall to explore between the two wrecks and you may even encounter the odd school of young trout. Take the time to look around the reeds in the shallower part of this dive for smaller bits of wreck debris scattered away from the main wrecks.
Big Tub Lighthouse Point
Big Tub Lighthouse Point is another interesting shore dive at the mouth of Big Tug Bay. It’s not a wreck dive, but there are some wonderful rock formations and undercuts, creating an atmosphere that’s almost cave-like on this wall dive. The depth is manageable at about 60 feet maximum (18 m), and there is fairly easy shore access. When you get to depth, turn left and head out around the point. There are some truly impressive boulders scattered around the bottom. Look for the abundant crayfish that live in among the rocks.