A dive into the harbour’s history

Approximately 50 shipwrecks in the Kingston area are diving sites, a hint at the city’s naval past

Guenter's Wreck is thought to be the remains of HMS Montreal.
Guenter's Wreck is thought to be the remains of HMS Montreal.
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Photo: 

The waters of Lake Ontario have a history of crime.

For decades, looters dove into the wrecks along the coast of Kingston in the hopes of finding sunken treasures preserved by fresh water.

“In those days, people were less informed,” said Mike Hill, president of Preserve Our Wrecks (POW), a group formed in 1981 in response to a looting incident in the Kingston Harbour.

Although the culture of looting sunken ships in the Lake Ontario region dates back over 50 years, it was only when the schooner barge Aloha had its winch stolen that the group was created to protect and promote awareness regarding Kingston’s marine history.

Just six miles west of Kingston, the Munson, a dredge sunk in 1890, was suspected of having the brass number plate from the generator stolen by a group of divers in 1999.

That same year, MPP Toby Barrett introduced the Ontario Marine Heritage Act as a way to protect the shipwrecks of Lake Ontario. The bill looked to enforce large financial penalties for those damaging or looting shipwrecks. It never became a law, although parts were adapted into the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005. There are now fines of up to $1 million in place for anyone found removing artifacts from wrecks.

Since then, other measures have been taken to promote a “look, don’t touch policy” when exploring sunken ships.

“Looting is a serious problem … when people move or remove an object, it changes the whole perspective and understanding of the past,” Hill said.

Today, Kingston has an established diving industry. Divers explore Kingston wrecks by leaving from shore or travelling on charter boats throughout the year, Hill said. Ice can be problematic for those visiting more offshore wrecks. Exposure during the cold weather limits divers to 40 minutes in the water.

There are between 50 and 60 shipwrecks in the area that divers visit regularly.

According to Hill, approximately 30 to 35 per cent of these wrecks were sunk unintentionally often due to boiler explosions and fires. Other ships met their demise after falling out of service and into disrepair and were sunk purposely.

“They had to be disposed of. They were taken out to what was called ship graveyards,” he said.

The three known 1812 wrecks in the Kingston area — HMS St. Lawrence, HMS Princess Charlotte and HMS Prince Regent. They were built in the 19th and 20th centuries — a time of economic prosperity for Kingston because of its maritime location.

“It’s a waterfront community and it always has been. It connected to the English waterways,” Hill said. “Also, it was a focus for commercial activity.”

Guenter’s Wreck is shrouded in mystery due to its unclear identity. It’s named after diver and discoverer Guenter Wernthaler; some believe it’s the remains of HMS Montreal, the flagship of the War of 1812.

Located to the west of Cedar Island, Guenter’s Wreck fits all of the specifications of vessels during the war, as well as matching the measurements and dimensions of HMS Montreal.

Some wrecks, like the warship HMS St. Lawrence, are located near campus, offshore in shallow waters near the would-be site of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.

It was decommissioned in 1815 and was sunk during the 19th century after being used for storage by Morton’s Brewery. Only the timbers from the bottom of the main body remain after years of deterioration in the water.

HMS St. Lawrence is amongst some of the wrecks visited by dive groups facilitated by POW. Hill said that by studying the wrecks it’s possible to determine which ships were warships, schooners or other vessels.

“If you stand at Portsmouth Harbour by the coast guard station and you look out, you’re only 15 feet from a wreck,” Hill said. “There’s an awful lot that lies beneath the surface that many people don’t imagine.”

George Bevan is bringing what lies underneath Kingston’s water to the surface.

Bevan, a professor in the classics department, has spent the last year and a half developing 3-D models of shipwrecks, many of which lie in the depths of Lake Ontario just offshore from Kingston.

“As far as we know, we’re the first group to do this,” he said. “Definitely in Canada, probably in the world.”

Bevan and a graduate student use special software that weaves hundreds of underwater images to create a 3-D model of each wreck. The project was started in partnership with POW and Parks Canada.

Bevan said Kingston is a prime location for this type of innovation due to its rich naval history.

This year, he’s concentrating on the modeling of some of the 1812 wrecks — timely because 2012 marks the bicentennial of the war.

Right now, the team is working on modeling five wrecks.

Making the models is an extensive process. Hundreds of overlapping photos are taken at the wreck and are uploaded to the software, which he purchased for $17,000 after seeing a similar technique used in stopping the BP oil spill in 2010.

“It works like our human stereovision except a computer can do it in much greater detail,” he said. “Our accuracy [in measurement] is under a centimetre certainly. It’s definitely as good or better than what a diver could do with a tape measure.”

Measurements are based off the length from the bow to the stern, called the bow-to-stern baseline.

With a click of the mouse, the user is able to rotate the image to see all sides of the wreck.

Each model takes months because the complex calculations can take up to a day to process, Bevan said.

Bevan said people are confused as to why he would take on a project like this.

“People think: 1812 shipwrecks, what do they have to do with classics?” he said.

Bevan would like to see the opportunity for classics students to receive Queen’s credits in nautical archeology courses from the courses already offered by POW.

“Queen’s seems really well situated for this kind of thing,” he said. “[Kingston is] historically quite a strong place in underwater archaeology in the world.”

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