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Archaeology in National Marine Conservation Areas of Canada

Fathom Five National Marine Park of Canada: A World-Famous Shipwreck Diving Destination

A forerunner of the National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) System, Fathom Five National Marine Park is a world-famous diving destination due to the large number of historic shipwrecks preserved in the clear freshwaters off Tobermory, Ontario. At least 27 historic shipwrecks are located within the park boundaries, which is situated at the northern end of the Bruce Peninsula separating Georgian Bay from Lake Huron. Because of the numerous rocky islands and shallow reefs, combined with frequent fog and violent storms, navigation has always been dangerous in this area.

Originally, the Government of Ontario established a provincial marine park at Tobermory in 1972 in order to protect the significant shipwrecks in the area. The operation of the park was transferred to the federal government in 1987, and Fathom Five became Canada’s first national marine park. It is now included within the NMCA System, the goal of which is to protect and conserve representative examples of Canada’s natural and cultural marine heritage and to provide opportunities for public education and enjoyment.

The engine bed and remains of the lower portion of the steam engine on the W.L. Wetmore The engine bed and remains of the lower portion of the steam engine on the W.L. Wetmore
© Parks Canada

The wrecks in Fathom Five represent the most common types of commercial vessels that would have plied the waters of the Great Lakes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They include sailing schooners, fishing vessels, steamers and tugs, and various smaller craft. The vessels were employed to transport lumber and grain, for commercial fishing, or to carry passengers and freight to small communities around the lake.




Divers at the bow of the Sweepstakes Divers at the bow of the Sweepstakes.
© Parks Canada / Denis Pagé

Even non-divers can enjoy viewing these sites, thanks to the glass-bottom boat tours that pass over the wreck Sweepstakes, which lies in shallow, clear water. The Sweepstakes, a two-masted wooden schooner, was launched in 1867. The vessel struck a rock off Cove Island on the evening of August 23, 1885. The crew managed to make their way safely to the nearby lighthouse. Sweepstakes was salvaged a week later, and towed to Big Tub Harbour for repairs. However, the vessel was too badly damaged and could not be saved, so all of the valuable equipment and rigging was stripped and Sweepstakes was abandoned in the location where it rests today.

Note that a number of archaeological sites are also located on the islands within the park boundaries.


Fathom Five National Marine Park 

Diving in Fathom Five National Marine Park 

Visitor’s Centre for Fathom Five National Marine Park 


R. James Ringer and Patrick Folkes, A Marine Archaeological Survey of Fathom Five National
Marine Park
. National Historic Sites and Parks Branch, Environment Canada/Parks Service