Coolest School Trip Spotlight: Fathom Five National Marine Park

We hope you’re all excited about Canada’s Coolest School Trip – we certainly are! Whether you’ve already begun working on your video or are just getting started thinking about a topic, we’re here to help you out. This week in our featured park series, get ready for an underwater adventure – grab your snorkels and flippers and get ready to take the plunge as we head to Southern Ontario to Canada’s very first national marine conservation area, Fathom Five National Marine Park!

Fathom Five National Marine Park

Imagine that you are the captain of a shipping vessel, navigating your way around the Bruce Peninsula and into Georgian Bay. Piece of cake, right? You’ve got all the navigational charts you need to tell you how deep the water is, a top-of-the-line navigational system to tell you exactly where you are at all times, and lighthouses to help direct you away from land in case you lose your way at night. Now imagine yourself in the same situation, but one hundred and fifty years in the past – you have no GPS to guide you, a few navigational charts but no complete survey of the area and no lighthouses near the tip of the peninsula to prevent you from running ashore. Not such an easy task anymore!

This was the challenge posed to ships travelling in and out of Georgian Bay in the 1800s, and many were ill-equipped to successfully take on this challenge. Located at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, Tobermory, ON, was a particular problem area for many ships – the handful of small islands scattered around this part of Georgian Bay proved to be significant obstacles to navigation, as evidenced by the 22 submerged shipwrecks that now rest under those waters. These shipwrecks, along with the islands and much of the underwater ecosystems surrounding them, collectively form what we now know as Fathom Five National Marine Park. Fathom Five was the very first area in Canada to be named a national marine conservation area – a type of underwater equivalent of a national park.

The shipwrecks themselves are one of the most unique features of any park in Canada, and each has its own story to tell. For example, a large schooner called the Sweepstakes was transporting coal through the area and ran into some trouble – it hit a rock near Cove Island, damaging the hull and causing the ship to eventually sink in the shallow waters. The wreck was towed to nearby Big Tub Harbour in the hopes that it could be repaired but alas, the damage was too great and all hopes of having the Sweepstakes fixed and running again were abandoned. The wreck site of the Sweepstakes is one of the most popular sites for divers, snorkelers and boaters visiting the park, and is considered to be one of the best preserved examples of a Great Lakes schooner from the nineteenth century.

Another well-known wreck in the park is the W.L. Wetmore, a propeller-driven wooden steamer that was headed to Lake Huron through the Devil Island Channel to deliver its cargo of lumber from Parry Sound. On what would turn out to be its final journey, the Wetmore was also towing two other barges, the James C. King and the Brunette, each loaded to the brim with lumber. On a particularly blustery November day, the steamer ran aground on an underwater reef in the middle of a storm, damaging the propeller and the hull, and the crew were forced to abandon ship. Only the Brunette was able to be saved, and the Wetmore and the James C. King joined the ranks of the handful of other abandoned shipwrecks in the park. If you visit the site of the Wetmore today, you’ll get to see not only the huge amount of timber wreckage from the main structure of the ship, but also the ship’s impressive boilers and the damaged propeller whose missing blade warns of the dangers of navigating through the area.

Fathom Five is also home to some of the most fascinating underwater geological features in Southern Ontario. Long before the days of settlement in the area, and indeed long before the days that humans walked the earth, the entire region was covered by a warm, shallow sea – very similar to what the Gulf of Mexico is like today. Over the course of millions of years, the calcium-rich shells left behind by all of the marine creatures inhabiting the sea continued to build up, forming massive coral reefs. As the water levels lowered and the sea dried up, magnesium in the water began to react with the calcium-rich reefs, forming a type of rock that we call dolomite. This rock, formed over 400 million years ago, is the most common type of rock found in the area today and helps tell its own story of the shifting of continents and the advance and retreat of glaciers.

Whether you’re interested in shipwrecks, ancient underwater forests or submerged waterfalls, Fathom Five Marine Park offers a little something for everyone. It’s a great place to visit during the summer and a truly unique way to experience history on a number of different levels, so get out there and start exploring!

Interested in creating a video about Fathom Five Marine Park? Check out these suggestions of where to start!

  • Relive the sinking of the W.L. Wetmore! Put on your captain’s hat and lead your crew to safety as you experience what it’s like to be on board a shipping vessel in peril. Keep a level head and help direct your crew as you figure out what happened.
  • Join one of the salvage crews working on the Sweepstakes as they attempted to save the ship from becoming a lost hope. What kinds of repairs were needed on the ship? When it was decided that the ship was beyond saving, what were some of the ship’s parts that would need to be reclaimed before you let it sink? What got left behind?
  • Join Captain J.G. Boulton and his team of geologists and cartographers as they set out to create the first complete survey of Georgian Bay that would later be used by ships navigating through the Bay. What are some of the geographical features of the area that needed to be mapped? What is the underwater topography of the Bay like? You can talk about what kinds of underwater landforms are there and how they would have contributed to making navigation around Tobermory challenging.