Length of stay: 2 days
Visited: September 2018
Dives logged: 2
Dives to date: 41
The Fathom Five National Marine Park is located right off the rocky shores of Tobermory and boasts of being one of best fresh water dive sites in the world. This underwater playground consists of 22 shipwrecks and a variety of neat geological features such as caves, cliffs and overhangs. While the pristine turquoise waters of Georgian Bay offers phenomenal visibility for fresh water diving, the only catch is that the water is cold. Very cold.
Day 1: Wreck Diving
We arrived at Cyprus Lake Campground, located within Bruce Peninsula National Park, late last night. And apparently they weren’t joking around for not permitting late entries. The park entry gate closes at 11p.m. We rolled into the campground around midnight to find that you needed to scan the bar code from your permit pass to get past the gate. We contemplated wild camping at one of the picnic areas we passed along the way or just sleeping in our car. But while we were running through our list of options in the parking lot at the Visitor’s Centre, we came up with another brilliant idea. The car we rented was very compact. So small in fact that we could just drive through the posts in the parking lot to get out to the main road that leads to the campground, thereby bypassing the gate and the scanning-of-the-permit-pass altogether. It’s not the most ideal way of entry, but it got us to where we needed to be.
We slept in later than usual on account of our late arrival. We fried up some eggs for breakfast and lounged around until the Visitor Centre opened up so we could register for real. We then returned to our campsite to drop off the car and walked over to the Grotto – one of the main attractions of the Bruce Peninsula National Park.
It was extremely windy so the waves were a’rockin’ and a’rollin’. Usually this is where tourists take the plunge into the frigid waters of Georgian Bay. Not today though.
We then hiked back towards our campsite to eat some lunch before heading over to Tobermory for an afternoon of diving. We booked our diving through Diver’s Den, the main dive operator in town. We showed up an hour before our dive and it took the full hour to get fitted for our gear. This marks our first experience with fresh water diving. And it’s a whole new ball game. For starters, you need to wear a much thicker wetsuit complete with a hood and gloves to deal with the colder temperatures. You then need significantly more weight (we’re talking over double than what we usually dive with in the warm-bathtub-like-temperatures of the Caribbean) due to the extra layers.
Since this was our first time diving in fresh water, we signed up for one of the afternoon groups where there is a divemaster on board to lead the dive and offer assistance when needed. We were joined by ten other divers, making this also the largest diving group we’ve ever been with (by double).
Our first dive site was at the W.L. Wetmore which sunk here in 1901 during a storm while towing another ship. This shallow wreck is located 20ft (or 7m) in depth and features a huge oak rudder, an anchor, a large length of anchor chain, and a boiler.
We found that the hardest part of fresh water diving (besides dealing with the cold) was that it was much more challenging to control your buoyancy – you know, the skill that prevents you from flailing around like an idiot. The basic idea is that you want to control your buoyancy, either through your breathing and or adding/releasing air into your BCD (a vest that’s attached to your tank) so that you can hover in the water without having to kick to stay in place.
The water was definitely cold. But not as cold as we had anticipated. Consequently, we spent less time underwater in comparison to our previous dives in warmer waters. The worst part was actually coming back onto the boat. As soon as I took my gloves off to change tanks (although in retrospect I could have actually used the same tank for both dives) I just couldn’t warm up my hands. It didn’t help that it was both windy and chilly outside (the temperature was around 15°C).
Thankfully it didn’t take long to get to our second dive site in Big Tub Harbour which featured a double header of wrecks: Sweepstakes and City of Grand Rapids. Both wrecks are quite shallow (at a depth of 20ft and 15ft, respectively). We’ve seen a bird’s-eye view of both these shipwrecks two years ago when we took a glass-bottom boat cruise to Flowerpot Island. But this time we were in for an up-close and personal experience.
Turns out 30 other people were in the same adventure. When we got to the dive site another boat of divers from Diver’s Den were suiting up for a dive here as well. Shortly after we arrived another boat sailed up to the scene as well.
The first half of our dive we explored Sweepstakes, a schooner that sank in Big Harbour in 1867 after being towed from Cove island where it was initially stranded. Most of the boat is still intact. The wreck itself was nice, but it was a hot mess of divers flailing around left, right and centre. We probably spent more time trying to dodge other divers than anything else.
It’s a short swim to the second wreck, the City of Grand Rapids. Now this is where our memory gets a little fuzzy. We’re not exactly sure what happened with the large group of divers from either the two other boats that joined us or even within the same group from our boat. But at this point it was just us and our guide at the second wreck. Perhaps most people got too cold at this point and headed back to the boats. Or maybe they were sent back to the boat from touching the wreck (our guide specifically warned us against this based on behaviour from our first dive). Either way, we were enjoying our dive so much more at this point. Our guide even let us (and only us) go through a neat little swim through of debris from the wreck (I guess we kept our flailing to a minimum. Probably on account of the coldness).
The City of Grand Rapids was a wooden passenger ship that caught fire while docked in Little Tub Harbour. She was being towed out into Georgian Bay but when the tow lined burned out, the ship floated into Big Tub Harbour where she ran aground, burned some more, and then sank.
Our guide then led us back to Sweepstakes where we leisurely circled around the wreck a few times before he gave us the signal that it was time to ascend. We were the last divers to board back onto the boat. We’re still not entirely sure why as the dive itself was quite short (just over 30 minutes). Either way, we were pretty satisfied with our first experience diving in fresh water.
We dropped our rental gear at the dive shop and headed back towards our campsite to start a fire to warm ourselves up and eat some dinner.
Day 2: Hiking and Exploring Caves
A trip up to Bruce Peninsula isn’t complete without hiking along the Bruce Trail (an 885km trail that runs along the Niagara Escarpment from Niagara to Tobermory). We’ve been slowly making our way along this trail for the past four years or so and have hiked just over a third of it to date.
We checked out of our campground at Cyprus Lake and drove north towards Tobermory, turning off at Little Cove Road. We parked at the small car lot a few metres from the rocky shore of Georgian Bay. We hiked east along the Bruce Trail up to the Sinkhole Side Trail before turning it around and calling it a day (9.8km roundtrip). The terrain was challenging, but the views of the rugged cliffs and turquoise waters of Georgian Bay were well worth the effort.
From there we started the drive back to Toronto stopping off at Greig’s Caves in Lion’s Head. There’s a relatively short trail that leads to, through, and around ten limestone caves. The “caves” are easy to navigate as there is sufficient natural light for exploration. Besides, it’s rated family friendly so it’s not as if there are dark and dank passageways lurking around to get lost or trapped within. There are a series of red blazes and arrows painted on trees and rocks to aid with navigation.
All in all we were pleasantly surprised with our first experience fresh water diving in Tobermory. Sure, the water was frigid, but the visibility was excellent. It’s also a more affordable alternative than having to fly somewhere warm to dive. Lessons learned for next time: bring a thermos with hot chocolate, a towel to dry our hands off, and warm gloves to keep these paws warm between dives.
L & K