Scuba divers in the know don’t call the 1000 Islands the “Caribbean of the North” for nothing. Like its southern cousin, the waters around this 1864-island archipelago in the Saint Lawrence River are clear, fresh and the final home for ships from all over the world. Over 200 shipwrecks are preserved beneath the surface here, each with its own story to show. Keep reading for a few of those tales along with info about other dives, conditions, underwater life and where to go for rentals, service, courses and charters.       

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In some areas of the 1000 Islands, divers have up to 100 feet of visibility. (South Eastern Ontario)

Conditions

Although the zebra mussel is an invasive species in the Saint Lawrence, it has helped clean up the river. Divers can now generally see 50 to 60 feet in front them most of the year, and 60 – 100 feet in the fall. And because there usually isn’t a thermocline here — i.e. a transition layer between warmer surface water and cooler deep water — the surface and deep waters are usually within a couple of degrees of each other (68 – 75 F).

All of this is good news for shipwreck divers and those just wanting a sharper, different picture of this natural wonder. Remember that the 1000 Islands are actually billion-year-old mountain peaks, so there’s much more to see below the surface (think granite walls and 100-foot chasms). Remember, too, however that currents can be strong in some areas; beginners may want to stick to open water dives.

Those islands are billion-year-old mountain peaks. (The Great Waterway)
Those islands are billion-year-old mountain peaks.

Shipwreck Dives

The Saint Lawrence River has been the main shipping route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean for centuries, and you can see that history in the ships that line the bottom. From wooden schooners to War of 1812 battleships to modern-day freighters, over 200 vessels met their fate here. Here are three of them:

The Rothesay: Novice

A 193-foot wooden twin sidewheel passenger steamer that sank on September 12, 1889, when she collided with a tugboat. Found just west of Prescott, there is a change booth onshore and a guide rope that will take you out to the site at a depth of 20 to 30 feet. A great night dive.  

At 128 feet long, the “Muskie” was the largest tug on the river when she sunk in 1936 just east of Brockville. Although she was engulfed in flames and then exploded, breaking in two and settling in 90 feet of water, the boiler, winches, engine and other ship parts are still there to see.

Henry C. Daryaw: Advanced

Built in Le Grand-Quevilly, France, in 1919, this 219-foot-long steel freighter hit a shoal on November 21, 1941, tearing a gash in her starboard side. The mechanic was the only one not to make it ashore as she sunk in 90 feet of water. The surface current is quick here, but lessens close to the bottom. Ma

The Islander, a side-wheel steamer that burned and sank on September 16, 1906, is just offshore at the foot of Market Street in downtown Alexandria Bay. (The Great Waterway)
The Islander, a side-wheel steamer that burned and sank on September 16, 1906, is just offshore at the foot of Market Street in downtown Alexandria Bay.

Other Dives

The shipwrecks are what draw most divers to the 1000 Islands, but there are plenty of other popular sites throughout the region that’ll satisfy the non-nautical, too. Here are three:

Brockville’s Underwater Sculpture Park: Novice

Canada’s first underwater sculpture park is just off Centeen Park in Brockville. The focal point of the site is six standing human figures looking up surrounded by benches at an 18-foot radius. There are also two sturgeons pointing north at 35 feet out.

Lock 21 And The Lost Villages: Intermediate

This legendary and somewhat eerie surface dive near the Long Sault Parkway takes you through what’s left of Lock 21 and the Lost Villages, which were nine villages and hamlets flooded to make way for the Saint Lawrence Seaway and power generation projects in the late 1950s.

The Daryaw Drift: Advanced

Discover the changes in the river bottom on this drift drive that starts at the Henry C. Darya shipwreck between Brockville and Mallorytown. Let yourself drift with the current over the rock ledge behind the wreck, and then take one of three courses that’ll move you over various rock formations and depth changes.

New sculptures are often added to Brockville's Underwater Sculpture Park. (Flickr Creative Commons)
New sculptures are often added to Brockville’s Underwater Sculpture Park. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Underwater Life

This region is known for its rich wildlife, and not just onshore. While you’re exploring those shipwrecks and lost villages, keep your eyes out for a few of the 80 species of fish that have been identified in the Saint Lawrence River — everything from bowfin and catfish to rainbow trout, pink salmon, yellow perch and largemouth bass. You might come across muskrats, otters and beavers, too, and if you’re lucky the at-risk Blanding’s turtle.

For a good overview of the flora and fauna you might see, stop by Brockville’s new Aquatarium, a state-of-the-art facility with an aquarium, interactive exhibits, wildlife displays and way more. There’s even a dive tank here and the remains of the Sir Robert Peel, a Canadian steamboat that was taken and burned by pirate Bill Johnston.

The brook trout, with its characteristic red underside. (Flickr Creative Commons)
The brook trout, with its characteristic red underside. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Resources

Where do you go from here? A good start would be these local businesses for rentals, service, courses and charters:

Dive Tech Training Centre (Mallorytown)
Equipment for sale or rent, equipment service, local info, courses
Dive Brockville Adventure Centre (Brockville)
Equipment rentals, equipment service, charters, local info, courses
RiverDiver Dive Charters (various locations)
Charters
Northern Tech Diver (Kingston)
Equipment for sale or rent, equipment service, charters, local info, courses
Kingston Dive Charters (Kingston)
Charters, equipment rentals
Explorer Diving (Kingston)
Equipment for sale, equipment service, charters, courses