In an attempt to keep our fins wet, last summer Joey and my Canadian Splash travels brought us to all corners of Ontario, exploring the freshwater offerings of our home province. Within a day’s drive from our starting headquarters in Northern Ontario, is the wreck junkie heaven of Tobermory – one of the best dive sites in Canada and arguably the world.
Forged by the cold turquoise waters of Lake Huron, the limestone cliffs of the Bruce Peninsula rise up and out of Georgian Bay in a cascading splendor. At 100 kilometers long by 38 kilometers wide, they create part of the geological formation known as the Niagara Escarpment – a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve with the oldest forest ecosystem and trees in eastern North America.
For many, the Bruce Peninsula is a spectacular place for camping, hiking and fishing. For others, the famous Flowerpot Island cliff is the big draw. For a pair of divers such as us, the clear swirling waters of Georgian Bay is why we visit the Bruce again, and again, and again.
The Bruce peninsula houses two national parks; Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park. Fathom Five National Marine Park is Canada’s first National Marine Conservation Area. The park preserves 22 shipwrecks and several historic light stations. Every year thousands of divers make their way to the tip of this peninsula to dive these shipwrecks while immersed in a tropical blue oasis – far from the Caribbean.
Located at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, Tobermory is known by scuba enthusiasts all over the world as a cold water divers paradise. Everyone, from the novice snorkeller to the most advanced diving enthusiast, can find lots to enjoy within this summer harbour town.
Tobermory was named after the capital of the Isle of Mull in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. Being a mixture of landscapes, forests and of course crystal clear water, it’s no surprise that Tobermory attracts tourists from far and wide. This adventure hub, a mere 300 kilometers (190 miles) northwest of Toronto, offers visitors a unique and unparalleled experience.
The environment surrounding the community of Tobermory contains some of the most pristine waters of the Great Lakes. But like many top dive locations in the world, the majority of the Tobermory sites are only accessible by chartered boat. For divers planning a trip to Tobermory, here are some charter sites to check out:
The Niagara II is a 55-meter (182-foot) steel freighter turned sand sucker. The wreck was built in 1930 and sunk in May 1999 by the Tobermory Maritime Association. The association’s main goal was to sink new wrecks in order to enhance diving opportunities in Tobermory.
Currently, the Niagara II is east of Little Cove resting in 30 meters (100 feet) of water. The ship remains perfectly upright with the wheelhouse at a depth of 15 meters (50 feet) and the bow and stern decks around 20 meters (65 feet). Because she was prepared for sinking, the Niagara II is a good wreck for all levels of divers.
Some of our favourite parts of this ship include the wheelhouse, the stern flag and bits of the miscellaneous machinery. It is a superbly photogenic wreck with many nooks and crannies to investigate. For properly equipped and certified divers, there are also plenty of penetration opportunities. The Niagara II definitely takes several dives to appreciate this beast of a vessel.
Carved out of the limestone cliffs by waves pounding the coastline over thousands of years, the Grotto is a cavern-type dive site that offers something a little different to Tobermory’s classic shipwrecks. Snorkelers and hikers can access the Grotto from Cyprus Lake trailhead, while scuba divers need to get there via boat.
The site is roughly 6 meters (20 feet) deep and there are many interesting rock formations and fish to spy. The cave itself is stunning, with sunlight seeping through from the outside revealing a large underwater cavern on the inside complimented by iridescent turquoise water. Given the shallow nature of the site, this is perfect for all levels of diver. Additionally, there are several swim-throughs that divers can explore, which we found particularly thrilling.
Arabia is a three-masted barque built in Kingston, Ontario by George Thursten. In 1854, the Arabia sailed to Glasgow, Scotland with a cargo of wheat and flour. She remained in the coastal trade on the northwest coast of Great Britain for a year or so during which, Tobermory, was one of her ports of call. After returning to Canada, the schooner ran aground and sank near Flowerpot Island in 1882. She was refloated, repaired and continued her service. The following year, Arabia met her ultimate fate near Echo Island as she floundered and sank on October 5th 1883.
Some people claim the Arabia to be “the best schooner wreck in Ontario”. Its 35 meters (115 foot) depth along with cold temperature, current and haunting beauty have named it the “Jewel of Tobermory”. The hull of the Arabia is intact with the exception of the back of the deck and transom which have collapsed. The ship’s masts have also succumbed to the test of time and lay fallen across the deck.
To us, the bow is one of the most impressive parts of the ship. The jib-boom (mistakenly called bow-spirit) is still in place along with the windlass, bilge pump and 3 anchors. We also really like the ship’s wheel which lays on the starboard of the afterdeck with a commemorative plaque.
The Philo Scoville is a 42 meter (139 foot) 325-ton schooner built in 1863. While en route to Escanaba, Michigan, the Scoville was caught in a storm and drifted from her course. Approaching Devil’s Island channel, the vessel dropped anchor but this was no match against the forces of mother nature. The anchor was dragged across the bottom until the shipwrecked on the shore of Russell Island in October 1889. Of the five crewmen manning the ship only the captain, John O’Grady, lost his life.
In terms of diving, the Scoville rests on an abrupt incline starting at 9 and dropping to 27 meters (30 to 90 feet). The bow is the best part of the ship. This component of the Scoville is intact and submerged at a depth of 24 meters (80 feet). The shallower portion of this wreck is progressively more broken up and difficult to discern components. The mooring is secured beside the wreck in 22 meters (75 feet) of water.
The Forest City is a three-masted wooden schooner built in 1890 later converted into a steamer. The ship ran into Bear Rump Island and sank in June 1904. After many efforts to salvage the 66-meter (216 foot) vessel, the Forest City filled and slid to deep water where she lies today.
The Forest City is a deep dive bordering the technical spectrum. The ship’s torn apart bow begins in 18 meters (60 feet) and follows the steeply sloping benthos to a relatively intact stern in 45 meters (150 feet) of water. The most interesting and intact portion of this wreck is within the 30 to 45 meter (100 to 150 foot) range.
Given our non-technical certification and the sheer depth of the wreck, our time spent on this vessel was reduced to a blink. Whatsmore we were not able to see the full magnitude for this site as we stayed within our 40 meters (130 foot) recreational depth limit. This meant that the beautiful stern, the most interesting part of the vessel, rested just out of our reach. What we did get to explore was the smoke funnel and boilers between 33 to 40 meters (110 to 130 feet) and the debris field scattered everywhere else in between.
The Caroline Rose is the sister ship of the Blue Nose. Reaching a length of 40 meters (132 feet) this schooner was built in the yards of Canada’s most famous shipbuilding town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The ship was purchased in 1955 and brought to Owen Sound for use as a charter vessel. In 1990, The Caroline Rose was left unused and neglected in the Owen Sound harbour when she was bought by a group of divers and local business people. This group towed the ship to Driftwood Cove where she was sunk as a dive site in 1999. Unfortunately, the exposure to strong storm surges dragged the wreck into shallower water. As such, Caroline is pretty battered and broken up.
The wreck of the Caroline Rose is at the mouth of Driftwood Cove. The ship is bottomed out at 16 meters (55 feet) below its mooring buoy. Although most of the wreck lays near the mooring block divers have still been known to discover an item or two in the vicinity as this wasn’t the site of Caroline’s original sinking.
My first time diving at the Caroline Rose dive site, I was unexpectedly surprised at how much I enjoyed this little wreck. Thanks to being dragged across the bottom, the Caroline has many collapsed and broken parts, but there were also some really great features to find on this wreck. We loved the large propeller, driveshaft and rudder which was the first part of the ship we laid eyes on. It had a big appeal for me to grab some wide-angle photography. The port side railings were also still intact.
A convenient flip side to Tobermory’s many boat charter diving locations is the handful of shore diving possibilities. Sometimes it’s nice to not be confined to departure and bottom time restrictions. For divers planning a trip to Tobermory, here are some budget-friendly shore diving sites to check out:
The Tugs is a popular Tobermory dive site, in part due to its shallow depth but also because of its ease of accessibility. It is heavily used for training, chiefly on weekends, by local dive outfitters. The site includes four shipwrecks known as the Alice G, John & Alex, Robert K and the “unidentified”.
While not much remains of the John & Alex, the Robert K and the “unidentifiable”, these wrecks are believed to have sank in 1947, 1935 and 1905 respectively.
The Alice G on the other hand is the most intact of the 4-tug wreckages. Built in 1902 at 20 some meters (65 feet) in length, the Alice G is a wooden-hulled steam screw tug. In 1929, the ship was forced out of Little Tub harbour by gale-force winds. Before the engine was ignited the tugboat rammed against the rocky shoreline outside the harbour. She now rests in 8 meters (26 feet) of water.
The entire Tugs dive site is easy to do in 1-2 dives. Of course, of all the wrecks at this site, the Alice G is the show stealer due to her intact nature. The vessel’s steam engine, boiler, driveshaft, propeller and smokestack are still viable sites on the wreck. Stern fantail deck complete with railing is also a point of photographic interest.
How to Find The Tugs and What to Look For:
GPS Coordinates: 45.2585396, -81.66079157
Address: Northern Bruce Peninsula, ON N0H 2R0
The Tugs is found along the outside shores of Little Tub Harbour. Parking is limited but available, across the street from the Grandview Motel.
Big Tub Lighthouse at the tip of Big Tub Harbour is another good shore diving site.
The lighthouse was constructed in 1885 as a means to guide ships into the harbour from the sometimes-precarious waters of Lake Huron. Even today, the red light still acts as a beacon guiding ships through powerful currents, frequent fogs and numerous shoals to the safety of Big Tub Harbour.
The Lighthouse is a wall dive, where divers drop in right off the point down to a depth of 23 meters (75 feet). This bouldery site is a beautiful spot to seek out small creatures such as crayfish and the invasive round goby. For safety from passing boats, divers are required to carry a surface marker and hug the rocky edge.
How to Find Big Tub Lighthouse and What to Look For:
GPS Coordinates: 45.257836, -81.672738
Address: 264 Big Tub Rd, Tobermory, ON N0H 2R0
Big Tub Lighthouse is a shore dive site located at the mouth of Big Tug Bay. Parking is paid but available, and divers can access the site via trails leading to the right of the lighthouse.
Diving the beautiful and bountiful waters of Tobermory, Canada’s premier freshwater diving site is most certainly an experience worth jotting down on your cold water bucket list. If not for the shipwrecks, then for the picture-perfect visibility which rivals any Caribbean destination. Joey and I have visited the Bruce peninsula numerous times over the past seven years and every time we continue to be swept off our fins.
After having spent a great deal of time exploring Ontario’s freshwater dive sites, this one is undoubtedly THE BEST diving location in the province.
Scuba diving in Tobermory costs roughly $110 CAD + HST for a 2 tank boat dive lasting roughly 4 hours. This does not include equipment rentals and tank fills which can cost between $13 CAD + HST for a simple air fill ($20 CAD + HST for nitrox) to $35 CAD + HST for a tank and weight rental package. The rental of all dive gear is $100 CAD + HST.
Courses cost approximately $849 CAD + HST for a basic Open Water course that takes 3 days to complete or $299 CAD + HST for a ½ day Drysuit course. Again equipment is not included in this price.
In addition to these costs, the Fathom Five National Marine Park fee is $4.90 CAD for a daily pass or $19.60 CAD for an annual pass.
Tobermory is a diving location that can be visited year-round pending the diver’s experience level as well as the ice build-up on the lake in the winter months. Summer and fall afford the warmest water temperature for diving whereas spring, winter and late fall offer the best visibility and the least amount of tourism crowds (as a premier diving site – there are always plenty of people sniffing around this diving hotspot).
Late fall when the water temperature changes from warm to cold also present’s the opportunity for divers to encounter some of the lake’s larger fish species such as salmon, as they move inshore.
All dives in Tobermory are within the designated perimeter of the Fathom Five National Marine Park. Because of this, divers and snorkelers are required to purchase and wear a marine park tag either daily or annually.
To board charters, a minimum of Open water divers certification is required for diving any of the wreck sites. Some deeper and more challenging shipwrecks require divers to show proof of a more advanced dive certification as well as recent cold water dives in their log.
Having an Open Water certification is strongly recommended for the shore diving site although they don’t necessarily check. Shore diving is restricted to 3 hours with the paid parking meters.
To our knowledge, there used to be two diving companies that work out of Tobermory. Now however this has graduated to one dive shop and one shop that focuses on snorkeling.
Divers Den has been our goto dive shop for the past several years we have dove in Tobermory. Their boat schedule and flexibility for morning and afternoon dives make them great charter candidates. Unfortunately, because they are the only dive shop in the area, Divers Den charters, fills and courses can be a little pricey when compared to other shops in the province.
Have you ever had the good fortune to go scuba diving in Tobermory? What was your favourite shipwreck or dive site?
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