Saturday, August 27, 2005


Underwater treasures: St. Lawrence River offers divers clear waters, shipwrecks to explore


By Linda Murphy
August 26, 2005

ALEXANDRIA BAY - David Hinman, owner of Delta Divers in Rome, says some of the best freshwater scuba diving in the world is just 100 miles north of the Mohawk Valley, on the St. Lawrence River.

"One of the reasons is the clarity. Because of the zebra mussels (that filter the water) the visibility is 30 to 80 feet. At times, you can go down 80 to 100 feet and look up and see the boat," Hinman said.

Due to treacherously narrow channels, reefs and shoals and a history of battles fought in the St. Lawrence, many ships over the years have sunk in the river. The ship owners' losses have become underwater treasures for scuba divers.

"There are 200 wrecks or parts of wrecks within a day's travel of Alexandria Bay," said Chuck Skinner of Poland, a master scuba instructor.

As a teacher for Delta Divers, as well as owner of his own outfit, Crimson Tide Divers, Skinner has certified more than 800 divers. When training new divers, Delta Divers often travels to Alexandria Bay, Skinner said.

In July, August and September, the water temperature is 73 to 77 degrees.

When Skinner, Sam Guido and Victor Skinner, all master divers or higher, took our small group to dive last week, the water was even warmer. ´

After being properly outfitted in wet suits, mask, fins and boots, buoyancy vests and tanks, we dived to a wreck that sat just 20 yards from the shore: a side-wheel streamer called the Islander.

The Islander
The Islander, 125 feet long, 20 feet wide and weighing 118 gross tons, was built in Rochester in 1871. It was used solely as a mail carrier between Clayton and Alexandria Bay until 1893, when it also was used to conduct island and river tours.

On Sept. 16, 1909, the Islander caught fire while docked at the city dock. At that time, the city dock was just west of the hospital, in front of what is now a parking area with a gazebo catering to divers.

As the Islander burned, it slowly sank and pulled the city dock -- with all its contents -- on top of it to the bottom of the river.

"Everything on the dock that was going to be shipped or traded was right there. It pulled everything on the dock on top of it," Skinner said.

Divers today can explore the hulking remnant of the ship. Its bow is in about 20 feet of water, with the stern about 55 feet down.

Besides the ship, you can swim around concrete from the former city dock, see a few old bottles, underwater vegetation and a lot of fish.

If you have never dove before, don't attempt to explore a ship wreck, or anything else for that matter, in a river, lake or ocean.

You must first learn to use the equipment in a controlled situation, such as a pool.
"As long as you are properly trained, there is no danger," Skinner said.

The week before we dived in the St. Lawrence, three of us were taught how to use the equipment safely by Skinner at the YMCA in Rome.

Delta Divers trains people to become certified open-water divers through a combination of classroom work, sessions in a pool and a minimum of four dives in open water such as the St. Lawrence River.


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