Thursday, February 02, 2006


Ontario government limits diver access to storied shipwrecks

By John Flesher
January 30, 2006

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Divers wishing to explore the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald and two other Great Lakes shipwrecks in Canadian waters will need a license from the Ontario Ministry of Culture under a newly approved regulation.

The rule also limits access to the Hamilton and the Scourge, merchant schooners that sank in Lake Ontario during the War of 1812.

"The sites we have chosen for special protection are unique," Culture Minister Madeleine Meilleur said in a news release. "We want to ensure that these fragile underwater sites _ all of which contain human remains _ are treated with care and respect."

The Fitzgerald, a 729-foot iron ore carrier, sank in Lake Superior during a fierce storm Nov. 10, 1975. All 29 crewmen died, and their bodies were not recovered.

Fifty-three of the 72 crewmen aboard the Hamilton and Scourge were killed when the ships went down in August 1813 north of Port Dalhousie. Their gravesite, 300 feet deep, was discovered in 1975 and explored separately by Jacques Cousteau and the National Geographic Society.

Several groups have used mini-submarines and robotic cameras to inspect the Fitzgerald wreckage, located 530 feet below the surface about 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point. The ship, broken in two, lies just across the international border on the Canadian side.

During a privately financed 1994 expedition, leader Fred Shannon of Mount Morris announced his team had discovered and photographed a body on the lake bottom near the pilot house.

The partly decomposed remains could not be identified. But Shannon angered some relatives of Fitzgerald crew members by using brief images of the remains in a documentary video. They urged Canadian officials to declare the wreck site off-limits to future explorations.

"We've always contended that this is the men's gravesite," Cheryl Rozman, daughter of Fitzgerald watchman Ransom "Ray" Cundy, said Monday. "It gives us family members peace of mind to know that the site will be protected from unauthorized visits."

She and other relatives backed the Michigan Legislature's enactment in 1997 of a law making it a felony to photograph human remains on Great Lakes bottomlands without consent of the victim's next of kin.

In 1999, family and friends of the crew held a consecration service aboard a Coast Guard cutter at the spot where the ship went down. Doing so, they said, created a moral obligation to treat the site with the same respect as a cemetery.

The Ministry of Culture statement did not say what criteria would be used to evaluate requests for licenses to explore the shipwrecks. Rozman said an official had assured her that approval wouldn't come easily, and qualifying would be expensive.

"They told me you'd have to have real good reasons to do that _ archaeological or scientific," she said.

The regulation was imposed under the Ontario Heritage Act, which was revised last year to toughen penalties for looting or intentionally damaging marine archaeological sites, including heritage shipwrecks.

Shannon said Monday he hadn't heard about the regulation.

"I have absolutely no problem with any legislation that would bring solace to the families," he said, adding that he had no intention of attempting another Fitzgerald dive.


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