08/29/2016 01:11 EDT | Updated 08/29/2016 01:59 EDT

Why Brockville, Ontario Is Canada's Hottest River Diving Spot

Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images
A male scuba diver takes his first breath above water as he climbs back on board a boat



Photo - Roy Letts

First it was an American on-line dive magazine, then it was a chain of Canadian newspapers and now, Germany's largest circulation magazine Der Spiegel is in the city of Brockville, Ontario to discover why this is one of the world's best freshwater diving destinations.

The St Lawrence River community has shipwrecks, shore diving, good visibility in warm water, a growing underwater sculpture park and just recently opened state-of-the art Aquatrarium (both an aquarium and shipwreck attraction).

'It's not common knowledge, but Canada offers some of the best diving in the world, in some of the most untouched marine environments. So, what are the best dive sites in Canada? " asks Scuba Diver Life, a California online scuba diving magazine.

"Brockville! Just across the St. Lawrence River from New York State, along a stretch of the river between Rockport and Brockville, there are more than a dozen wrecks to explore," reads Scuba Diver Life. "As for that chill, the St. Lawrence River water warms up (in the summer and fall months)."


Helen Cooper and one of her boats

Helen Cooper has been operating ABUCS SCUBA and the Dive Brockville Adventure Centre for over 22 years. Although there is friendly competition amongst the city's dive boats (in 2007 there were 22 dive charter operators in the Brockville area) Helen Cooper has the largest and longest running operation in the Thousand Island Region. She has four government approved dive charters boats, a fully approved fill station, mixed gases and Brockville's only full service dive shop.

"The warm waters of the Upper St Lawrence River has always been a draw - averaging 72-75 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months with no thermoclines and 40' - 50' visibility," said Ms. Cooper in explaining why Brockville is getting international notice these days. " it really is the Canadian Caribbean here!"

"In addition to the balmy, clear waters, the world class shipwrecks are a big drawing card - wooden schooners from the 1800 still pretty much in tact, last much longer in fresh water that is cold most of the year," she continued. " We have exciting drift dives where you can find torpedo bottles and clay pipes on the river floor, in addition to seeing the many different fish. The recently developed Sculpture Park gives divers something new to explore right from shore!"

The underwater Sculpture Park is directly offshore of Brockville's downtown riverside Canteen Park and a block from Ms. Cooper's shop. There are currently 15 statues placed on the riverbed in two rings - one inside of the other. There are standing figures, benches and sturgeon placed at the cardinal points of the radius.

The sculptures have been cast in concrete and sunk on the bottom by members of the Save Ontario Shipwrecks society and civic minded volunteers. The statues themselves have been made for the most part by art classes from Thousand Islands Secondary School and Brockville Collegiate Institute, working from molds created by artist /retired art teacher /diver Dave Sheridan and SOS member Tom Hatch.

The Sculpture Garden is a work in progress. In June a team of volunteer put ten life sized works onto the bottom. There are now 25 pieces in the Garden and more such sinkings are in the works.

We are building a memorial underwater at Centeen Park," said artist David Sheridan. "There is a grand plan to all of this--It is more than just a dive attraction. It is meant to honour the scuba divers who have died in the St Lawrence over the years. Because the park is relatively shallow (30 to 60 ft) and just a quick swim from shore, a lot of new Ontario, Quebec and New York State divers are making their first open water dives right here. It is accessible and it is also a reminder for all divers to play it safe, no one is immune to the dangers of the river."

The dive community, working with the city, is charging shore divers $10 for an underwater seasonal pass. The money is being used by the city and the SOS to maintain the park and to pay for the commission of more sculptures.


Dave Sheridan inside the new Aquatrium

"There are great plans for the Park," continued Mr. Sheridan. "The SOS wants to build a better entry for divers into the water at the Centeen Park. There will, we hope a buoy set up for dive boats to bring in disabled divers. Exciting new, this year there will be an underwater camera set-up that will live stream back to our new Aquatrium (the just opened nearby aquarium and shipwreck museum)"

In addition to the Garden, there are many of North America's most visited freshwater shore dive sites in the Brockville region. These sites are shallow shipwrecks within snorkelling distance of the shore. Each weekend hundreds of divers drive along the river hugging Highway 2, stopping at parks near the more popular wreck sites, where people can dive in safe, close-to-shore sites, for free!


Wreck of the Conestoga near Brockville

Novices and photographers like the shore divesbut "Brockville attracts tech divers as well," said ABUS owner Cooper. "There are more challenging wrecks like the Jodery which lies at 240' and the JB King at 140'. These are popular dives because the shipwrecks are pretty well intact. There is an opportunity for penetration into the shipwrecks too."

Novice. Photographers. Tech Divers. Free Divers. Everyone is coming to Brockville, and in big numbers. Tourist officials say that divers are coming from Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto, and from all over the USA -- New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and even California! And the numbers are growing.

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