Quebec researchers hunt for St. Lawrence's forgotten shipwrecks

As the country celebrates the apparent end to an enduring Arctic mystery, a team in Quebec has been quietly trying to put a name to at least some of the lesser-known shipwrecks in the St. Lawrence River.

Researcher estimates hundreds of shipwrecks are undocumented

A team of divers and archaeologists work to document the presumed wreck of the Sainte-Anne, a ship that presumably sunk into the St. Lawrence River, in this photo taken last summer. (Submitted by Mathieu Mercier Gingras)

While Sir John Franklin's doomed search for the Northwest Passage looms large in the Canadian consciousness, thousands of other shipwrecks lie in obscurity at the bottom of the country's waterways.

The Arctic Research Foundation recently announced the discovery of HMS Terror during the latest in a series of high-profile expeditions that also led to the discovery of Franklin's other ship, HMS Erebus, in 2014.
Parks Canada's underwater archeology team prepares to enter the water on their HMS Erebus dive from 2014, while being supported by the Arctic Research Foundation's vessel the Martin Bergmann. The same vessel located HMS Terror. (Dan Bard/Department of National Defence)

But as the country celebrates the apparent end to an enduring Arctic mystery, a team in Quebec has been quietly trying to put a name to at least some of the lesser-known shipwrecks in the St. Lawrence River.

The project, which is co-ordinated by the Université de Montreal and the Archeo-Mamu Côte-Nord archeology association, seeks to document the shipwrecks along the northern coast of the river with the help of local recreational divers.

The main archeologist says the provincial government has only a fraction of the river's shipwrecks on record.

"At the level of the (Quebec) Culture Department, there are between 80 and 100 that are documented, but I think there are more than 1,000 left to find," Vincent Delmas said.

"There's a lot of work still to do."

Identifying the Sainte-Anne

Delmas says the St. Lawrence was once an autoroute, of sorts, where ships carrying goods to and from Europe succumbed to ice, storms and the many rocks and reefs lurking just below the surface.

He says parts of the river's north shore were also rich in iron, which could interfere with ship's compasses, creating a "Bermuda Triangle"-like effect.

Recently, the team has been working to identify a wreck believed to be that of the Sainte-Anne, a merchant ship that went down in 1704 while carrying a load of furs destined for the French Antilles.

The Sainte-Anne was a merchant ship that went down in 1704 while carrying a load of furs destined for the French Antilles. A team of researchers in Quebec is working to document the presumed wreck. (Submitted by Mathieu Mercier Gingras)

Although the wreck's location, near a small town now called Pointe-Lebel, has been informally known for decades, the team is analyzing wood samples taken from the ship to verify its age and origin and hopefully confirm its identity.

It also hopes to dive for the remnants of the fleet of Admiral Hovenden Walker, whose mission to attack Quebec on behalf of the British crown failed after eight of his ships sank in 1711 near what is now known as Pointe-aux-Anglais.

Although the location of most of the Walker fleet is known, Delmas says the team would like to bring "scientific rigour" to the process by pinpointing the ships' exact locations with GPS and by examining the artifacts.

Nautical divers key to the process

The project depends heavily on the first-hand knowledge of recreational divers like Nancy Chouinard.

The special education teacher grew up in a small town by the St. Lawrence, hearing stories of shipwrecks from her father and grandfather. Now, she spends her spare time diving the river in pursuit of nautical mysteries.

"You have to have an attentive eye when diving, because sometimes all you see is just a bump in the sand, or a piece of metal," she said.

Onshore, she does a different kind of detective work, searching through newspapers, town records and oral history for clues to help identify the artifacts she finds.

Underwater archeological sites can be harder to investigate than their land counterparts. Equipment is expensive, and rules generally prohibit anything being removed from the water, meaning identification has to be done through photographs, Delmas says.

Calls for a national strategy

Any newly discovered wrecks are supposed to be reported to federal Transport Department officials, who can inform the province or Parks Canada if a site is historically significant and in need of legal protection.

But neither the Quebec Culture Department, Transport Canada nor Parks Canada keeps a comprehensive list of all shipwrecks.

A spokesman for Quebec's culture minister said the department keeps a directory of cultural heritage sites, which includes some well-known shipwrecks including RMS Empress of Ireland and the Elizabeth and Mary.

Parks Canada takes charge of wrecks under its jurisdiction, including those found in national parks, conservation areas and national historic sites.

Parks Canada was probing whether human remains found off the Gaspé coast belonged to passengers aboard the the Carricks of Whitehaven, which went down in 1847. (Vimeo)

In April, a leading marine archeologist warned that Canada's "patchwork of regulations," which vary from province to province, makes it difficult to ensure historical wrecks are protected.

Rob Rondeau called for Canada to develop a consistent national strategy to protect the country's underwater wrecks.

Chouinard's personal goal is to create a list of all the shipwrecks on the St. Lawrence's north shore between Tadoussac and Anticosti Island, a 500-kilometre stretch of shoreline where she believes more than 800 boats went down.

She sees it as a way of honouring the people who died on the perilous voyage overseas.

"The conditions on the ships were terrible, and then they came so far only to be shipwrecked,'' she said. "I want to pay tribute to them."