In the fall of 1981, Wayne Mushrow, a milkman from Port-au-Basques,
Nfld., donned diving equipment and dived to a depth of about 25 feet at Isle aux Morts, 12 km east of his home. He emerged a few minutes later with a valuable discovery—a 1628 navigational instrument known as an astrolabe which he found lying near an anchor from the wreck of an unidentified ship.
Mushrow says that after he contacted Canadian and U.S. museums to determine the astrolabe’s value, he was threatened by government officials and police, who searched his home. Mushrow finally turned over the astrolabe, which now takes turns on display in two Newfoundland museums. The experience left him bitter. “I never got a thank you for contributing so much to Canadian history,” said Mushrow, 41.
“Now if I find anything, I’d rather beat it with an axe than give it to the Newfoundland government.”
Coins: In sharp contrast to that, John Major, the federal receiver of wrecks in Dartmouth, N.S., told Maclean's last week that later this month he expects to return more than 700 gold coins, dated from 1730 to 1732, to Montreal diver Pierre LeClerce, who said that he found them aboard a ship that sank off Cape Breton in 1750. Major said that he had no choice but to return the coins, because “nobody in the federal government has shown any interest in the find.” The dramatically different treatment of the two treasure-finders is symptomatic of a long-running debate, which is now taking on an added urgency, over who should own historic wrecks and underwater treasure in Canadian territory. As growing numbers of Canadians plunge into recreational diving, tensions have developed between preservationists, who want to see the nation’s historic wrecks kept for future generations, and treasure hunters, who say that often
precious objects that the sea surrenders should belong to the finder. In recent years, some lucky divers have discovered—and kept—hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of coins from wrecks off Eastern Canada.
Law: The unequal treatment of treasure hunters stems from the fact that Canadian law in the area consists of
overlapping and outmoded federal and provincial legislation. Said Robert Grenier, head of marine archeology for Environment Canada: “Canada has probably the finest reputation in the world for underwater archeology, yet there is no federal legislation to protect our submerged heritage.”
Magnet: The confusion has been underscored by the dramatic recent growth in the popularity of diving. There are now 22,000 trained and certified divers in Canada, an increase from just 14,000 five years ago. In British Columbia, where the province’s wreck-strewn waters and enchanting underwater kelp forests are a magnet for divers, William Klikach, the owner of a Vancouver diving supply store, said that the number of people signing up for diving lessons has doubled over the past two years—despite the daunting prospect of the outlay that divers face of between $2,000 and $3,000 for underwater equipment.
In Ontario, another of the country’s most popular underwater areas—Fathom Five provincial park—last year attracted more than 8,000 divers. Between April and October, they made an estimated 40,000 dives into Georgian Bay off the province’s scenic Bruce Peninsula. Those waters contain the wrecks of at least a score of 19thand 20th-century merchant vessels, and as many as a dozen other suspected wreck sites. Now Ottawa has acknowledged the growing interest in Canada’s underwater heritage by establishing the first national marine park in the same location.
Although many amateur divers are satisfied merely to view, or photograph, the underwater wrecks they visit, others take along metal detectors in the hope of winning the honor of discovering a new wreck, or finding artifacts or treasure. While some divers quietly keep what they discover—and in
Ontario, for one, risk possible fines of up to $10,000—other discoveries lead to costly battles with government authorities. In one case, Major planned to rule later this month on a dispute between Nova Scotia diver Robert MacKinnon and Parks Canada, both of whom claim possession of about 300 silver coins that MacKinnon recovered from an 18th-century British ship, the Feversham, off Cape Breton.
Still, such cases point to the inadequacy of existing Canadian legislation. In fact, the only federal law safeguarding shipwrecks is a section of the Victorian-era Canada Shipping Act that was intended to protect shipowners
from rapacious salvage operators. Part 10 of the act empowers the Canadian Coast Guard’s receiver of wrecks for Canada, Michael Turner, to act as custodian of a wrecked ship for up to a year to ensure that anything salvaged from it is returned to the rightful owner. In practice, that means that coins and other valuables are often held by federal officials for a year, then turned over to the divers who found them. The act, said Montreal lawyer Deana Silverstone, a former legal adviser to the Canadian Coast Guard, “is archaic. It has been amended several times, but its philosophy remains and it has developed in a patchwork and piecemeal fashion.” Shelved: Faced with the absence of clear-cut legal protection for old wrecks at the federal level—a long-term federal project to create a comprehensive new Canadian maritime code was quietly shelved in 1984 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government— the provinces have taken steps to protect their underwater legacies. Since 1975, British Columbia has designated five shipwreck locations as heritage
sites, making it illegal to remove anything from the wrecks without permission. In 1980, Nova Scotia enacted a Special Places Protection Act, which provides for $5,000 fines for tampering with archeological or historical sites. Newfoundland introduced a Historic Objects Act after sports divers during the 1960s and 1970s carried off a significant portion of the province’s underwater treasure.
Press: In order to put pressure on Ottawa, representatives of preservationist diving associations in seven provinces and the Yukon met in Toronto in April to establish the Canadian Maritime Heritage Federation to lobby
Ottawa and provincial or territorial governments for tougher legislation.
Even in the absence of tougher federal laws, there are signs that experience and educational programs are persuading amateur divers to treat Canada’s undersea heritage with respect. That was demonstrated earlier this summer by divers who spent four rainy days in Sydney Inlet, 230 km northwest of Victoria. Funded by a $5,000 grant from the B.C. government, the divers used a dredge to clear silt from part of an unidentified 19th-century merchant ship, then dove to bring up artifacts that included a telescope, chinaware and carpenters’ tools. After experts had examined the objects, the most interesting ones were taken to the Vancouver Maritime Museum for eventual display, while others were carefully placed in plastic bags and respectfully returned to the deep—perhaps for divers of the future to discover again.
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