Standing up for what’s deep down — ‘wet’ history

Peter Carlyle-Gordge April 30 1979

Standing up for what’s deep down — ‘wet’ history

Peter Carlyle-Gordge April 30 1979

Standing up for what’s deep down — ‘wet’ history


A month from now, Canada’s legion of amateur scuba divers will don their wet suits, top up their air tanks and plunge into clear and murky depths. A few will happen upon relics of antiquity, priceless artifacts with tales to tell of Canadian heritage, treasures worthless and endangered in their hands. This innocent disturbing of the sleeping past worries the professionals, archeologists intent on recording, preserving and gently waking. Like a manager of a child-infested china shop, Andy Lockery looks on.

Twelve years ago, when he was 22 and working on his PhD thesis in sedimentology at Durham University in Durham County, England, Lockery hired two divers to take floor samples from the North Sea. Lockery, a non-swimmer, was so fascinated by the divers and the good time they were having—“One came up with a lobster in his hand, the other with an antique bottle!”—that he took swimming lessons from his wife and in three months was practising diving.

Today much water has flowed under the bridge and over Andy Lockery’s head: he swims 100 lengths a day; trains members of the RCMP and Armed Forces in scuba diving; has pioneered artifact recovery techniques which have brought international recognition; and is spearheading a program to train amateur divers across Canada in the techniques of underwater archeology.

“My only regret,” says the British| born Lockery, who directs the environo mental studies department at the Uni| versity of Winnipeg, “is that I didn’t start diving 10 years earlier. There’s so much to do.”

Speak to him of Canada’s hidden heritage, the treasure beneath its briny and non-briny waters, and his face illuminates with sheer joy. He rhapsodizes about wrecks and artifacts of a bygone age, the silent, submarine charnels of mariners ancient and modern. “To me most of Canada’s history is ‘wet’ history and the wrecks that litter our coasts, lakes and rivers, are little time capsules. More of our history is below water than above it.”

In 1973, after spending two years checking history books and making hydrographic surveys, he succeeded in bringing up a 150-pound haul of traders’ artifacts that had lain at the bottom of a dangerous section of rapids in the

Winnipeg River since the fur-trading days. All previous expeditions had failed, but Lockery’s driving team located what they wanted in 45 minutes.

“It was hard and dangerous, so the divers wore ropes and crash helmets,” says the super-fit nonsmoker. “You have to remember that in this stretch of river on the Ontario-Manitoba border the current is seven miles an hour, which is equivalent to trying to work on land in a hurricane of 300 to 400 miles per hour.”

The expedition salvaged long-lost

chisels, axe heads and a timber-wolf trap from the 1811 to 1815 period, believed to be the oldest known in Canada. It also brought recognition in the International Journal of Nautical Archeology and Underwater Exploration, amongst others, and more respectful glances from academic colleagues who had viewed Lockery as something of an upstart interdisciplinarian, dabbling in fields belonging to historians and anthropologists.

From the unlikely base of Winnipeg, Lockery is fighting to protect Canada’s waterlogged past from the type of pillage and plunder by sport divers that has ravaged archeological sites in Europe. Amateurs are now banned from

important sites in many countries and both Greece and Turkey reward artifact-snatchers with two years in jail.

“I’m anxious that Canada won’t go the same way,” says Lockery. There are only about eight professional underwater archeologists in this country and we need the help of trained amateurs. They can do a great service to Canada and also help stock smaller museums.”

Newfoundland, with over 7,000 recorded shipwrecks off its shores and only 400 located to date, has banned amateur divers from stretches of its coastline.

Interest in wrecks is enormous and hardly surprising when you consider that Canada has more coastline than any other country in the world, fronting as it does on three oceans. It also has more fresh water than all but one other country and, most important, its waters are unusually cold—a fact which greatly aids in wreck preservations.

“Some of the wood is so well preserved you could almost rebuild with it,” says Lockery. “When I was on an Arctic diving trip in 1974 I examined the nearly intact vessel of Sir James Knight, which sank off Marble Island in 1721. The preservation is remarkable.”

Canada has many such wrecks in isolated areas, as well as plenty in accessible ones. In the triangle between Nova Scotia, Sable Island and Newfoundland, Lockery says there are a hundred times more ships’ graves than in the more famous Bermuda Triangle.

The problem is that untrained divers may move an artifact, thus destroying clues to where others might be. If they remove it from the water without any preservation treatment they may also destroy the object. An iron cannonball

submerged for three centuries may be in one piece underwater, but can flake into a pile of rust and dust within weeks of exposure to air.

“There have been tragedies where valuable material has been stolen or destroyed and we don’t want that to happen here,” says Lockery. “Nor do we want a ban on amateur divers because they’re needed to work as a team with the professional, who often has to spend much of his time in libraries rather than underwater.”

As chairman of the scientific committee of the Association of Canadian Underwater Councils (ACUC), which is

the governing body of sport divers, Lockery has developed a certification program which teaches searching, mapping, wreck simulation, excavation and lifting techniques. The aim is to train teams of divers in every province as locators and protectors of Canada’s submerged heritage. Last year Lockery trained divers in Nova Scotia, this year he’s organizing sessions in Manitoba and next year Ontario is the target.

“The interest is staggering,” he says. “When I first gave this course in Winnipeg I had inquiries from across Canada as well as South Carolina, California and Florida. A lot of people have to be turned down, which is why I want to train others who can teach underwater methods.”

But those who don’t shape up have to ship out. “Half of all diving accidents are caused because the person is out of shape,” he says. “I insist on top physical fitness or I just won’t accept people in the course.”

His other aim is to set up a national reporting network, so that new finds can quickly be brought to the attention of professionals and museum curators. Last summer at Oyster Pond, near Jeddore, Nova Scotia, a diving team located a schooner that sank in 1940 and belonged to the father of the local museum curator. “Giving artifacts to these small museums, which often have few funds, is a terrific source of public relations—for the amateur diver,” says Lockery. “They have the opportunity to establish a positive responsible image.”

Yet why does this lover of underwater worlds sit in Winnipeg? Hardly an ideal Andy Lockery’s locker. “It’s handy for both the East and West Coasts and frankly the long, frozen winter is useful. It gives me time to do all the paperwork and research. If I lived by the sea I think I’d be out diving all the time.”

Peter Carlyle-Gordge