Mysteries of the Deep

F.G. Creed Demonstrating seabed mapping using multibeam echo sounder technology.

F.G. Creed Demonstrating seabed mapping using multibeam echo sounder technology.

This is a story of discovery and coincidence. It is a story that Richard Sanfaçon is very well placed to tell.

He is the Manager of Hydrographic Data Acquisition with the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) at Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli, Quebec. He has been doing hydrography work of one sort or another for the last 33 years at CHS.

As manager Sanfaçon oversees two sections. One has eight hydrographers who are mainly sounding the St. Lawrence channels from the beginning of April to the end of November, when the ice comes back. As one of the busiest shipping lanes in North America, detailed surveys of the river's channels are critically important because there are inevitably issues of silting and dredging that come up. His team covers the 300-kilometre-long channel carrying out pre-dredging, post-dredging and maintenance surveys.

The other section of six hydrographers surveys the rest of the Quebec region maritime territory using multi-beam echo sounders. Sanfaçon points out that, "We were the first region in Canada to get a multi-beam echo sounder - sometime in 1988. The technology allows us to get a detailed map of the complete seafloor that wasn't previously possible when single beam technology allowed only profile lines from shore to shore and we were blind in between the profiles." He notes there remains a tremendous amount of work to do to map the whole seafloor since only about 15 percent of the region has been covered.

Perhaps because the St. Lawrence has been such a pivotal waterway for trade and transportation into North America for centuries, Quebec CHS teams have made some startling discoveries during their surveys - in the form of shipwrecks and sunken artefacts.

Richard is quick to point out that it is not a CHS mandate to discover wrecks or establish their identity. As he points out "we do not look for them but we do find them". His task is to report them if they are a danger for navigation and to declare them to the Receiver of Wreck at Transport Canada. That said, he admits that their discovery can be quite exciting for him and his staff. After all they are revealing some of our past.

Richard Sanfaçon: "In the last 10 years we have found something like 35 wrecks. Some of them are quite interesting historically. For instance in 2005 we found the SS Nicoya, which was the first ship that was sunk by German submarines in the Battle of the St. Lawrence. On the 12th May 1942 she was torpedoed and sunk by an enemy submarine in the Gulf. The shipwreck, 115 metres long, was discovered in 290 metres of water, off Saint-Yvon in the Gaspé. By coincidence on the same day off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador her fleet sister, the Cristales, was also claimed by a German submarine.

Another wreck discovered was the SS Carolus. On the 9th of October 1942 while en route from Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, to Montreal carrying a cargo of empty barrels, she was torpedoed and sunk by German Submarine U-69. It was the most inland vessel sunk by the German submarines. It was found at a depth of 245 metres offshore from the site of the Maurice Lamontagne Institute. As Sanfaçon puts it, "I can see the spot from my window."

He adds, "What is really special about the more recent detailed survey of the seabed - since 2010 - especially in the Quebec City area are the new discoveries we have made. I was expecting to find maybe four or five wrecks. But I was surprised in a short distance, maybe 14 kilometres long and half a kilometre wide-we found something like 18 different targets and I would say that probably 14 or 15 of them are wrecks."

The surveys uncovered debris from the old Québec bridges that collapsed in 1907 and 1916, as well as a number of shipwrecks, some of which have yet to be identified. Some of the wrecks are in excellent condition, especially the Lady Grey, an old Coast Guard icebreaker that sank in 1955. It's big. It's standing upright and in good shape because it's recent and it was made of steel.

Then there is the account of the CGS Montmagny. It is yet another story of timing and coincidence. The Canadian Government Ship (CGS) Montmagny was a lighthouse-supply and buoy-tender vessel. She had an interesting history, given that she was one of the vessels that searched for bodies and wreckage from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

The Montmagny was sunk in September 1914 just four months after the loss of the Empress of Ireland. The Empress was struck amidships by a Norwegian coal ship in poor weather and sank very quickly in the early morning of May 29, 1914 near Pointe-au-Père. This accident claimed 1,012 lives, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in Canadian history. The Montmagny was sunk by another Norwegian coal vessel in the same kind of weather. Three adults and ten children lost their lives.

In 2010 Richard received a phone call from a colleague (Alain Franck) who is a naval historian who inquired when CHS might be surveying an area near where the Montmagny was thought to be.

CHS Survey Vessel Guillemot

CHS Survey Vessel Guillemot

His naval historian colleague also put him in contact with the filmmaker, Alain Vézina who wished to make a film documentary of the vessel. By coincidence CHS hydrographers were just about to cover the area in any case so keeping an eye out for the wreck was a target of opportunity. On November 2, 2010 Sanfaçon's hydrographers aboard the survey vessel Guillemot found the wreck of the CGS Montmagny in the south channel of the river off Isle-aux-Cranes near, ironically enough, Montmagny, Quebec.

"Remember this," adds Sanfaçon, "behind the 30 or 40 wrecks that we have found, there are some very interesting human stories. Just as an example, some years ago we found a wreck of a boat carrying wood logs that sank in 1950. Ten mariners disappeared in that disaster. While searchers had an idea that the wreck was somewhere between Matane and Trois-Rivières on the St. Lawrence, nobody knew exactly where.

"You should have heard the phone calls that I received', says Sanfaçon, "From the family members who lost their brother or their father in that disaster. They thanked me many times. You know when someone dies, but you don't know where they died or how they died, you live always with some doubt. So when you can tell them, 'It's here. This is where they are.' They find some peace."

Finding historically significant wrecks is an interesting side benefit to the job says Sanfaçon. He calls it "the cherry on the cake." But he also puts the bigger picture in perspective. "Our work is very important because we are still discovering our territory. In order to properly manage a territory, we have to know it. And the best way to know it is to map it. So it's the basic work for all the rest that comes within the purview of DFO. How are we going to manage the fish stock? How are we going to manage the oil resources, the gas resources? You have to know the seafloor. You have to understand and know how it looks and what it's made of. The data we're collecting is the basic stuff that you need to start any project that deals with the sea."

He concludes, "Today, I'm still part of a group of people discovering new parts of the seafloor, new parts of our planet. For me, that is so exciting."

He and his team will continue to explore the region's sea floor, and undoubtedly find more mysteries of the deep in the process. Exciting indeed!

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