Scuba Diving Off St. Paul's Island: Dedicated to the Memory of Mike "Knobby" Walsh
Graveyard of the St. Lawrence
A Treacherous Piece of Real Estate
I received my P.A.D.I. Sport Diving Ticket back in 1982 at the Shearwater Military Base located in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (NS), east coast of Canada, right on Halifax Harbor.
Even though I was a civilian, the Canadian Navy was allowing non military personal access to their training facilities along with all their expertise and equipment, so I jumped at the opportunity.
My Dive Master back then, Mike "Knobby" Walsh loved to push civies (as he called us) right to the limits.
I quickly rose to level 3 in a few months so Knobby invited me to join a group of 15 other divers on a 10 day underwater treasure hunting trip to an island right out in the Atlantic Ocean,about 20 miles off the Northeast tip of Cape Breton Island, NS, called St. Paul's Island.
Known as the Graveyard of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, St. Paul's has over 300 registered shipwrecks dating back to the 1600's most of which occurred long before modern navigational equipment was invented.
One of those wrecks was a treasure ship called The Royal Sovereign that went down in a hurricane back in the 1800's while delivering a huge payroll of Mexican Silver Coins along with a few hundred soldiers, from England to Canada, which I believe were all going to be used to help the war effort at that time.
We heard there were still coins from the Sovereign and jewelry being found from other wrecks off St. Paul's and we had a few dive site leads from some credible, local fisherman so we were excited to get started.
One fisherman actually told Knobby that he had an old chest caught up in his fishing gear and was just starting to haul it up out of the water when it broke loose and fell back in, down to a depth of around 220 ft. He said it had to be very heavy for it to snap his gear like it did
Knobby did one, quick dive in that location but with no luck. It's a pretty deep dive. If we had access to the modern equipment and technology we have today, we might have had some better results but I still know approximately where that location is so next time I go back, who knows what we might find.
Over the years there has been several major diving expeditions around the island but no luck so far finding the famous but elusive treasure ship and it's rich cargo.
Backing up a little, Knobby had all of our gear flown to the island by Sea King military helicopter but all the divers, including myself and Knobby's two sons Mike and Paul, who were also very capable divers.
We then drove the 8 hours from Shearwater to a place called Dingwall, NS and from there we rented a fishing boat to get out to St. Paul's which was located in a beautiful spot by Dingwall called Aspe Bay.
From the water, Aspe Bay reminded me of Hawaii. The only thing missing were Palm Trees. It has a 4 &1/2 mile long, white sandy beach that is always deserted and in the background you can see the world famous Cabot Trail that whines through the Cape Breton Highlands.
What a beautiful spot. Unfortunately, many tourists drive over the Cabot Trail and keep heading to Sydney, the capital city of CB and pass right by the turnoff leading out to Dingwall and never even knew that such a paradise like Aspe Bay is even there. Maybe that's a good thing
Aspe Bay itself is also well known for another treasure ship that went aground in a hurricane back in the 1800's called The Auguste.
The wealthiest families in Montreal at that time where expelled from Canada and ordered back to France but were allowed to take their family fortunes with them. The hurricane hit and drove The Auguste right into Aspe Bay along with it's treasure.
There has been several expeditions over the years searching for that ship also including one that my friend Colin Caines, who owns the local dive shop, put together the last time I was up there back in 2006 and was featured on a Canadian TV show called Land and Sea.
Although many coins and some jewelry have been found, The Auguste and The Sovereign are still there waiting to be discovered and knowing Colin like I do, he won't stop looking until he finds them.
Currently, as I write this, Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada that still allows anyone who finds a treasure to keep 90% of the bounty which In my opinion is fair considering the costs and risks involved in putting an expedition together.
All other provinces only allow you to keep 10% so for all you treasure hunting enthusiasts out there reading this, the clock is ticking because i know they are trying to change that law as I speak.
The Gulf Stream, which is an ocean river that flows Northeast off the East Coast of Florida and skims right by Northern Cape Breton, NS, on it's way to Western Europe, brings very warm waters with it in the summer months along with some unusual sea creatures only found in Southern waters.
St. Paul's is also a breeding ground for sharks in August/ September, which I also didn't know until after the trip as we were making our way back to the mainland and we noticed more and more swimming by, heading towards the Island.
I don't mind swimming with sharks as long as you remember to stay cool and respect the fact that you are a guest in their world but I do have to admit that when I'm floating on the surface getting ready to go down, with a black wet suit on, arms and legs splashing around knowing I look like a fat, juicy seal to a hungry shark, I do get a little nervous but once I'm under, I feel like I'm just part of the scenery.
Last time I was diving St. Paul's back in the summer of 2006, the water temperature was 72 degrees and for anyone out there that has been diving in the cold North Atlantic Ocean, that is like bathwater to us. Fantastic!
To the locals living by St. Paul's Island, they have a name for it.
A Treacherous Piece of Real Estate and for very good reason.
It is a giant rock sticking out of the Atlantic Ocean about 3 miles long, 1+ miles wide and about 500 hundred feet at it's highest point, while constantly wrapped in a cloak of thick fog and surrounding by steep, jagged cliffs.
To make it even more dangerous, it also has underwater shoals extending out from every part of the island like some kind of a giant sea monster luring you into it's deadly tentacles and once it has you in it's grip, there is little chance for escape. You are doomed.
If you were some of the lucky ones that did survive a shipwreck back then and miraculously made it to shore, you were then faced with trying to survive in an extremely isolated and barren terrain, especially in winter but when the sun is shining and the diving conditions are ideal, man o man, what a beautiful spot.
Most survivors either slowly starved to death or went mad waiting to be rescued. Stories, as told by many of the locals, are that even though people on the mainland could see the fires burning on the island from shore in the winter, there was no way to rescue them because of the shifting pack ice.
Legend has it that on dark, foggy nights, you can still hear the haunting screams of agony coming from the thousands of ghostly, lost souls still aimlessly wandering the island for eternity and I was about to find that out for myself..
I personally had no idea about the thousands of people that perished there or the history of the island itself until we landed and got all set up.
There are two lighthouses on each end of the island and at that time one was still manned so on that first day we took one of our zodiacs up to the North end of the island and met up with the lighthouse keeper to see if he could give us any dive site tips.
He was full of great stories about his 30 years as the keeper of the lighthouse and living on the island for 30 day shifts at a time working for the Canadian Coast Guard.
Just a few I remember were hundred foot waves crashing over the top of his lighthouse, being swept into the ocean and many more.
We sat around listening for hours captivated by his story telling. What a character but unfortunately I cannot remember his name although I'm sure it is written down in records somewhere.
He asked us were we were staying and we said in Atlantic Cove at the old Governors Mansion.
Many years ago the island actually had a lobster processing plant on it and 40 or 50 people lived and worked there.
We also mentioned it was a great spot because although it was the only landing location on the island with some smaller cliffs, which were a little tricky navigating but manageable, there was also a big field in the front of the old mansion were we could set up all our gear, play a little Frisbee while filling our tanks while getting ready for our dives.
He asked us if we noticed that the field is covered with little rolling mounds which we acknowledged.
He mentioned that over 300 people were buried in that front yard which made us all kind of go into a shock. He also mentioned that at night you can still hear the screams of people who died there.
His face turned a pale white as he told us he won't go there at night, which freaked us out even more and something I personally didn't need to hear being brought up in a large Irish, Roman Catholic family.
Every night we all had to take turns going down to the shoreline and checking the gear.
It was pitch black that first night and after finding out about the grave site right in our front yard, I was not looking forward to my turn.
When it came, I asked a buddy to go with me because everyone was a little nervous whether they wanted to admit it or not.
I opened the front door and the fog came rolling in like a wave of water it was so thick.
It was very, very spooky as we made our way down over the field of graves, back to back in pitch black, with the only thing visible was the beam of our flashlights.
I'm not going to mention the things I thought I heard or thought I seen on that first trip to check the gear that night because I'm not even sure what they were myself so I will just say that the imagination can sure play some crazy tricks with your mind.
Well, we all managed to get through the night although I don't think anyone got much sleep but now it was time to get some diving in.
All I can say about diving St. Paul's is that it is with out a doubt, some of the best diving I've ever done.
The waters were crystal clear at well over 100 feet deep, which is amazing for the North Atlantic and full of bugs (lobsters) so for 10 days we ate great seafood, drank lots of rum and got some beautiful day & night dives in.
Unfortunately we did not find any treasure but we did discover that the real treasure is St. Paul's itself.
After 10 days it was time to start packing up the gear and heading home. Knobby asked us if anyone wanted to go dive the Arrow with him, a giant oil tanker that split in half and went down off Cape Breton Island about 20 years before the time of that trip.
I was too burnt out from doing 3 to 5 dives a day for 10 days straight so I declined the Arrow invitation, along with half of the other divers. I just wanted to get home, take a hot shower and sleep in my own bed but the other half did go.
That is when and where we lost Knobby.
According to the conflicting stories I heard, Knobby and one of the other younger divers were down in the cabins & hallways on the Arrow and apparently the younger diver got lost. He was found stuck in a porthole at 90 feet, still alive but really freaked out.
Knobby was found the next day floating in a corridor. He ran out of oxygen, probably looking for the other diver knowing him like I did.
A tragic end to an adventure of a lifetime. As I mentioned, there are conflicting stories about what really happened on that dive but the fact of the matter is, we lost Knobby
Knobby was a great guy, an extremely capable diver and I am very proud & honored that I knew him, even if it was for only a short time.
I feel so thankful that had the opportunity to share that 10 day experience with him on St. Paul's Island before he tragically left us.
During the entire trip all he could talk about was that he was so excited about retiring soon.
He just bought a 65 ft. boat that he was going to use for dive tours and if memory serves me right, which rarely does, lol, I believe he mentioned that he had the dive rights for the Arrow.
I still remember Knobby sitting at the end of the old kitchen table in the Governor's mansion, smoking his pipe with that devilish twinkle in his eye and a little smile, probably from the buzz of the rum, lol, told me right in front of all the other divers, to stick to it, I was going to be a good diver.
That was a big confidence builder for me at that time because I was still new and those words kept me diving till this day.
I actually took a picture of Knobby at that moment and gave it to Colin to hang in his Dive Museum located by his dive shop right on the main and only road going into Dingwall, back in 2006, which you will see there when you hopefully visit someday soon
All I can say to all you diving enthusiasts out there is, if you ever get a chance to get a group together and want to go for a scuba diving trip/vacation of a lifetime, go to St. Paul's island.
I could go on and on about some of the dives we did on that first trip to St. Paul's but I would have to write a book so all I can say for now is that it is a very mysterious place with fantastic diving and well worth the trip.
I hope you like lobsters & rum because that is the staple diet when diving St. Paul's.
Since those days I've been diving all over the world but I still have not found any place that is more thrilling to dive than St. Paul's island. It is a very strange place that holds a lot of mystery still waiting to be discovered.
As I mentioned earlier, my buddy Colin Caines has a dive shop right in Dingwall, NS, along with a fascinating dive museum plus all the gear, watercraft & facilities you need to put a great charter together for up to 15 divers.
Fully equipped, accommodations and vessels so if you are interested, you can contact Colin at RecoveryAtlantic@hotmail.com.
It is an amazing place.
Colin is one of the guys I met in the line up at the resort in Varadero, Cuba while trying to buy some Pesos, that I mentioned in my other article titled "The Real Cuba".
How we met in a line up at a resort in Cuba, went to Havana together to see Fidel Castro's last public speech to the nation and ended up diving St. Paul's Island together back home in Nova Scotia a few months later, is an amazing set of circumstances of it's own and just seems to add more mystery to St. Paul's but that is another story.
In one of my pictures where you see us all sitting on the back of a Cape Islander, myself and Colin are holding up the 2006 St. Paul's Island Expedition banner right above the words St. Paul and over to the far right with a baseball cap on and holding the other end of the banner is Terry Dwyer.
Terry was our Dive Master on that 2006 trip.
He is a world-renowned diving expert, public speaker and author of several books including "Wreck Hunters" (1st & 2nd Edition)
Terry is also an expert on St. Paul's Island with hundreds of dives logged on that site alone. I can't recommend Terry's books enough for any diving enthusiast. They are an extremely fascinating and informative read
On my last trip to St. Paul's in 2006, it was almost 25 years since I dove there and the last time I was there, my dive master Knobby Walsh died on that expedition so for reasons I can't explain, I was a little nervous about getting back into the water.
St. Paul's holds many memories for me, mostly great/some bad.
This is where I have to give a big thanks to my dive master, Terry Dwyer.
Terry quickly recognized I was a bit apprehensive about getting wet so he basically threw me in the water which was the best thing anyone could have done. Once I was in, that old familiar sense of calmness came over me again.
It's feels like you are part of another world which in fact you are.
It wraps itself around you like your favorite blanket and the only noise you can hear is sound of your own bubbles and your heart pounding with excitement.
It also quickly reminded me of how beautiful the diving off St. Paul's really is. It was like coming back home again.
I've included a few old pics from the 1982 trip which I'm hoping people with me on that trip might recognize and get back to me. It would be great to hear from you if you were there too
I would like to dedicate this article to, Mike "Knobby Walsh" Terry Dwyer, Colin Canes and Recovery Atlantic, along with the rest of the dive teams on our 1982 & 2006 St. Paul's Island Expeditions. I could not have picked a better group of people to dive with. Both were great diving adventures.
I'm going back to St. Pauls in the first week of August /2012 so if you are interested in joining us, just let me know.
I guarantee you will have the time of your life while enjoying our Maritime hospitality.
Although the lobster and rum are optional, I guarantee you will love our clam bakes.
This is were we did a big hole in the sand, cover the bottom with beach stone and then burn driftwood on top of them until the rocks are red hot.
Then we we cover the stones with sand then lay down some fresh seaweed over the sand and then throw in our lobster, scallops, clams, mussels & oysters, harvested daily right out of the crystal clear waters of the Canadian North Atlantic Ocean, along with some corn on the cob.
The sea salt from the seaweed adds an amazing flavor to the corn especially when dipped in melted garlic butter with everything else.
We then cover up it all with another layer of seaweed and then bury it all with more sand and then wait while it all slowly bakes.
Roughly two hours later, we dig it all back up and feast like King Neptune himself.
This is when the guitars, fiddles and any other musical instrument comes out to play while we drown ourselves in our world famous, ice cold Maritime beer and listen to some traditional Celtic Highland music around the fire under a warm, star filled summer night.
I guarantee you will never sleep so peacefully again as you will that first night on the beach
The party continues with a relaxing beach bon fire while telling dive and ghost stories until you are ready to crash.
It's a great experience that I know you would enjoy
Well, thanks a lot guys and please forgive me if I get any names wrong or information incorrect.
It's been close to 30 years now since my first trip to St. Pauls and this is the only time I ever even talked about it in all these years but as I write this I am flooded with more memories of my 1982 trip so I find myself continually coming back to add more things.
If you need help booking an all inclusive trip with us to St. Paul's, no matter where you are located in the world, visit us at: www.TheDestinationExperts.com
Thank you taking the time to read my article and I hope to hear from you soon.