The water looked fast. “Let’s jump in at the same time so we don’t lose each other,” says Coral, my dive partner who at this moment, eyes smiling through her mask, looks very confident. Or was it crazy?
Standing on the edge of the Niagara River as it gushed toward the world’s most impressive waterfall, I wasn’t sure, but with thick black flippers on my feet and a couple of heavy tanks between my shoulders, backing out wasn’t an option.
Chewing hard on the chewy plastic of my breathing device, the oxygen from my Regulator tastes sweet as I take a big breath in and step off the edge of the pier into the Niagara River a millisecond after Coral. An incredible force immediately pulls us along and before I can even form the words “oh shit,” my dive buddy is giving me the ‘OK’ signal to go down. The Darth Vader sound of drawing air in and out as calmly and steadily as possible fills my head as the swirling water becomes clearer and we drop slowly down-down-down into the depths of the river. The stringy, bent river weeds come into sight along the bottom at about 40 feet under and I stretch my arms out, relax my body and settle into the relentless pull and rhythm which makes this drift dive as effortless and thrilling as Peter Pan flying off to Neverland.
Scuba diving is not the first activity a person may think of when they come to the Niagara Region. I certainly did not, even though diving has been part of my life for many years. The square building on Welland Avenue in St. Catharines painted red with a white diagonal stripe – the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) logo and DAN’S DIVE SHOP in bold letters, must be for divers looking to buy gear for their vacation down south, or at least that’s what I thought. The young man who first greeted me at was busy arranging a rack of what appeared to be astronaut suits as I entered.
“So will you come out on Wednesday night with us?” he asked after a brief chat. “Come out where? You can’t dive here.” I recall saying confidently. After all, this was Ontario and the waters here aren’t exactly balmy. He smiled kindly and gave me a piece of paper with “Wednesday night dives” in bold at the top and a long list of locations and dates below. “You’d be surprised,” dive master Chris Foisey said, “Come out with us one night. You just bring your gear and a full tank and it’s free.” Dan’s has been operating since 1974 and is one of the world’s oldest established dive shops. They service, train and sell gear for warm waters but also specialize in cold water diving, which is what we have here in Ontario. According to their website “Ontario is a top 10 scuba diving destination in any major scuba diving magazine.” I wasn’t convinced, but I was curious.
Now, on the banks of Chippewa, a few kilometers from the Falls, before the hydro dam, drifting down the Niagara River from 40 feet below, flying past river reeds, rocks and the occasional fish, I was starting to become a believer in the underwater world of this region. Simply knowing you are being pulled forward by one of the world’s most famous waterfalls is an indescribable rush.
That night after the dive, at the bare-bones bar, “Chippewa House” over beers and fried pickles, the divers trade tales about their local adventures. Stories of wrecks from the 1800s off of Port Dalhousie or of discovering an old beam from the remnants of an 1812 war ship of off Navy Pier in Niagara-On-The-Lake make my heart race.
“I love the exploratory aspect of it. Seeing what is around the next corner or being where nobody has ever dove before,” says Matt Mandziuk, a seasoned local diver and the owner of Dan’s Dive Shop. Matt’s dad, Dan, hooked him up to scuba gear when he was five years old. His first dive was in Sherkston Quarry on the coast of Lake Erie. Sherkston became a dive site in 1917 when the water pumps quit working and was flooded. Today it’s a prime spot to learn how to dive and also to explore the random items 40 feet down such as train engines, golf carts, fish and boats.
“I have the heart of an explorer,” says Matt. I love going places few people have seen. It gets me jacked. It’s part of why we train so that we can do new and amazing things.”
Diving in Ontario begins in April and continues to November when the water is at its warmest and has the clearest visibility.
According to Matt it’s best to dive June–October when bottom temp is always around 2C. In the right equipment, diving locally is not cold. A dry suit is just that—dry—so you can wear your fleecy PJs underneath while you take in a shipwreck or watch a school of prehistoric Sturgeon spawn in the fall.
It was a stormy hot evening when I met Matt and a handful of divers at the docks in Port Dalhousie. The boat rocked mercilessly as we headed out over dark waters to where a wreck, affectionately called “The Tiller” because of the large tiller at the back of the ship, lay silently since it sank in the mid 1800’s. The boat slumbers 95-110 feet down. It was most likely a freighter, which sank while headed to Toronto, although not much is known about it. “Hold the rope on the safety stop back up,” Matt tells us as we spit in our masks and position our bodies on the edges of the boat. “It can get a little rough near the surface on a night like this.” Rain has begun to fall in little patters on the water as we fall backward off the boat and slowly descend. There is no talking underwater, no cellphones, no thought of what you didn’t finish at work that day or whatever plays on your mind on the surface. There is only silence and the constant breath in your ears as a large boat comes into view before you and the whole world slips away and you glide by sunken history.
“You face your fears,” Dan Mandziuk, of Dan’s Dive shop, told me much later on dry land. “It’s pushing yourself, but safely.” At 72 years of age, he’s still a fixture at the shop and dives locally regularly. “If you think you can, you can, if you think you can’t, you can’t,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
He likens diving to driving—experience makes the difference. “It is investing in yourself. If you can reach 8-10 dives, that’s a thresh-hold to saying ‘you are a diver.’”
Do it for the thrill, do it for the post dive beer and the fried pickles, or do it for the friendships, which inevitably come after each dive, but if you do venture into the depths of waters in the Niagara Region, it will be an experience you will never forget.
Local Diving Sites
Navy Hall, Lower Niagara River, Niagara-On-The-Lake:
Depths range from 20-98 feet with good visibility after periods of no rain or low wind (8-10 feet). The fall is the best time to dive Navy Hall as the sturgeons come in to spawn during that time of year. Sturgeons are an incredible prehistoric fish that are endangered and can grow to lengths of up to 7-12 feet.
Chippawa Creek Dive Site:
Kings Bridge Park to Boat Launch Drift
Enter at Kings Bridge Park or at the Tim Horton’s by Kings Bridge and drift down to the Chippawa Creek public boat launch. Max Depth 40 . Visibility 10-20 average. Look for bikes, guns, bottles. Duration 35-45 mins.
Welland Scuba Park in the Old Welland Canal:
Welland Scuba Park offers some fabulous shore dives for the begin- ner diver and diver who wants to work on skills in a shallow, and controlled environment. A favourite spot in the Canal is the Welland Swing Bridge with plenty of dock pillars and fish, as well as generally better visibility.
Tiller Wreck Dive Charter, Port Dalhousie:
This is beautiful and fragile wooden schooner 100 long by 25 wide. The ship is in great shape and features two beautiful masts, a rudder, cargo holds that you can access, a picturesque bow, windlass, anchor and stove. This is an advanced dive for experienced divers.
For more Niagara Region dive sites and information about getting certified go to www.dansdiveshop.ca