As long as man has gone to sea, there have been shipwrecks. A frequent cause in earlier times was simply losing one's way and running aground; but the failure of man's technology when pitted against the unforgiving sea also accounts for some of history's most infamous shipwrecks. The best-known example of this was the sinking on its maiden voyage of the SS TITANIC, the greatest technological achievement of its day. It went to the bottom after a brief encounter with an iceberg on a foggy April night in 1912, 320 nautical miles (600 km) off Newfoundland, with a loss of over 1500 lives.
Canada has also had its share of spectacular shipwrecks including, most notably, the Canadian Pacific passenger liner SS EMPRESS OF IRELAND, which sank in 14 minutes in the GULF OF ST LAWRENCE after a collision off Rimouski on 29 May 1914. Of the 1477 passengers and crew, 1014 perished, a death toll exceeded to that point only by the Titanic incident. However, both the passenger list and the ship itself lacked the glamour of the SS Titanic, and the incident was soon forgotten in a world about to be engulfed in war.
SABLE ISLAND, a crescent-shaped sandbar 300 km east-southeast (160 nautical miles) of Halifax, is also infamous for its shipwrecks, and is known as "the Graveyard of the Atlantic," as its shifting sands have been the site of over 350 such incidents.
The sudden loss in 1975 of the modern US bulk carrier Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in LAKE SUPERIOR with all 29 crew members during a November storm, was a more recent Canadian tragedy, again reminding us that modern ships are not unsinkable. Fortunately, shipwrecks are now infrequent, though, as the size and complexity of ships increase, a single wreck (and the resulting pollution clean-up in the case of tankers or chemical carriers) can be very costly. Just over 250 ships were reported lost from all causes in 1992, but this was out of a world fleet of over 80 000 merchant ships over 100 t.
Shipwrecks have long held a special fascination for many, including a new breed of MARINE ARCHAEOLOGISTS. The easy availability of scuba-DIVING apparatus has caused an enormous resurgence of interest in shipwrecks over the past 2 decades but serious archaeologists worry about the damage that amateur explorers and treasure hunters can cause to older fragile wrecks. Nonetheless, archaeologists and hobby divers are now finding many wrecks of historic interest in Canadian waters.
The remains of the vessels of Admiral Walker's British fleet, which was sunk in 1711, have been found off of Scatari Island, NS, and near English Point in the ST LAWRENCE RIVER. In LAKE ONTARIO, the British warships Hamilton and Scourge, which sank in a fierce storm during the War of 1812, have been found in 1973 and are now being protected. And in arctic waters are the remains of the BREADALBANE, which sank while involved in the FRANKLIN SEARCH.
Flotsam and Derelicts
In addition to a complete vessel which has sunk, run aground or burned usually being referred to as a "shipwreck," the terms "flotsam,""jetsam" and "derelict" are still used on occasion. "Flotsam" refers to the material or goods left floating on the sea as a result of a wreck, while "jetsam" is material intentionally jettisoned in an attempt to lighten the load of a sinking vessel. "Derelict" refers to any property, whether vessel or cargo, abandoned at sea without hope or intention of recovery. The term "wreck" also includes any part of a ship or boat, its equipment or cargo. In Canada, the laws governing the treatment of shipwrecks and marine salvage are embodied in the Canada Shipping Act, administered by the CANADIAN COAST GUARD.
See also DISASTERS.