At the beginning of March 2020, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada opened “Shipwrecks” – an exciting, changeable exhibit featuring unique species and stories from around the world and the mysteries of what lies in the wreckage beneath the surface of the water.
Until we can welcome you back to check out Shipwrecks for yourself, we invite you to join us on a virtual “tour” from the comfort of your own home.
In this Deep Sea Diary post, we’ll learn about one of Canada’s most famous naval disasters, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, travel to the Mediterranean and discover the ancient story of the Uluburun and then hop up to the Arctic, where we learn about the discovery of the Northwest Passage.
The legend of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald remains the most mysterious and controversial of all shipwreck tales heard around the Great Lakes.
The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was built in 1957, and at 222 m in length, was not only one of the most famous ships to sail the Great Lakes, but also one of the largest. On the morning of November 9, 1975, the ship was loaded with taconite pellets and set off from Superior, Wisconsin bound for an island near Detroit, Michigan. In gale force winds and a blinding snow storm, on the night of November 10, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior near Whitefish Bay, Michigan, with the loss of the entire crew of 29. To this day, the exact circumstances surrounding its sinking remain unknown.
While ships transport goods such as ore, coal, etc., without careful measure, they can also unintentionally transport foreign species to new environments. These invasive species can threaten local ecosystems and damage the environment, the economy and human health.
In the Great Lakes, species such as alewives, lamprey, zebra mussel and round goby have been introduced, many transported from their natural habitat in a ship’s ballast water – water that is taken onto or discharged from a ship as it loads or unloads its cargo, to accommodate the ship’s weight changes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency1, 30% of invasive species in the Great Lakes have been introduced through ship ballast water!
You can help prevent the spread of invasive species in the Great Lakes by cleaning visible aquatic plants, animals and mud from water equipment, not releasing unwanted pets such as turtles or fish into bodies of water and not using invasive species as bait. Practice of preventative actions will ensure environment stability in the Great Lakes.
Endangered Species in the Greater Toronto Area
And while there are some species found in the Great Lakes that are unwanted, there are also some that need your help! The redside dace, a member of the minnow family, is one of those fish. In watersheds surrounding the Great Toronto Area, this fish is considered endangered – meaning it is facing imminent extinction or extirpation (disappearance from the area). Habitat loss and degradation caused by urban and agricultural development are the most significant threats to redside dace. Development can alter stream flow and shape, cause excessive amounts of sediment to enter the water, result in the removal of streamside vegetation which the species needs for cover and food, and to moderate water temperature. Habitat protection and restoration is critical to this species survival in Ontario watersheds.
The Uluburun shipwreck is a Bronze Age vessel discovered lying off the coast of Kas, Turkey. The ship dates between 1330 and 1300 BC and, at the time of its disappearance, was carrying a full cargo of trade goods including olives and figs, Egyptian jewelry, quartz and sandstone.
This exhibit features a Uluburun photo-opportunity, and is home to many fish that live in Mediterranean waters, including cardinalfish, parrotfish, tompot blenny, swallowtail seaperch and various species of seabream.
According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, more than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored2. Shipwrecks can be found at all depths, but this statistic give us a sense of how little we know about shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean.
One species that can be found at great depths is the giant isopod. These invertebrates are found in the Pacific Ocean, at depths between 168 to 2140 m deep (and potentially deeper). They may look like bugs, but are actually crustaceans, more closely related to shrimp and crab!
An artificial reef is a man-made underwater structure that may mimic some of the characteristics of a natural reef. Shipwrecks are the most common form of artificial reef, whether sunk intentionally or unintentionally. They provide hard surfaces where algae and invertebrates, such as barnacles, corals, and oysters, attach. The accumulation of attached marine life in turn provides intricate structure and food for assemblages of fish, creating an underwater haven for marine life!
Some of the animals that may take advantage of a sunken ship to make a home include the peacock mantis shrimp and hummingbird bobtail squid, both found in the Indo-Pacific, and swell sharks, found off the Pacific Coast of North America.
The peacock mantis shrimp is one of the more captivating creatures of the coral reef. Its hard-shelled body is bursting with colour – bright red, green, orange and blue. It also packs a serious punch when hunting for food, exerting a force similar to a .22 caliber bullet!
Hummingbird bobtail squid are cephalopods, related to octopus and cuttlefish. They have a symbiotic relationship with bioluminescent bacteria, which inhabit a special light organ in the squid’s mantle. The squid provide food for the bacteria, and in return hide the squid’s silhouette when viewed from below. This method of camouflage is called counter-illumination.
Swell sharks are bottom-dwellers, and get their name from a unique defensive behaviour – when threatened, the swell shark will curve its body into a U-shape and gulp water into its stomach, swelling to almost twice its size, becoming difficult to bite.
In 1845, explorer Sir John Franklin set sail from England with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of a Northwest Passage across what is now Canada’s Arctic. The ships and crew were last seen by Inuit on King William Island and never returned to England. Their apparent disappearance, prompted a massive search that continued unsuccessfully for nearly 170 years.
In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus in an area that had been identified by Inuit. Two years later the wreck of HMS Terror was located.
Through a partnership with Parks Canada, the Shipwrecks exhibit proudly displays replica artifacts uncovered by Parks Canada under archaeologists, and some of the gear they would have used to make these historical discoveries.
We hope to ‘sea’ you soon so that you can check out our NEW Shipwrecks exhibit and learn more about these shipwrecks and species that inhabit them for yourself!