By Joanne Rodgers, Bruce Peninsula Press
Two local filmmakers plan to use the great interest generated by the news of their discovery of the Africa shipwreck in Lake Huron to highlight the epic ecological change going on within the Great Lakes due to the invasive quagga mussels.
The filmmakers say since the story broke about their find, the descendents of Captain Larsen of the Africa have reached out to them. They are working together with the family to find a way to honour the lives lost in the October storm of 1895.
Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick reside at Larsen Cove in Miller Lake and are well-known to locals for their three part documentary series The Bruce. Their latest project is to look at the invasive quagga mussels and their impact on the ecosystems of the Great Lakes.
Melnick says the quagga mussels are the cause of the greatest ecological change in the Lakes since the glaciers. Quadrillions of mussels now carpet the bottom of the Great Lakes, contributing to the sharp decline of lake whitefish in Lakes Huron and Michigan. The new TVO documentary to be released next year All Too Clear: Beneath the Surface of the Great Lakes, aims to tell the story of what is happening in the Great Lakes due to the impact of the quagga mussels. Emulating the likes of Jacques Cousteau and James Cameron, they used a state-of the art remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to explore the depths up to 500 metres (1600 ft) below the surface. “The best way”, the filmmakers say “to show people what is out there.”
While working on the documentary, this husband and wife team is collaborating with Fisheries scientists from Canada and the United States, throughout the Great Lakes. They learned that in September of 2022, a US research vessel doing an offshore fish survey noticed an abnormality, an unusual bump, on their sonar readout.
One Saturday in June of this year, Drebert and Melnick, a couple of friends and a dog along with the 25 kg ROV Boxfish Luna went out to take a look. Searching at about 85 metres deep, at first the crew did not see anything via the underwater robotic camera; about 30 metres away they could identify a silhouette in the distance. As the ROV got closer and closer they could make out a smokestack. This meant a streamer, a really old vessel! Really excited, they realised it was a wooden vessel.
Sadly the clarity and high visibility of seeing in these depths are in part due to the efficiency of quadrillion quagga mussels devouring plankton, thus helping to make the water crystal clear.
High waves and bouts of seasickness sent the crew home that day, still puzzling about their discovery.
Drebert and Melnick invited Patrick Folkes, a local marine historian and Scarlett Janusas, a marine archeologist over to their place and showed them the video. They also reached out to their contacts at the Bruce County Museum and Archives.
They applied for an archeological licence to investigate the site.
About a month later, armed with the licence, the pair made another trip out to get measurements of the wreck, 148 feet long, 26 feet wide and 12.5 feet high. While the ship seemed intact, it was completely covered with the quagga mussels making it impossible to see the name of the vessel. Another clue was the chunks of coal lying about. With these pieces of information, it was determined that the missing steamship Africa, was the best fit.
According to an article by the Canadian Geographic on this discovery: “On Oct. 5, 1895, the Africa left Ashtabula, Ohio for Owen Sound, with the schooner Severn in tow and carrying 1,270 tons of coal between them. On board were 10 crew, plus the captain, Hans Larsen, a 20-year veteran of the Great Lakes—the same Larsen for whom Larsen Cove, the home of Drebert and Melnick, is named.”
On Oct 7, the ships were caught in a windstorm on Lake Huron. The Africa disappeared, eleven lives lost; while the Severn ran aground and all the crew were saved the following day.
The Canadian Geographic article continues “Debris from the Africa appeared episodically for nearly a year after the wreck. A trunk belonging to Hayes, the chief engineer, washed up, containing clothing and a bundle of letters from his daughter. Letters from Larsen’s wife and son, which he’d kept in his desk, were discovered, along with his hat and the cook’s trunk. The following summer, three more bodies were found in different places along the coast: those of Larsen; Anderson, a married father with two young children; and another who was buried without ever being identified.”
The shipwreck site (and possibly a gravesite) is now a registered archaeological site, which means that no one should touch or modify the area. Under the Ontario Heritage Act, violation of the act or its regulations has a penalty fine of up to $1,000,000 or imprisonment for up to one year or both.
The story of the shipwreck and its discovery will be featured in the upcoming documentary. However, the filmmakers say the real star is the whitefish. With their high tech camera, they have captured the fish spawning, feeding and schooling. Their photographic efforts have extended to Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, spending more than 120 days filming underwater over the past two years.
Before discovering the Africa, their work ”focused on the ecological impacts of the mussels – which have devastated fisheries around the lakes. We hadn’t considered the effect they could have on our cultural heritage,” says Melnick, “but the mussels have truly changed everything in the deep waters of the Great Lakes.” This shipwreck along with countless other shipwrecks of a bygone era are slowly being destroyed by the ecosystem changes of today.
Drebert and Melnick hope to leverage the publicity generated by the discovery of the shipwreck to showcase the huge changes especially as it applies to the quagga mussels throughout the Great Lakes.
For more information on the shipwreck along with photos, please go to https://inspiredplanet.ca/uncategorized/africa-shipwreck-discovery/