Hearing of a newly discovered wreck really gets a wreck diver’s heart pumping. In June 2018, I heard about a newly discovered wreck in Georgian Bay. Although there wasn’t much information available at first, more information gradually became available. I learned that the vessel was a package steamer, located at a depth of around 200 feet, which was a good depth for technical diving. What caught my attention was that the ship was carrying a load of cattle as well as an old car! The discovery team also mentioned that the ship was intact, complete with the ship’s wheel, compass, and clock, all in perfect condition. I was immediately captivated and knew I had to dive this wreck. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted my plans. But, last summer, I was finally able to make two trips to Canada to explore the Manasoo.
The Story of the Manasoo
Much of the allure of wreck diving lies in the history of the ship and the story of her loss. The SS Manasoo was a 178-foot cargo/passenger ship. She was built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1888 as the SS Macassa. She was sold to the Owen Sound Transportation Company in 1928 and renamed Manasoo, a combination of the names Manitoulin Island and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, its two main ports of call.
In September 1928, Ontario rancher Don Wallace hired the Manasoo to take him to Manatoulin Island where he would buy some cattle to bring back to Owen Sound. He had his 1927 Chevrolet coupe loaded aboard, presumably to get around once they arrived up north. After buying 116 head of cattle, Wallace and the Manasoo headed out onto Georgian Bay for the return trip.
On September 15, 1928, the Manasoo was en route from Manitoulin Island to Owen Sound with its cargo of cattle. The ship encountered a heavy storm, and by the early hours of the morning, she had begun to take on water. Captain John McKay realized there was no option but to try and beach the ship at Griffith Island. Sadly, she didn’t make it.
Six people managed to climb onto a life raft. The ship sank only half a mile off Griffith Island, but in a cruel twist of fate, the wind blew the raft away from the island, back out into the middle of Georgian Bay. The survivors were out in the open bay for 60 hours. One of the survivors died during the ordeal. The other five were rescued by the steamer Manitoba. Sixteen people died in the wreck, including Captain McKay.
The Manasoo’s location was unknown for nearly 90 years until it was found on June 30, 2018, by shipwreck hunters Jerry Eliason and Ken Merryman of Minnesota, and maritime historian Cris Kohl of Windsor, Ontario. The wreck rests in about 200 feet (60 m) of water, with its stern embedded in the lake bottom and its bow rising towards the surface.
Diving the Manasoo
Diving the Manasoo is a truly special experience, and knowing her story enriches it even more. Once we arrive at the wreck site on our dive boat, the Swayze Express, operated by Fully Tek Marine Charters, I can’t help but notice how close we are to Griffith Island. The lighthouse seems almost within reach; a stark contrast to the despair that must have gripped the survivors on the raft as they were carried away from the island and back into the storm.
Georgian Bay’s visibility is generally excellent, and the wreck soon comes into view as we begin our descent. The shallowest part of the wreck is the bow, which is impaled into the bottom at an angle. As we swim further down, the wheelhouse comes into view at about 160 feet and is a breathtaking sight. The massive wooden wheel, engine telegraph, and compass all remain intact, allowing me to imagine Captain McKay’s last moments on the ship as it sank beneath his feet.
Continuing aft, I explore the cabins and compartments filled with artifacts. I discovered Don Wallace’s Chevy with the Chevrolet nameplate and license plates quite legible at the cargo loading door. The cargo area also contains cow bones which are all that remain of the cattle Wallace had purchased. As I swim further aft, the ship becomes more broken up due to sinking stern first and smashing into the lake bottom. The funnel has collapsed and is pinning one of the lifeboats beneath it, while the other two are at the stern.
I was lucky enough to make two trips to Canada this summer to dive the Manasoo. I’ve made four dives on the Manasoo but feel that there’s a lot more to see. She really is unique wreck with her own personality. Knowing her tragic story adds another dimension to visiting her. Any diver passionate about wrecks will truly appreciate diving the Manasoo. To see a gallery of amazing underwater images of the Manasoo, please visit Jeff Lindsay’s website.