Discover the unspoiled and majestic coastline along the rugged north coast of Cape Breton Island from our dive base located in Dingwall on the scenic Cabot Trail. This particular part of Cape Breton is steeped in a rich and mysterious history. Between the tip of Cape North and the coastal community of Ingonish lie the remains of over two hundred shipwrecks and 14 miles off the coast is St. Paul Island with over 350 recorded shipwrecks.
Cape Breton Island is located at the extreme north east end of Nova Scotia on the rugged coast of eastern Canada. The island is 110 miles in length and roughly 87 miles across at its widest point. The whole of the island with the exception of the northwest coast, is in indented by deep bays and inlets often terminating in excellent harbours. The summer months from June to September provide the best window of opportunity for scuba diving and searching for shipwrecks.
It was on the morning of June 24, 1497 that John Cabot and his son Sabastian Cabot landed on the beach in the shadow of Sugar Loaf Mountain in Aspy Bay and called the island "prima terra vista". There is evidence that the Portuguese explorer Fagundes arrived in 1521 and attempted to settle Ingonish and St. Annes Bay. However old records recently unearthed in Spain now show that the Basque actualy crossed the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of whales and discovered the lucrative fishing grounds of the Grand Banks. It is also believed that they also discovered and named the island of Cape Breton and they even penetrated the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 100 years before Columbus discovered America.
But the history of Cape Breton goes back much further than that. In fact over 900 years ago (that we know about at this time) there were other inhabatants over those years that included the Maritime Archaic Indians, the Vikings, the Mic maqh Indians and possibly others. According to certain ancient Icelandic manuscripts, or Saga (as they are called) the whole of the eastern coast of America from Greenland to Nantucket, was discovered by Norweigan rovers in the tenth century, soon after the settlement of Iceland and Greenland. The country called Helluland, or Slateland in the Saga, was evidently Newfoundland; that called Markland or Woodland, was Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.
It is stated in the Saga that frequent voyages were made during the eleventh and twelfth centuries to various parts of the newly-discovered countries and that in 1347, a vessel returning from Markland with a cargo of wood was wrecked on the coast of Iceland. As Cape Breton is the nearest land to Iceland which produces any wood, it is reasonable to conclude, if the Saga are worthy of credit, that the island was well known and visited by the Norsemen at least 600 years ago. There is a great deal of research that records English, French, Spanish and Portugese ships exploring and even attempting to settle parts of Cape Breton Island throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th Century. Some even wrecked here. With a history dating back over one thousand years, Cape Breton Island is one of the oldest and most historical parts of the world and historians speculate there may be in excess of 1000 ships wrecked on Cape Breton Island alone.
One of the earliest recorded shipwrecks (that we know of at this time) to occur on Cape Breton Island was the 70 ton English warship the Chancewell which wrecked on June 23, 1597. Historians and scholars have narrowed the suspected site of this wreck down to two possible areas: St. Anns Bay or possibly near Ingonish. To date it has never been found and while not a treasure ship, its historical significance is of paramount importance.
Cape North and Aspy Bay
Cape North lies at the north eastern extremity of Cape Breton Island and rises abruptly as a rocky headland to a height of 1100 feet. It has no shallow water at its base, but around to the eastward at Money Point a few rocks show themselves. To the Mic maqh Indians Cape North was called Uktutunook or "highest mountain". Other versions like "Cape du Nord" and "Cape North" are simply descriptive names given to that area and the beauty of the landscape cannot be overstated. Cape North was first settled in 1812. Similarly, Aspy Bay was known as Wegwaak or "turning suddenly". The French knew the area as Havre d' Aspe or D' Achepe which may have been patterened after the Mic maqh word for codfish, apaqo or apago.
To the Basques who fished in these waters, it was Pic d' Aspe after the Pyrenean mountains of the same name. Regardless of it's origins it is easy to see how the English arrived at the name "Aspy Bay" although the orgin of their other name for the region, "Egmont Bay" is unknown. However to mariners, it can be particularly treacherous and in addition to the topography, a pecular phenomenom at Aspy Bay gave early sailors an extra reason for caution.
The bay is over 8 miles across and 4 miles deep. Along its shores, Atlantic storms have swept a mass of fine sand, which forms a beautiful beach. At places this sand is found to be of a black color, very heavy, and possesing a metallic lustre, and is to all appearance, iron in a comparatively state. It is probably on this account that compasses will not work properly at any part of this bay, in consequence of which if proper notice be not taken, much property may be lost. In the month of September, 1882, two large steamships took shelter in the bay during a stormy night, and in the morning, the Captain and one of the crew came ashore, seeking assistence, assurring the people that his compass was of no service to him.
Nestled in the heart of Aspy Bay is the coastal fishing community of Dingwall. One of several settlements on Aspy Bay, the name "Dingwall" originates from Scotland, which was the supposed birthplace of the much-maligned King Mac Beth. Norse in origin, the name "Dingwall" comes from Ting (parliament) and Voir (valley). From there, a thousand years ago, the Vikings governed the north. These Vikings also crossed the Atlantic and roamed the shores at the top of Cape Breton Island. They got word back to Europe by way of the Norse sagas, which spoke of Vinland and Markland. About 800 years later Scottish settlers came to these shores.
On old maps from the early 1800's it was known as Young's Cove. Among the first settlers and grantees for land was Walter Young in 1827. Later in the late 1870's a Mr. Robert Dingwall who kept a small general store there, made an application for a post office, and suggested to the government that the place be named Dingwall. By provincial statute, chapter 55 in 1883, the name of Young's Cove was changed to Dingwall. Today fishing and tourism are the main industries. Dingwall is also where one of the richest shipwrecks in this hemisphere occurred, the ship was called "Auguste" and it wrecked in a vicious winter storm back in November of 1761.
"St. Paul Island is far away from where I live in the UK. Nevertheless, it has always been worth the time, trouble, expense and effort it takes to get there. It is a lonely, solitary island and the only place in the world I know where the diver is "guaranteed" to find cannon, shot and dead eye from another age of life at sea. Diving St. Paul Island is like diving straight into a bygone era and I know of nowhere else on earth with which to make a comparison".
Major Ned Middleton FRGS
British Underwater Photo-Journalist, Author, Media Consultant,
Shipwreck Historian and Natural History Photographer
"Over 30 meters underwater visibility every day, an enormous potential to discover virgin wrecks. With out a doubt St. Paul Island is the best cold water wreck diving I have ever experienced."
National Diving Officer
British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC)
"After going there (Saint Paul Island) you would have to find something the same or better to get us interested. I thought that going to Truk and Trimix diving out of Scapa Flow was the tops, but this is going to take some beating."
"The United Kingdom has more wrecks per mile of coastline than anywhere else in the world, which begs the question: who comes second? The answer? Nova Scotia."
Members of the 2010 St. Paul Island Expedition Team, from left to right:
Troy Fitzgerald, Scott Fitzgerald, Brandon Hart, Ron Newcombe, Ed
Barrington, Derek Barrington and Terry Dwyer.