Shallow Steps Lead to Deep Wrecks

Gene Peterson   Jul 01, 2023

By Gene Peterson

Finding a suitable boat for offshore expeditions in Nova Scotia was a challenge. Although knowledgeable captains were available in the eighties, their vessels were too small and not appropriate for a group of more than four to six divers. Steve Giza, owner of Timberlea Divers, provided sales and air fills, but had no charter services. It was customary for local divers to hike to the known wrecks, and then get their tanks filled at Steve’s afterward. Steve always kept a pot of coffee on and would entertain those chilled divers with his stories. While sipping one of Steve’s potent brews, he recounted the sinking of three ships he observed during his youth. During World War II, the ships had lined up to enter the harbor in a convoy and were torpedoed. Steve witnessed the Martin Van Buren sink close to shore. After learning how to dive in the fifties, he went back to the spot where it sank and dived it. Located just inside of Sambro Light, he explained it was broken up and often covered with kelp in the shallow water.  The other two wrecks, the British Freedom and the Anthelviking, sank offshore in very deep water. Steve felt these would be good dives if we could find a boat to look for them. It was not feasible at the time for such a search because we did not have an adequate boat.  I made a mental note of his narrative, believing that someday I would be able to explore them. Steve knew we were interested in deeper sites. He was excited about our Andrea Doria discoveries and searches in deeper water off Halifax.  Our group enjoyed hanging out with Steve and sharing many great conversations over the years. Sadly, Steve passed away on a caribou hunting trip in the fall of 1987. His family started a dive club to honor him that continues to inspire others to this day. Steve’s diving legacy lives on.

In 1989, I contacted Neil Connors a commercial dive operator in Halifax. Neil bought Steve Giza’s inventory when he passed away. He and Steve had been good friends and they shared a mutual interest in shipwrecks and Navy diving.  Neil had a couple work boats used in the harbor for pipeline work, inspections and ship husbandry. This was the perfect platform for an expedition to look offshore for new wrecks. A first-class operation, his captain and boats were certified to take larger groups safely to any location on the coast. Captain Jim Smith was the best part of the whole deal. As an experienced commercial diving supervisor and compressor specialist for Neil, Jim was also a superior boat handler. He was well qualified to search for wrecks with an in-depth knowledge of the rocks and ledges of Halifax Harbour. Only a few boats had ventured beyond the entrance to this harbor and many new areas remained unexplored. At that time, every site was pristine beyond a dozen miles. Finding wrecks was a wager. Only a few folks had guesses where wrecks were located outside the shoreline. Most of the local divers hiked to shallow beach wrecks or dived for scallops. Descriptions of sinkings from books and newspapers articles were often erroneous. Salvage companies documented only what was reclaimed and were ambiguous about locations. There was no reason for recording more than what was required by insurance companies. Neil passed on to Captain Jim many areas he had worked as a salvage diver in the Navy.  Still, there was much more research work needed for a successful hunt. That winter, I made numerous contacts and visited several libraries to seek more knowledge of the shipwrecks.

Hundreds of ships struck the rocks coming into Halifax Harbour. Incredibly, ships lie on top of ships on many of the rocks.  To get a sense of the scale of these shoals, the rocks range in size from that of a house to an underwater mountain range. These ledges bear cautionary names like, Mad Rock, Black Rock, Shag Rock, The Bull, Broad Breaker, Devils Rock and more.  One such ledge, just below the surface, is a notorious obstruction at the mouth of the harbor known as “Blind Sisters Ledge”.  These barricades are above the surface or obscured by boiling waves at low tide. At high tide, they remain hidden below the surface, especially when the sea is calm. In foggy weather, they are a treacherous obstacle for captains and pilots entering the harbor. Numerous ships have crashed on these shoals including the British sloop HMS Atalante. President Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 14, 1812 after maritime trade with France was being hindered.  On the morning of November 11, 1813, the HMS Atalante sailed to Halifax Harbour after a successful blockade campaign having captured several American ships. When the fully rigged sloop reached the harbor, heavy fog set in.  Although Captain Frederick Hickey put extra lookouts on watch and lowered sails to cautiously enter the harbor, hidden below the surface, the jagged Blind Sisters ledge cut into the hull as the 18-gun ship passed Sambro Light. Despite the ship tearing in half over the shallow ridge, there was no loss of life due to the wise actions of the captain and crew.  Local fisherman brought the sailors to Portuguese Cove where they were fed, and then were able to make their way to Halifax. Even today, vessels remain wary of these dreaded ledges.

When Captain Jim Smith first took us to the reef, he was aware of the infamous shoal and ominous enduring history.   He knew it would be a good starting point to look for wrecks. Swimming on Blind Sisters is tenuous. On a calm day, you can search the kelp laden shallows where bits and pieces of wreckage have been pummeled by the sea. It is amazing to see the destruction of man-made objects obliterated by the oceans unceasing motion.  One should remain wary, as a swell or wake of a passing ship could pull a diver from the shallows and toss them like a rag doll over top of the reef. Seals frolic in the deeper sections occasionally surprising divers.  While diving the Sisters, Andy Pierro was startled when a seal dipped down to take a bite of a strand of his hair protruding from the vent of his dry suit hood. The curious fellow followed Andy until he reached the ascent line. Bored, it then swam on to harass other divers as they meandered in the shallows. On another occasion, Steve Seeberger and I ran across a gruesome site lying on the rocks. Half of a small harp seal was cleanly bit and still oozing blood.  The murder had to have taken place shortly before we happened upon it. A grime reminder that we were not alone and are still a component in the food chain. Grey seals are very social and often interact with the divers on the boat. From a distance they are occasionally mistaken as mustached divers swimming back to the boat. They seem to enjoy the distraction as they bark to gain our attention. Normally, these jumbos can be observed hauling out on the rocks, to bask in the sun, sleep, and to court. The larger males, weighing up to seven-hundred pounds, dominate the herd. While these brutes rest on the rocks, the females gather nearby swimming until the bull’s appetite beguiles him to roll in for a pollock fish meal. Immediately, the females splash back onto the rocks avoiding his undesirable advances. The entertaining cycle continues throughout the day.

Sambro Light, erected in 1758, is the oldest lighthouse in North America. Today, operating autonomously, it remains a warning to mariners of the treacherous approaches to Halifax. Just outside the light lies one of Nova Scotia’s most tragic wrecks, the S.S. Daniel Steinman. The steamer built in 1857, was 177 feet long. While sailing a regular trip from Antwerp, her homeport, to New York, on April 3, 1884, one-hundred-twenty-four mainly German immigrants and crew were lost. Entering the harbor after a routine voyage, dense fog and high winds engulfed the vessel. The passenger-steamer struck Broad Breaker rock, then lost her rudder and propeller. Unable to steer or make any headway, she then careened into Mad rock after an attempt to anchor failed. The steamer was soon swamped by waves and sank in ninety feet of water less than a mile from Sambro Island.  Most of the passengers, already standing on the deck, were overcome by the breaking waves consuming the ship.  Remarkably, Yohanna Niederman, a 26-year-old Bavarian who was not a swimmer, survived by holding on to the rigging below the water as the ship settled. He pulled himself up the mast after being submerged for over two-minutes and lashed himself to the rigging. After a punishing night, he and Captain Schoonhoven survived by clinging to the mast sticking out of the sea. Only eight others were rescued.  As the ship sank, five crew and three passengers rowed way from the panicked horde in a jolly boat. Struggling passengers leaped toward the boat grasping onto others as they tried to claw their way to the overloaded dinghy. Miraculously, Florentine Von Geissel, a crew member manning the boat, had survived several other sinkings including the Manderin in which over 300 passengers perished. Captain Schoonhoven, although severely censured by the press, was not charged with any misconduct after a formal inquest. Although caution was taken approaching the harbor, Captain Schoonhoven confused Chebucto Light for Sambro Light ultimately condemning the ship. The testimony of the survivors favored his actions even though he miscalculated his position entering the harbor due to the bad weather and dense fog. The fact that there were no lifeboats on Sambro Light could have certainly changed the outcome of the lives lost. This was also taken into consideration during the inquest. It is unlikely even if there were boats, that the outcome would have changed. The huge surf made the Steinman unapproachable in the storm. The sounding whistle alerted three rescue tugs, which were immediately dispatched from Halifax. Overcome by the high seas and dense fog, they only made it as far as Herring Cove before they were forced to turn back. Two years before the sinking, in June 1882, the steam-ship Daniel Steinman, lost her propeller and was towed 600 hundred miles to New York by the White Star liner Republic.  On March 29, 1884, the district court of New York ruled a $25,000.00 award to the White Star line for the service. Unbeknownst to Captain Schoonhoven, the ruling was made just a few days before the Daniel Steinman sank off Halifax.

The Steinman had only been dived by a handful of locals prior to our first exploration. One of those provincial divers came along on the search to put us on the wreck. He had only been to the wreck once before but thought he could find it. Regrettably, we spent the entire day hunting with no success. I made half a dozen descents ranging in depths from forty feet to one-hundred-twenty feet. The frustrated guide also made a couple descents but to no avail.  The next day we returned. Ruling out all the areas from the previous search, Captain Jim dropped the anchor in a place described from a newspaper published a few days after the sinking in 1884. Once again, I descended into the clear waters hoping to chance upon the lost ship. At first, I could only see rocks.  Continuing into the current, some unusual debris appeared on the seafloor. A trail of coral-covered bottles sporadically lay mixed amongst the rock and kelp laden terrain below me. The further I swam, the greater the number, until there were piles of three or four bottles in one spot. Then a large cask shaped form appeared ahead in the distance. It was once a wooden barrel, but the wood had long since been eaten by Teredo worms. Now only a solidified plaster form remained. Swimming further, bits and pieces of wreckage started to accumulate. On my left, a rock wall began to form.  Then, conclusive evidence lay a dozen feet ahead.  A pile of twisted rigging made up of coral covered cables, pulleys, and deadeyes had gathered. Swimming another few dozen yards, a large fantail of a ship emerged near the rock wall. A place to make a secure tie-in for the anchor line was just ahead. On top of the engine, high above the hull, I attached the boat’s tether. There was no doubt this was the steamer Daniel Steinman. Hundreds of barrels had rolled off the hull into a debris field scattered throughout the dell below. Numerous piles of green, coral covered ale bottles and crushed case gin bottles were fused inside the cargo hold.  

Large freight cases strapped to the hull with metal bands were still in place. The volume of cargo packed on this little ship was tremendous. Over 2000 tons of assorted housewares, ale, champagne, gin, and hardware was packed in the ships hold. Nestled within the rocks, rising to the same height, was a large section of the bow. A part of the mast towered above the stout section of bow. Returning to the stern along the port side, the hull appeared more intact. Portholes remained loosely scattered and standing deadeyes ran in a row above the hull held up by stiff rigging cables. Piles of loose deadeyes and another mast were strewn in the shallows. The area was so pristine and unspoiled you could visualize the ship settling in the rocks after the sinking. It was thrilling to know, few before had the privilege of visiting this section. Swimming back to the stern, china cups and bowls lay under the deck cemented together in the pink coral. Lamentably, it was evident that the continuous motion of the sea was obliterating the ship. Additionally, the weight of the coral has caused the ship to flatten and powerful surges have splintered pieces of the hull throwing them far into the gorge below. Although this is still an exciting dive, recent visits to the wreck have confirmed that the caustic effect of the sea will prevail. Today, the wreck is far more dilapidated and eventually there will be less proof of this tragic disaster.

Discovery is man’s greatest stimulant. The sensation of discovery is exhilarating and terrifying in the same. The threshold of fear and not knowing what you may find can elevate the heart rate and intensify your senses. Hearing your breathing has always been a part of your descent no matter what kind of dive, but when you drop down onto an unexplored site, the magnitude of each breath resonates throughout your being. Training yourself to control your anxiety and your emotion is a psychological struggle. Divers have been caught in nets, hung up in fish line, and worse, unknowingly entered wrecks in poor visibility. For those explorers, the gain outweighs the risk. Being the first one to touchdown on a virgin wreck is an extraordinary experience.

Offshore of Mad Rock, where the Steinman crashed, the British Freedom lies in deep water on the inside approach to Halifax Harbour. The position of the ship was forgotten after the ship was hurriedly bombed by the Canadian Navy to keep the traffic lanes clear for wartime shipping. Finding the Freedom would be an epic adventure. It was a quest fulfilled after numerous searches and descents on the rocky approaches to Halifax Harbour. This story continues…

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” - Theodore Roosevelt