Sublimnos - Muse for James Cameron



Sublimnos No Longer Out Of Sight
… And Definitely Not Out of Mind

By Stephen Weir

It will take a long long time for a piece of Canadian dive history to rust into dust. Given the hard feelings surrounding the historic Sublimnos Project, the deteriorating, remains of that underwater habitat could well be an above-water Lake Ontario eyesore for years until rust indeed becomes dust.
Back in the summer of 1969 Sublimnos was set down in the waters of Georgian Bay near Tobermory, Ontario the self-described "fresh water scuba diving capital of the world" .It was a bargain basement underwater research station. Constructed from a railroad tanker for just $10,000.00, Sublimnos became Canada’s first subsurface research laboratory.
From 1969 to 1971 the Sublimnos project, funded and spearhead by physician, author, explorer and frequent Diver Magazine contributor Dr. Joe McInnis, was headline news around the world. Built to accommodate up to four divers at a time, in its first two-years of operation it is reported that over 3,000 divers (from high school students to scientists to artists) had used it.
Constructed at a time when many other countries were creating their first underwater research stations, Sublimnos stood out. That is because it was the only freshwater underwater lab, the only under-ice station and it was the only “free “submerged habitat in the world. Dr. Joe McInnis called it his “Open Hatch” policy.
“Any qualified diver of any age from anywhere who has a legitimate reason for using Sublimnos is welcome to do so free,” Dr. Joe McInnis told Popular Mechanics Magazine in April 1971. “All he has to do is write me so we can schedule a diving time. We can afford the open-hatch policy because we operate on what I call people power instead of money power. Enthusiasm frequently can be more effective than dollars and most of our workers are enthusiastic volunteers.”
Sublimnos resembled an hourglass. At the top was a yellow and blue air filled pod with windows and a small dome. The much larger bottom pod was a weighted ballast tank, which kept the top section from bobbing up to the surface. Four lifeline cables and pipes fed Sublimnos compressed air, hot water, electricity and communications linked from a small building on shore.
2009 is the 40th anniversary of Sublimnos being installed on the bottom of Georgian Bay. The grand experiment ran for about five years. The habitat was eventually brought out of the water and taken to the Seneca College’s lake north of Toronto where it was used by the College’s commercial diver programme. By 1988 it was acquired by Kenn Feigelman, who had formed a non-profit company called Deep Quest. Deep Quest had provincial funding to study freshwater artificial reefs and wanted to use Sublimnos once again as a subsurface research station.
Sublimnos was taken to Prince Edward County (a peninsula in Lake Ontario) cleaned up and re-sunk. When Deep Quest lost its funding 15-years Sublimnos was abandoned on the bottom of Lake Ontario, a few hundred feet from shore in just 10 feet of water. There it stayed, a foul weather dive site and a popular shore dive site.
In 2007 it was pulled out of the water, apparently by a local dive shop and left on shore. It remains there today.

“It is an historical Canadian artifact. It was a pioneer, now it is a rusting piece of shit.” said Kenn Feigelman, the outspoken former owner of the underwater habitat. “ It should be underwater or in a museum. I don’t think Canadians would learn anything from it now but it is a remnant of Canada’s first ever-underwater research laboratory. As rudimentary as it was, it was our first and it is history.”
“ It belongs in a museum,” said Toronto filmmaker Diane Woods. “ I think it should be on display at the Fathom Five interpretation centre in Tobermory. It should be back where it all started.”
Diane Woods has wanted to produce a documentary movie, Saving Sublimnos, Canada’s First Underwater Comes Home, for over a decade. She sees the project – proving that humans can live underwater – as a catalyst that encouraged Canadians to take up diving.
“ The Americans had Sea Hunt (a weekly black and white TV action show) and we had Sublimnos,” she continued. “It was inspiration to Pierre Trudeau, who himself was a diver. It is said that Canadian film director James Cameron (Abyss, Titanic, etc) was inspired to dive after seeing Sublimnos on a flatbed truck in front of the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto.”
Wood’s company, aquaCULTURE Pictures Inc, has shelved its plan to film the history of the Sublimnos, because of an apparent disagreement between the current owners of what is left of the underwater habitat and a group of divers, including Dr. Joe McInnis, who want to see it become part of a historical display.
George Wheeler and Susan Yankoo own and operate Ducks Dive in Lake Ontario. They, and a number of volunteer divers brought the habitat up from the bottom of Lake Ontario and placed it on shore near their Point Traverse lakeside resort.
“The Sublimnos was 'recovered' in August 2007. At that time it was inaccessible and stuck deep in mud. You can see how deep (it was stuck in the mud) based on the lack of zebras mussels on much of it” posted Paul Tetley on the popular Ontario Diving social media website. “It was quite the exercise to 'recover' it.”
“There was a project last summer (2007) to refurbish it and return it to a usable position in the lake, using elevator cable to secure it to the bottom,” continued Mr. Tetley in response to written questions from Diver Magazine. “That project didn't gel, and I'm not sure if there is a project on the books for this summer.”
Susan Yankoo doesn’t want to be quoted about what happened when she and George Wheeler were approached about the habitat and asked to bring it up from the bottom and give it up for a museum display. She does say that there was a disagreement when they talked to Dr McInnis about the museum project five or six years ago. Ms. Yankoo will say that she and George Wheeler were dissed during those talks to bring what was left of Sublimnos to a museum. She did say that they have no plans to move it from the shoreline at least not this year.
“ We are more concerned about what is happening to shipwrecks at this end of the Lake than we are about that (Sublimnos) thing,” said Ms. Yankoo.
“Joe wanted to put into Fathom Five, and went to see them (George Wheeler and Susan Yankoo) and they were really rude to him. I think Joe was willing to pay $1,000 for it,” said Feigelman. “But they told him to fuck off. That was the end of that, at least for now.”
Now it is on the shore. Battered. Half covered in Zebra mussels. Lying on its side looking like an over-grown blue and yellow beer can. It wasn’t always so.
“ Sublimnos was built from a couple of old propane rail‐cars. (Dr Joe) McInnis had envisioned thee design and had the build done to be inexpensive and genuinely “low key” and on a budget. It simply worked!” explained Doug Elsey, the 1970 Project Manager, for the Sublimnos Project.
“ I joined the Sublimnos Project in the spring of 1970 – just after it had been placed in the water in Tobermory. I was a student in Ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University and I was on a 6-month co-op work-study program. I was “hired” (more like volunteered) as the pay was absolutely minimal – just enough for food – but the opportunity to work on the project far outweighed the financial return.”
“ Now we have this technology passport that allows us to go underwater and spend a lot of time there,” Dr Joe McInnis tells Canadian in a CBC news documentary that aired nationally March 23rd 1971 and can be seen on the web at:
“ It is really a very primitive kind of place in many ways in this habitat Sublimnos, it is very Spartan in the fittings. You see we have dials and a clock, windows. It is much like an explorers tent – it allows us the most important element to any observer, the artist or scientist that is the element of time. We can look at the whole pyramid of life that exists down here below the surface. “
“Edwin Link and his wife Marion became life long friends of Dr. Joe McInnis,” said Diane Woods in describing the scope of the project. “Link built SPID which stands for a Submersible Portable Inflatable Dwelling. SPID and Sublimnos plus three other underwater habitats (Sub Igloo) were in Dunk's Bay (Tobermory) for one season. This was a world first! “
“Link was a remarkable man and had a major impact on underwater diving, “ she continued. “SPID was at one time in the lake at Seneca College King Campus (with Sublimnos) for many years, then in a farmer’s field, and then sent to the land fill - the Smithsonian would kill to get their hands on it!”
“ I had heard it was molding away at Seneca. It was no longer being used, students would get into just to have a smoke,” explain Kenn Feigelman. “We are talking 1988 and Sublimnos, or what was left of it, looked at it. The school said I could have it if I talked to Joe (McInnis). I did and he said okay.”
Feigelman and Deep Quest were going to build four artificial reefs near Port Traverse. One reef would be made of tires, the second of retired ships, the third of cinder blocks and the fourth of concrete water pipes. Sublimnos was to be the hub of the reefs.
“ At that point in time Ducks Dive was just getting started,” said Feigelman. “ We were all good friends. We sunk Sublimnos near their resort – no one know about their facility until we did that.”
His provincial government funding ran out in 1991. Feigelman quit the organization he started, and everyone but the dive community once again abandoned Sublimnos.
Sublimnos’ upper pod (the lower ballast pod is still submerged near Tobermory) sat in 30 ft of water, perfect for night dives, navigational training dives and for novice check-out dives. Hundreds of divers have visited the popular site from ’91 until its removal from the water last year.
Questions have been raised about who exactly owns the habitat. Feigelman figures the province might own it since it has been on the bottom of Lake Ontario for 20 years.
The owners of Ducks Dive don’t agree. “We own it,” said Susan Yankoo, “and if someone wants to buy it, we can prove it.”
Top: Sublimnos on land. Photo taken summer of 2010 by Jim Kozmik
Bottom: Aaron Szimanski took this picture several years as the Sublimnos was lifted off the bottom of Lake Ontario.


arealdwarf said…
I was 15 when Joe MacInnis invited me to volunteer for two weeks on the Sublimnos Project in 1970. I ended up staying for the summer assisting people like Doug Elsey on their projects and running the Sublimnos Interpretation Centre in town. I came back the next summer and worked with Larry Bell on the Fathom Five Provincial Park survey, S.P.I.D. and Sub Igloo. My first published article was "Return of the S.P.I.D" for Skin Diver magazine. I went to Memorial University for Marine Biology and spent a summer with Joe at the Ministry of State for Science and Technology working on Canada's Oceans Policy. It was Sublimnos that captured my imagination and developed my love and appreciation for the underwater world. And mine is just one of hundreds of stories. Sublimnos deserves better!
Anonymous said…
Its in the hands of a private collector now.
Anonymous said…
who has it can it be negotiated to bring it back to tobimory for a education and history time piece for all to view

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