After it was caught in a powerful snowstorm in 1895, the Africa and its crew of 11 vanished, never to be seen again — until now.
Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team, were out on the waters of Lake Huron on a Saturday afternoon in June when they made an astonishing discovery: the wreck of a ship that had been lost for 128 years.
The documentarian duo had been working on a new film about the impact of invasive mussel species in the Great Lakes region. A source from the United States Geological Survey told them about an “anomaly” on their sonar radar at the bottom of the lake. They figured it was probably just a pile of rocks, but they decided to check it out anyway.
When they got to the location of the anomaly, they sent down their remotely operated vehicle with an ultra-low-light, high-resolution camera system.
“Surprise, surprise,” Melnick said, according to Canadian Geographic. “We have mussels.”
“Shocking,” Drebert replied.
But then, 280 feet below the surface, a huge structure materialized. It was a shipwreck, almost perfectly intact and encrusted with quagga mussels.
At first, it was impossible to tell what ship it was, since the mussels completely covered any identifying marks, and attempting to remove the mussels would tear the wood away and violate the Ontario Heritage Act. But Drebert and Melnick got the shipwreck registered as an archaeological site and quickly narrowed the possibilities to three ships.
After analyzing the dimensions of the ship and finding coal around the vessel with the help of a local historian and a marine archaeologist, they identified the ship as the Africa, a former passenger ship that had been rebuilt as a steam barge to carry cargo in the Great Lakes region.
The Africa disappeared in 1895, along with its 11 crew members, after a snowstorm severed the towline between the ship and the Severn, a smaller barge with its own crew. The Severn ran aground and its crew members were rescued, but the Africa and many of its crew members were never seen again.
The Great Lakes region was particularly dangerous for traveling ships due to the frequency of high winds and snowstorms. Marine historian Patrick Folkes estimated that at least 100 ships crashed or went missing in the Saugeen Peninsula area alone between 1848 and 1930, and approximately half of those have never been located or identified.
“Sometimes the only clue [that a ship had been lost] was when bodies or wreckage washed ashore,” he said in an interview with Canadian Geographic.
The ship was completely encrusted with quagga mussels, an invasive mussel species native to southern Russia and Ukraine that were inadvertently brought to the Great Lakes region on the tanks of cargo ships.
In the Great Lakes, these quagga mussels have devastated the local fish populations. A single female quagga mussel can release up to one million eggs each season, causing the population to explode and form huge colonies. Quagga mussels feed on plankton that native species rely on.
“It’s become so difficult to make a living from fishing that most individuals have had to get out of it,” says Ryan Lauzon, Fisheries Management Biologist for the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.
But the invasive quagga mussels have had one unexpected benefit. The mussels filter plankton and other microorganisms out of the water at such a high rate that the water has become incredibly clear, allowing for the discovery of more shipwrecks. Each mussel, while only two centimeters long, can filter up to one liter of lake water every day.
“There are so many quaggas filtering the Great Lakes, that the lakes are up to three times as clear as they were before the mussels,” Drebert said in an interview with CBS. “The quaggas are the reason we’re able to see the shipwreck in almost 300 feet of water without any additional lights. But they’re also responsible for making wreck identification in the Great Lakes incredibly difficult.”
However, the mussels also pose a threat to the shipwrecks. They latch onto the wood of wrecks, eating away at the hulls. According to CBC News, preservationists estimate that within the next two decades, any sunken ships will become impossible to identify due to the mussels.
“Before discovering the Africa, our 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,” said Melnick. “But the mussels have truly changed everything in the deep waters of the Great Lakes.”
While five bodies from the Africa washed up on shore in the years after the ship went missing, the remaining bodies are believed to still be on board the ship.
“It’s a human tragedy; those lives were lost,” Folkes said. “I always think of those poor sailors. They had pretty tough lives and ended up getting drowned in Lake Huron.”
Footage of the wreck will be featured in Melnick and Drebert’s upcoming documentary, All Too Clear.
After reading about the shipwreck found by documentary filmmakers, read about the 186-year-old wreck of a whaling ship found in the Gulf of Mexico. Or, read about the wreckage found of a ship nearly 100 years after it vanished in the Bermuda Triangle.