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Last known photo of the Empress of Ireland

The "Empress of Ireland"

The Empress of Ireland is a tragic tale of a ship that was full of dreams. Her duty was to carry immigrants between Canada and England, and she was popular because of her speed - she could make the trip in 6 days, 2 of which were within what were thought to be safe inland waters. This was very important to the ship's passengers, since everyone still remembered the infamous Titanic disaster...

1477 passengers and crew set out from Quebec City, heading for Liverpool, England, on board the Empress on May 28, 1914.

At 1:55 AM on May 29, 1914, in a dense fog 6 km (4 miles) off Pointe-au-Pere and Sainte-Luce, Quebec, where the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence meet, the Empress of Ireland was struck in her starboard (right) side by the Storstad, a collier (coal freighter) heading into Canada's interior via the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Storstad then backed away, allowing cold water to rush in.

Despite being fitted with watertight bulkheads, the Empress of Ireland took on water quickly, causing the ship to list sharply to starboard. Power inside the ship went out within minutes, trapping most of the sleeping passengers below decks in total blackness, with no way to find their way to the upper decks and safety.

Because of the amount of water she took on in such a short time, the Empress of Ireland sank in just 14 minutes. Despite the help offered by the Storstad and other ships which responded quickly to the distress call, many passengers and crew never survived.

When the final death toll was calculated, 1012 passengers and crew had perished, within site of shore. It is the second largest non-wartime disaster ever, after the Titanic. More passengers died on the Empress than the Titanic, but more crew on Titanic.

Final Statistics for Empress of Ireland passengers and crew...

Type On Board Dead % Dead
1st Class 87 51 59%
2nd Class 253 205 81%
3rd Class 717 584 82%
Crew 420 172 41%
Total 1477 1012 69%

Ship's Technical Specifications

Owner Canadian Pacific
Launched 1906 in Scotland
Length 568'
Breadth 65'
Gross Tonnage 14,500
Displacement 26,000
Draught 27'
Horsepower 18,000

Diving Details

The ship now lies in about 140' of cold, dark water and attracts experienced adventurers from all over the world.

For many years, businessmen and divers pillaged the wreck's contents, until finally, in the 1990's, the Quebec provincial government declared it a protected site.

Today, divers are required to sign permits and show they have sufficient experience and equipment to make the dive safely. Divers are also warned numerous times they cannot remove or damage the wreck or its contents.

There are still over 600 bodies that have never been recovered from the site.

Many items pillaged from the wreck have made their way to the Musee de la mer (Museum of the Sea) in Point-au-Pere, Quebec.

From September 9 - 11, 2005, I was part of an expedition comprised of SCUBA diving Instructors and experienced divers from the Saint John, NB area. Having spent years diving the cold, dark waters of the Bay of Fundy, we were ready to test our skills on the Empress of Ireland.

Issues divers face on this site - cold water, low visibility, and unpredictable currents

Some details about the trip:

Planning Stages This expedition was planned in bits and pieces for almost a year.
Distance travelled 600 km (about 400 miles) - From Saint John, NB to Sainte-Luce-sur-Mer, Quebec (near Rimouski)
Equipment used:
  • 2 sets of almost everything imaginable (3 of some things).
  • All divers used Pressed Steel high pressure tanks with between 100ft3 and 130ft3.
  • Most divers also wore backup (pony) bottles with redundant regulators for added safety.
  • Every diver was required to have redundant gear including regulators, safety reels, and surface markers/lift bags for safety.
  • Most divers used customized Enriched Air Nitrox blends (27% - 30% Oxygen content)
  • 2 underwater digital cameras; and
  • 1 underwater video camera

Gang of Six

The gang with a copy of the original plans for the ship.

L to R: Marc, Chris K, Chris L, Chris C, Wayne, Duane

Click here for the Empress of Ireland Photo Gallery

Personal Dive Log

Because of the nature of SCUBA diving, each diver has a unique diving profile.
Below is a written record of my logged dives on the Empress of Ireland from Sep 9 - 11, 2005.

Date Details
9 Sep 2005 Dive Time: 35 minutes
Air Temp: 70 F
Water Temp: 40 F
Visibility: 20'
Max Depth: 101'
Air Mix: 30% Oxygen
Decompression: None required, 3 minute safety stop (1 minute half stop, 2 minutes at 15')

Some surface current, bit of a swim to make it from the boat to the buoy line. Had backup regulator begin to freeflow prior to descent, turned off air supply, corrected issue, turned it back on and continued. Noticed significant thermocline at about 50'.

Did a complete circuit from midships to bow and back. Investigated the blast hole, bow, the deck, cargo holds.

9 Sep 2005 Dive Time: 42 minutes
Air Temp: 70 F
Water Temp: 38 F
Visibility 10' (dropped between dives)
Max Depth: 111'
Air Mix: 27% Oxygen
Decompression: 6 minutes PLUS a 3 minute safety stop (1 minute half stop, 2 minutes at 15')

Very little current. Investigated plaques on foredecks, penetration to remains of grand staircase and First Class dining room. Checked out anchor and bow letters.

10 Sep 2005 Dive Time: 47 minutes
Air Temp: 70 F
Water Temp: 37 F
Visibility 30' + (Excellent visibility, better as we went deeper)
Max Depth: 129'
Air Mix: 27% Oxygen
Decompression: 5 minutes PLUS a 3 minute safety stop (1 minute half stop, 2 minutes at 15')

Surface was windy but calmed a bit as the day went on. Very little current on the wreck. Spent a lot of time on Lifeboat #2, went in and saw the grand staircase and First class dining area again, checked out the Third class lavatories (saw the bathtub and tiled floor), and worker's areas in the forecastle.

10 Sep 2005 Dive Time: 44 minutes
Air Temp: 70 F
Water Temp: 40 F
Visibility: 15'
Max Depth: 103'
Air Mix: 27% Oxygen
Decompression: 8 minutes PLUS a 3 minute safety stop (1 minute half stop, 2 minutes at 15')

Right dry suit cuff leaked quite badly during this dive, I became VERY cold, but toughed it out. Dropped back into blast hole, observed a stool/chair at starboard end of opening. Dropped into cargo hold, a lot of debris about.

11 Sep 2005 44 minutes
Air Temp 60 F (chilling down)
Water temp 37 F
Visibility 35' (Excellent!)
Max depth 137'
Air Mix: 28% Oxygen
Decompression: 8 minutes PLUS a 3 minute safety stop (1 minute half stop, 2 minutes at 15')

Right cuff leaked a bit again (not as badly as yesterday). This was our last dive of the trip... sniffle...

Took the video camera. Did a complete sweep of the ship from midships to bow. Visited lifeboat # 2. Found a sledgehammer near the lifeboat, obviously left by previous divers who were salvaging (aka pillaging and stealing) artifacts. Went toward stern and into debris field left by the upper decks when they slid off into the mud to starboard. Did some penetrations to get some video of the inside. Ran into Duane and Wayne at rail, dropped back in to blast hole for some more video, came out and up.

Personal Equipment List

Equipment Details
Drysuit Mobby's Trilaminate with Thinsulate underwear
Primary Regulator Sherwood Blizzard cold water regulator with balanced first stage.
Backup Regulator Genesis GS2000 with balanced first stage.
Buoyancy Hammerhead Stainless Steel Backplate and single tank adapter.
Dive Rite Rec Wings
Dive Rite TransPlate harness
Primary Air Source Pressed Steel High Pressure 130 cubic foot tanks (Oxygen clean)
Backup Air Source Aluminum 30 cubic foot "Pony" bottle tanks with 21% Oxygen (standard air) fills
Safety Reel Dive Rite 250' primary reel, with Trident Diver down "See Me" float
Lights Underwater Kinetics D8, Several backup lights

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© Photographs by Chris Kenney, Chris Cunningham, and Chris London - All Rights Reserved

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