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Meet the drowned Canadian city that lurks beneath the waves

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, February 8, 2017, 10:51 AM - There's something romantic about discovering a sunken ship, hoping to stumble on sunken treasure.

But sometimes, underwater seekers may get not just a shipwreck, but an entire drowned community to explore -- most of them with tragic backstories.

Here are five that caught our attention.


We’ll start off with a city that was so thoroughly lost, no one was 100 per cent sure it even existed at all until quite recently. In fact, the discovery weren’t even looking for it while they were diving in the sea off Egypt’s Nile Delta -- they were hoping to find sunken Napoleonic warships.

No collection of riverside huts, Thonis-Heracleion was worthy of the “city” designation. Since its discovery in 2000, new research suggests it was for a long time the sole designated port of entry for Greek shipping to Egypt (according to its discoverer Franck Goddio), which would have made it very rich indeed. 

And at its height, business was booming. An ancient country, Egypt was an economic powerhouse for millennia as dynasty followed dynasty and empire followed empire, making Thonis-Heracleion a prime destination. Atlas Obscura says archaeologists have found about 64 ships among the ruins, as well as 700 anchors and plenty of coins.

Its exact age isn’t known, but one temple to the god Amun was dated to the 8th Century B.C.E. And it was one of several temples and sanctuaries that would have been crammed into the city, and some statues almost five metres tall have been discovered.

As for what happened to it, that’s not really well known either, although its discoverers told the Huffington Post it sank about 1,200 years ago. Their theory is: All of those buildings were built on not-too-sturdy sand, and when one of the country’s occasional earthquakes struck, they may have fallen 10 metres beneath the waves.

The Reschensee

In northern Italy, near Austria, travellers taking in the breathtaking natural beauty of the South Tyrol region may be puzzled to find a single church belltower emerging from the still waters of the Reschensee.

The structure points to the lake’s bittersweet past. Known also as Lake Reschen, beneath its waters lie the remains of the towns of Graun and Reschen (Mental Floss says they date back to Roman times). People lived their lives within these communities until the 20th Century, when a power company hatched a plan for a new dam to harness the region’s hydro-electric potential.

Once the dam was built, the rising waters would unify two natural lakes in the area, and completely submerge the two ancient towns. Locals, understandably, were not in favour of the plan, the fought against it until the waters finally rose in 1950 (with construction on the dam delayed by the Second World War).

The locals relocated nearby, but the 163 homes and other buildings they left behind still exist beneath the lake’s waters, with the 14th Century church belltower the only evidence they were ever there.

The area is now a popular tourist attraction, featuring cycling and walking trails, and lake activities such as kite surfing and, in the winter, ice skating -- though we can only imagine what must go through the minds of the last surviving inhabitants of the drowned villages as they watch the tourists ply the waters above their former homes.

Port Royal

For people at the time, the fate of the legendary pirate paradise of Port Royal in Jamaica must have seemed like a well-deserved divine punishment.

According to UNESCO, which is considering it as a World Heritage Site, the city was a major centre, the jewel of the Caribbean, with perhaps as many as 10,000 inhabitants dwelling in 2,000 buildings in a dense area of only 20 hectares, including four churches, a cathedral and five forts.

WATCH BELOW: Treasure-hunting family finds Spanish gold

And aside from being a trading centre, Port Royal was a byword for piracy, which flourished in the Caribbean in the 17th Century. Legally sanctioned privateers, many with letters of marque from the English monarchs, vied for a piece of the boundlessly wealthy but difficult to defend Spanish Empire in the Caribbean.

At Port Royal, UNESCO says perhaps half the population was involved in piracy in some way by the late 17th Century, and at one point it was the base of the legendary privateer Captain Henry Morgan, who was eventually granted the post of lieutenant governor of all of Jamaica for his infamous efforts.

Then, in June of 1692, a powerful earthquake struck the city. Built mostly on sand, it had little chance. Two thirds of the buildings sank into the sea. Some 2,000 of its inhabitants were killed initially, and another 3,000 died of disease in the city’s ruined aftermath. It would never regain its former prominence.

Centuries later, however, it's a popular diving destination, given how relatively well-preserved the sunken buildings are. Here’s a National Geographic dive crew exploring the ruins:

The Lost Villages of the St. Lawrence

The communities submerged beneath the Reschensee are just two sacrificed in the name of progress. In Canada, the waters beneath the St. Lawrence River in Ontario, are home to no fewer than nine of them.

Known as the Lost Villages, some of these communities dated back to the end of the American Revolution, home to Loyalists who fled the fledgling United States. Gathered along the banks of the river between Cornwall and Morrisburg, they were home to around 6,500 people.

WATCH BELOW: Second oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes

But the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project of the 1950s demanded some of the land be submerged, and the people in those communities had to be moved. Two new towns, New Town 1 and New Town 2 (Now Ingleside and Long Sault) were built to house them, and around 500 structures were moved with them, a process taking about three years according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. Dozens of kilometres of highways and railways were also rerouted.

Finally, on July 1, 1958, the final stage -- the long-awaited and for the villagers, long-dreaded flooding -- began, taking four days to finally reach the current water levels.

The process was a bitter one for the villagers, and the Canadian Encyclopedia says it spurred changes to land expropriation laws, some of which dated back to the late 19th Century.

The Lion City

China is also no stranger to relocation of the population to make room for new dam reservoir. The controversial Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, forced the evacuation of more than a million people from 13 cities, 140 towns and more than 1,300 villages, according to the Independent.

It’s an old story in the country, with one earlier version of it taking place in 1959, when a new hydroelectric dam submerged the city of Shi Cheng, known colloquially as the Lion City, beneath the waters of picturesque Qiandao Lake.

Though the lake is popular with visitors, the centuries-old city beneath its waters was all but forgotten until a few years ago, when a local tourism official suggested promoting it as a destination for scuba divers (according to Buzzfeed).

It’s since been featured in news media over the past few years, with divers drawn to the sprawling sunken city, perfectly preserved except for the slow decaying effects of the water itself.

It may not be an easy dive, however. One diver from Singapore who visited the site and wrote about it on his blog, Shanghai Roar,  said the water temperature at the bottom was a chilly 10-12oC with poor visibility -- But overall, though a “very challenging dive and definitely not a fun dive”, the visitor seemed to think it was worth it.

SOURCES: Franck Goddio | Atlas Obscura | Huffington Post | Mental Floss | South Tyrol Tourism | UNESCO | Atlas Obscura | Canadian Encyclopedia | The Independent | Buzzfeed | Shanghai Roar | Image thumbnail credit

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