Introducing Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary: A Maritime Legacy

By Rachel Plunkett

June 2024

With broad support, NOAA today announced an important addition to America's National Marine Sanctuary System—Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary.

The 1,722 square-mile area contains waters that act as a gateway between the Great Lakes and the ocean and protect culturally significant places, resources, and artifacts integral to American history and the heritage of Indigenous Peoples.

This is the most recent national marine sanctuary designation since NOAA announced the inclusion of Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary in 2021, and it is the third sanctuary to be designated in the Great Lakes. The designation of Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary is supported by local governments (in Jefferson, Wayne, Cayuga, and Oswego counties), the governor of New York, the Onondaga Nation, and several historical societies, museums, recreation, conservation, tourism, and education groups. NOAA and the state of New York will co-manage the sanctuary.

"Public involvement is the cornerstone of the sanctuary nomination and designation process," said John Armor, the director of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Leading up to this new sanctuary, there was an extensive public process over the span of five years, including an initial public scoping period, three public meetings, and NOAA's review of public comments regarding the proposed regulations and boundaries.

NOAA also established a 15-member Sanctuary Advisory Council to bring diverse representatives from various stakeholder groups together to liaise with the community and assist in guiding NOAA through the designation process. The group is made up of dedicated volunteers and local residents who represent interests such as economic development, recreation, maritime heritage, education, and research.

Bill Crist, Chair of the Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council said that "The eager and diverse assembly played a pivotal role committed to networking, relationship building, collaborating, and sharing of news, updates, and the eventual progress toward designation."

people sitting in chairs for a meeting
Public meeting in Fair Haven, New York on June 10, 2019. Photo: NOAA

Indigenous Histories

As the easternmost of the five Great Lakes, Lake Ontario connects North America's inland seas to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The first regional inhabitants, the ancestors of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas), developed a deep understanding and connection to the lake and its fish and wildlife that remains vibrant today. The Tuscarora joined the Confederacy in 1722.

"This sanctuary provides a national stage for Indigenous Peoples of these waters to share their stories," said Armor.

NOAA acknowledges the Indigenous Peoples' homelands that align with the sanctuary and is dedicated to building equitable partnerships with Indigenous Peoples in the stewardship of this environment.

"The eastern shore of Lake Ontario is part of the original territory of the Onondaga Nation, where their ancestors fished and traveled extensively," said Joseph Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation. "The Onondaga Nation supported the sanctuary nomination and welcomes the opportunity to work collaboratively with NOAA when the sanctuary is designated."

According to Armor, "we hope to highlight the value of this special place for its past and present communities, and the significance of eastern Lake Ontario to our collective histories."

A replica of the Hiawatha wampum depicting the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
A replica of the Hiawatha wampum depicting the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Catalog Number: 26/9056)

America's Maritime Past

The frigid, dark waters of Lake Ontario hold stories of our nation's past that many are unaware of. Each shipwreck harbors its own story, offering a glimpse into the lives of shipbuilders, sailors, passengers, and the communities they served. These submerged relics serve as silent witnesses to the rich maritime heritage of the region, including military conflicts, maritime innovation, trade, and transportation. The 41 known historically significant shipwrecks now protected in this new sanctuary represent more than 200 years of our nation's modern history. Within these waters that helped shape America are some of the oldest shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, many of which are in pristine condition.

"The addition of Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary as the third Great Lakes sanctuary provides an opportunity for NOAA and its partners to tell the many stories of the Great Lakes and to connect these special places," said Ellen Brody, the Great Lakes Regional Coordinator at NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary protects the oldest known commercial sailing vessel in Lake Ontario, Washington (1797–1803) and a World War II-era Beechcraft C-45 Expeditor aircraft. One of the sanctuary's most visited recreationally accessible shipwrecks, St. Peter (1873–1898), is located northeast of Putneyville. This 135-foot, three-masted schooner rests upright in 117 feet of water and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

black and white photo of a twin propeller aircraft
Beechcraft C-45 Expeditor aircraft in flight. Photo: U.S. Air Force
two scuba divers with bright lights swim over a shipwreck
The bow of the schooner St. Peter. The nearly intact shipwreck rests in 120 feet of water, well preserved by Lake Ontario's cold, fresh water. Photo: NOAA

Take a virtual dive with this Sanctuaries 360 video to learn about the schooner St. Peter and its battle with 70 mph winds.

Within Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary there are:

  • 41 known shipwrecks
  • 1 known aircraft
  • 19 potential shipwreck sites (need formal verification)
  • 3 potential aircraft sites (need formal verification)
  • Several underwater archaeological sites
a map with many blue dots showing the location of known wreck sites and white squares showing the location of potential wreck sites
Map of known and potential wreck locations within Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. These are approximate locations. Image: NOAA

In order to manage and protect the underwater cultural and historical resources in Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA will enforce regulations on certain activities within sanctuary boundaries, such as prohibitions on moving, injuring, possessing, or selling sanctuary resources, anchoring on shipwrecks, and operating tethered underwater mobile systems (such as remotely operated vehicles) without a permit. Considerations were taken to ensure compatible use with commercial shipping and other activities important to the local, regional, and national economies.

Heritage Tourism and Recreation

a silhouette of two children fishing from a steep cliff
Photo: Kim Beaver/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest

Typically regarded as an oasis retreat for hikers, climbers, and campers, upstate New York also offers excellent freshwater scuba opportunities. Scuba diving, boating, fishing, and paddling are just a few of the recreational activities that locals and tourists enjoy on the waters of Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary. The region also includes several lighthouses and maritime museums, and many state parks that attract millions of visitors. If people are visiting the region for these activities, it means they are also contributing to the regional economy by spending money on food, accommodations, travel, and other commodities.

"Southeastern Lake Ontario has a thriving tourism industry led by a world-class sport fishery…supplemented by historical attractions, boating, outdoor adventure opportunities, snowmobiling, agri-tourism, and welcoming downtowns," said Oswego County Administrator Philip R. Church. "A National Marine Sanctuary based on our maritime heritage and shipwrecks will add significantly to this diversity of attractions and strengthen the tourism industry by luring a whole new population of visitors to our communities."

Church has been scuba diving and exploring historical shipwrecks since 1993. "I traveled to other communities of the Great Lakes to dive, witnessed their active charter and buoying operations, and when I came back [to Oswego] I'd think, ‘why not here?'"

The mooring buoy program Church is referring to is one of the most well-known and successful programs helping to support tourism and protect natural and cultural resources across the National Marine Sanctuary System. Thousands of mooring buoys are deployed and maintained by sanctuary staff to allow visitors and researchers to safely secure their vessel near popular diving and fishing sites—offering an alternate way to stabilize watercraft without damaging the environment below.

a person scuba diving near a wooden shipwreck
People travel to the Great Lakes to scuba dive and experience crystal clear water with well-preserved shipwrecks that date back to the 1700s. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA
a scuba diver underwater while holding a line attached to a yellow buoy
Resource Protection Specialist Cassandra Sadler prepares to deploy a lift bag to take the midwater buoy line to the surface during buoy operations in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

In addition to protecting and allowing the safe exploration of the 41 known shipwrecks, there are also opportunities for discovery, with 19 potential shipwreck sites and several archaeological sites within the boundaries that still need formal investigation. NOAA and its partners bring added benefits to the area such as funding and scientific capacity to support the research and exploration of the lakebed. After a historically significant shipwreck is confirmed in sanctuary waters, it becomes a cultural resource that is routinely monitored and protected.

History Will Live On

Given that these historical artifacts rest on the lake bottom of Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary, many people will never get to see them in person. Now that this area is protected and managed by NOAA, staff will be able to work with partners, including local and national organizations and Indigenous governments and communities to ensure that these stories live on for generations to come.

One of the benefits of a special area becoming part of the National Marine Sanctuary System is that the management plan for the sanctuary will include an education and outreach component. This means funds can be allocated towards things like developing standards-aligned lesson plans, educational videos, articles, virtual reality experiences, museum exhibits, and supporting school field trips and professional development opportunities for teachers.

a man with white hair and a hat holds a rope and sits next to two young children holding ropes
Children learn to tie nautical knots during a community event at Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Benjamin Heckethorn has been teaching history at Oswego High School for seven years, and has been an educator for 17 years. When asked about the level of knowledge local students currently have of American history and Indigenous heritage beneath the waves of Lake Ontario, Heckethorn replied, "They all know we live on a Great Lake, they know we have beautiful sunsets and powerful snowstorms, but the vast majority of students who I teach are surprised to learn about the centuries of well preserved history sitting on the floor of Lake Ontario."

A national marine sanctuary will help the stories of trade, transportation, shipbuilding, and sustenance within this Great Lake community live on so that local students can learn this history and keep it alive. "Schools in the area can take advantage of field trips to sites along the Lake Ontario shoreline and eventually interpretive centers to help bring Lake Ontario history to life," Heckethorn adds.

an adult and two children in a ship control room look at screens with a display showing live underwater video
Youth explore Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary using a remotely operated vehicle from aboard a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee research vessel during a Get Into Your Sanctuary event. Photo: NOAA

There is also value provided by the national marine sanctuary in terms of strengthening science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum and inspiring future career interests for local youth. "These [sanctuary] resources could be used to spark students' interest in careers in history, mathematics, physics, marine biology, nautical architecture, underwater technology and engineering, and more," adds Church.

"No matter the school, the age group, or the subject area, our students are going to really benefit from this designation whether it be [through visiting] the actual sanctuary site or through sanctuary-provided materials and lessons," concludes Heckethorn.

A Sanctuary Now and Forever

National marine sanctuaries are special places rich with natural and cultural treasures that are worth protecting. Like national parks and monuments, national marine sanctuaries are one of America's greatest ideas, often with strong public and bipartisan support. The designation will officially take effect following publication of this action in the Federal Register and a 45-day review by Congress and the governor of New York.
a group of people stand in a field holding a sign
Members of the Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. Photo: NOAA

The sanctuary will establish a new 15-member Sanctuary Advisory Council that will play an important role in shaping the future of this new national marine sanctuary.

"The designation has been the culmination of so many passionate individuals throughout the area," said Crist. "There is a true and deep sense of pride, joy, and accomplishment that comes from recognizing a job well done. This significant milestone serves as a testament to our collective efforts to preserve our maritime heritage for future generations."

Rachel Plunkett is the content manager and senior writer for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries