Lake Ontario’s Marysburgh Vortex

The city of Kingston is packed to the brim with stories about history, hauntings, and mysterious happenings. One of the lesser-known mysteries lies deep within the waters of Lake Ontario. Many ships have been wrecked or run aground around the lake while passing through an area known as the Marysburgh Vortex.

The Dangers of Lake Ontario

Some may brush it off as simple folklore, likening it to the infamous Bermuda Triangle, but there is actually scientific evidence that proves the mystery of the Marysburgh Vortex isn’t just a tall tale. Stretching from the Marysburgh Township in Prince Edward County to Kingston and Oswego, New York, the Marysburgh Vortex holds the remains of about 270 shipwrecks and at least 40 aeroplanes.

The eastern end of Lake Ontario has been notoriously dangerous for sailing, posing many hazards to ships passing through for centuries. This is partly due to the fact that the water becomes extremely shallow nearing the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. The shoals, reefs, and rocky islands in the shallows magnify the effects of storms on the Lake and end up being the direct cause of many sunken ships. These natural formations, however, don’t quite explain the strange occurrences that have happened within and around the Marysburgh Vortex.

Strange Sightings in the Sky

Local author Janet Kellough recalls a day when she heard the distinct sound of a jet ski out on the Lake while she was walking the Little Bluff Conservation Area in Prince Edward County with a friend. As they turned to look for the jet ski, they saw it, but not in the place they were expecting. Instead of skirting across the lake’s surface, the jet ski was floating completely inverted in the sky. “We could see it but it was upside down and that image kind of hung there for several minutes,” she explained in a Global News interview.

Kellough is far from the only person to have seen some odd things near the location of the Marysburgh Vortex. On September 15, 1986, Sidney Wells and several others took turns peering into the telescope set up on a friend’s deck. They were expecting to see the starry night sky and got quite the shock when something else appeared in the scope. Wells recounted seeing a “diamond” in the sky. The kind of diamond you would expect to see on a fancy engagement ring. “It was covered in a shroud-like a cloud,” he said. Immediately after, he ran to get the attention of everyone else present that evening and they all stood in awe of what they were seeing. All of a sudden, like the flick of a light switch, the diamond was gone. 

Underwater Secrets

Deep down under the surface lie other explanations for this “Graveyard of Lake Ontario”. Nautical charts show that there are several magnetic anomalies under the water. One major area that has been known to disrupt ships’ magnetic compasses is not far from Kingston‘s shore, right near the Marysburgh Vortex. This anomaly makes crossing that area of the Lake extremely dangerous, especially when visibility is poor. Today, we are lucky to have a variety of technology to help us navigate tricky waters and dense fog, but the earlier ships passing through the area would have only their compasses and celestial bodies in the sky to help keep them on course. It’s easy to see why so many got lost.

Over the many years that ships have sailed the waters of Lake Ontario, stories were passed down through generations of sailors until they became legends. One of these tales tells of the areas in the Lake in which “normal earthly rules” like the ones that control gravity and time, simply do not exist. Wilbert Smith, a UFO enthusiast led a team of Canadian scientists back in the 1950s in a study of the magnetic anomalies under the Lake. They said they had uncovered large, mobile “columns” near the shores that were up to 300 metres wide and many more metres tall. Although these claims were quite outlandish and never verified, they did mention that the area had oddities pertaining to magnetic and gravitational properties. We know now that this is less likely to be a gateway to alternate dimensions and most likely a cause of strange, but completely natural phenomena.

Is it a Bird? A Plane? Or an Optical Illusion?

We now know plenty of natural phenomena occur in the location of the Vortex. These, along with perfect weather conditions can cause a multitude of strange sightings and optical illusions like the ones experienced by Kellough and Wells. The most likely explanation for the strange images in the sky is Thermal Inversion. In “normal” conditions, the air cools down as it gains altitude (moves higher up in the atmosphere). Thermal Inversion causes an opposite reaction in which the air grows warmer as it gains altitude. (If you want to read about this phenomenon in more detail, check out this article.) The light reflecting off the warmer layers of air will curve downward due to refraction causing a pretty convincing optical illusion where objects are projected into the sky.

Thermal Inversion might explain the sightings in the sky, but what about those experiencing the Vortex from a different angle? There is a large iron deposit sitting in the centre of the lakebed that has been alleged to set compass bearings off by as much as 20 degrees. Perhaps it is strong enough to mess with any aircraft overhead. Flying a Cessna 172 in the summer of 1975, amateur pilot Ron Scott was sure it was a perfect day for a flight over the Lake. As he made his way over Prince Edward Point he immediately sensed something wasn’t right. There had been absolutely no sign of turbulence, but out of nowhere his plane banked sharply to one side and seemed to be stuck in that position. “It was as if an invisible giant took hold of the wing,” says Scott. “I could not straighten it out.” Fearing the worst at that point, Scott was shocked when the plane suddenly righted itself. There was no reasonable explanation as to why this would have happened, and he was not the only pilot to have such an experience. At almost the exact same spot over the Vortex in 1952, Royal Canadian Airforce Pilot Barry Allen Newman in his P-51 Fighter jet plummeted into the water from 20,000 feet. His body was never recovered. 

Picture of Toronto’s skyline projected across the lake due to Thermal Inversion –

Ships Taken by the Vortex

The most infamous stories involving the Marysburgh Vortex are of the ships that now lie along the bottom. The story of the Bavaria is well known around the Kingston area and our Haunted Walk guides are always happy to share the story of its mysterious disappearance. The Bavaria was a ship that broke free from the Steamer that had been towing it towards Kingston in 1889. The bad weather conditions made it so the ship got lost amongst the islands. The Bavaria had a full crew onboard, so the towing ship assumed it would eventually be able to find its way. A few days later, when there was still no sign of the ship, a search party was called. Eventually, the Bavaria was found aground on a small island in the middle of the Lake, but the crew was nowhere to be seen and never found.

The Bavaria is far from the only ship to have had its fate sealed by the mysteries of the Lake. From the HMS St. Lawrence that went missing way back in 1832, to the Manola in 1918 upon which evidence was found that the crew desperately tried to escape the ship as it sank; there is no shortage of boats lying in watery graves under the Marysburgh Vortex. 

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The Legacy of the Lake

There are many shipwrecks in Lake Ontario and the connecting St. Lawrence River that have been turned into diving sites and national historic sites. There are novels written about the Vortex and the wildly imaginative theories surrounding it like Hugh F. Cochrane’s “Gateway to Oblivion”. Canadian singer-songwriter Krista Muir has captured the ominous atmosphere of the Vortex in her song named for it, and of course, The Haunted Walk continues to gather and share the many hauntings surrounding the Lake. So, if you’re sailing across Lake Ontario this summer, take a detour to the Marysburgh Vortex and join us on a Kingston Ghost tour. Be sure to let us know if anything odd happened to you and your crew.