Georgian Bay is surrounded by (listed clockwise) Manitoulin District, Sudbury District, Parry Sound District, Muskoka District, Simcoe County, Grey County and Bruce County. The Main Channel separates the Bruce Peninsula from Manitoulin Island and connects Georgian Bay to the rest of Lake Huron. The North Channel of Lake Huron, located between Manitoulin Island and the Sudbury District, west of Killarney, was once a popular route for steamships and is now used by a variety of pleasure craft to travel to and from Georgian Bay.
The shores and waterways of the Georgian Bay were, and are, the domain of the Anishinaabeg First Nations peoples to the North and Huron-Petun (Wyandot) to the south. The bay was thus a major Algonquian-Huron trade route. Champlain, the first European to explore and map the area in 1615-16, called it "La Mer douce" (the gentle sea). It was named "Georgian Bay" (after King George IV) by Lieutenant Henry W. Bayfield of the Royal Navy in 1822.
Georgian Bay is about 320 kilometres long by 80 kilometres wide. It covers over 15,000 square kilometres, making it almost as large as Lake Ontario. Eastern Georgian Bay is part of the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, granite bedrock exposed by the glaciers at the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago. The granite rock formations and windswept Eastern White Pine are characteristic of the islands and much of the shoreline of the bay. The rugged beauty of the area inspired landscapes by artists of the Group of Seven (an example of which is the painting by Frederick Varley shown below). The western part of the bay, from Collingwood north, and including Manitoulin Island, Drummond, Cockburn and St. Josephs Island, borders the Niagara Escarpment.
There are tens of thousands of islands in Georgian Bay. Most of these islands are along the east side of the bay and are collectively known as the "Thirty Thousand Islands," including the larger Parry Island. Manitoulin Island, lying along the northern side of the bay, is the world's largest island in a freshwater lake. The Trent-Severn Waterway connects Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario, running from Port Severn in the southeastern corner of Georgian Bay through Lake Simcoe into Lake Ontario near Trenton. Further north, Lake Nipissing drains into it through the French River. In October 2004, the Georgian Bay Littoral was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
Archeological records reveal an Aboriginal presence in the southern regions of the Canadian Shield dating from 11,000 years ago. Evidence of later paleo-Aboriginal settlements have been found on Manitoulin Island and near Killarney, Ontario. At the time of contact the Ojibwe and Ottawa First Nations, both of whom call themselves Anishinaabe (plural: Anishinaabeg), lived along the northern, eastern and western shores of Georgian Bay. The Huron (or Wendat) and Tionontati inhabited the lands along the southern coast. Names of islands such as "Manitoulin" (from Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit) and "Giant's Tomb" are indicative of the richness of the cultural history of the area. Aboriginal communities continue to live on their territories and practise their cultural traditions.
The first European to visit this area was likely the teenage interpreter trainee Étienne Brûlé, who in 1610 was sent to live with the Onontchataronon, an Algonquin people of the Ottawa River, who travelled every winter to live with the Arendarhonon people of the Huron (Wendat) confederacy at the southern end of Georgian Bay, in the area now called Huronia. Brulé made a return visit with the Arendarhonon in 1611, and at the same time another young interprete trainee, a youth remembered only as Thomas who was employed by the French surgeon and trader Daniel Boyer, also likely made it to Huronia, in the company of the Onontchataronon. In 1615, Brulé's employer, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, made his own visit to Georgian Bay and overwintered in Huronia. He was preceded that summer by a Récollet missionary, Joseph Le Caron, who would live among the Huron in 1615-16 and 1623-24. Another Récollet missionary, Gabriel Sagard, visited in 1623-34. The French Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf began a mission in Huronia in 1626, and the mission fort of Sainte-Marie, Ontario's first European settlement, followed in 1639 at what is now the town of Midland. The reconstructed Jesuit mission, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, is now an historic park operated by the province of Ontario. Also nearby is the Martyrs' Shrine, a Catholic church dedicated to the Canadian Martyrs, Jesuits who were killed around Georgian Bay in the 17th century. Penetanguishene, also located at the southern tip of the bay near Midland, was created as a naval base in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe.
In 1814, during the War of 1812, one of the battles was fought in Southern Georgian Bay. On August 17, at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River near Wasaga Beach, the British schooner HMS Nancy was sunk by three American vessels. Several weeks later, the Nancy was avenged when two of the American vessels were surprised and captured by British boarding parties in the Detour Passage.
Georgian Bay was first charted in 1815 by Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen, who called it Lake Manitoulin. Captain Henry Bayfield, who made much more detailed charts of the bay, renamed it in 1822 after King George IV; his charts are the basis of those in use today.
The towns of Midland and Penetanguishene, at the southern end of the bay, are a popular site for summer cottages, as are the many bays and islands on the eastern shore. Collingwood, Meaford and Wasaga Beach are located at the southern end of the bay, around Nottawasaga Bay. Owen Sound and Wiarton are located on the Bruce Peninsula along the southern and southwestern shore of the bay, while Tobermory is located at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula on the Main Channel. The Chi-Cheemaun ferry travels from Tobermory, across the Main Channel to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. Parry Sound, the world's deepest freshwater port, is located on the eastern shore of the bay.