Divers come from all over the world to explore the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. And for good reason.
The sunken vessels are often well-preserved, and Michigan’s system of underwater preserves offers world-class wreck-diving opportunities.
“Whether it’s a ship with a wood hull or one that’s iron or steel, the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes preserves these wrecks really well and way better than you’ll find in the oceans where the salt eats away at the metal and the ocean-borne critters eat away at the wood,” said Stephanie Gandulla, a maritime archaeologist for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary headquartered in Alpena.
The Great Lakes harbor at least 6,000 shipwrecks, from 150-foot wooden schooners to 500-foot steel freighters, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise. Many lay in deep water and have yet to be discovered, but hundreds have been found and most look much as they did when they first went down. That includes wrecks from the 20th century to as far back as the late 1700s. Masts, engines, wheels, propellers, even cups and silverware, tools and other relics are visible to divers and tell of Michigan’s rich maritime history.
Thunder Bay NMS, also a state underwater preserve that is open to sport divers, covers 4,300 square miles of northern Lake Huron and boasts nearly a hundred known shipwrecks, each with a story. Maritime lore is a big driver with shipwreck diving.
“People get hooked through the history that goes with a particular wreck. It’s one thing to know that the ship is there, but it’s another to know the story behind it,” said diver Ron Bloomfield, who has held positions on both the nonprofit Michigan Underwater Preserves Council (MUPC) and the state-level Underwater Salvage and Preserve Committee. “I can think of a dozen shipwrecks, like the SS Daniel J. Morrell (a 603-foot freighter lost with 28 of its 29-member crew in a 1966 storm) or the Philadelphia (a 236-foot steamer that sunk following a collision in 1893), and they all have stories, including personal stories of people, and that’s what brings them to life.”
MICHIGAN’S UNDERWATER PRESERVES
Thunder Bay is one of 13 state underwater preserves found in Michigan waters. All were established to protect the sunken ships within their boundaries. In total, they cover 7,200 square miles in lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior. The preserves include:
• Southwest Michigan, West Michigan, Manitou Passage, and Grand Traverse Bay underwater preserves, covering much of the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan
• Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve, extending into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan waters on both sides of the Mackinac Bridge
• DeTour Passage Underwater Preserve, which encompasses the northern tip of Lake Huron and continues several miles into the St. Marys River
• Sanilac Shores, Thumb Area Bottomland and Thunder Bay preserves along much of the western shoreline of Lake Huron
• Whitefish Point, Alger, Marquette and Keweenaw preserves, which take up portions of Lake Superior’s southern shore
The National Park Service also manages a 14th shipwreck area in the waters around Isle Royale, located in western Lake Superior, about 70 miles northwest of Houghton.
“Whether it’s a ship with a wood hull or one that’s iron or steel, the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes preserves these wrecks really well and way better than you’ll find in the oceans where the salt eats away at the metal and the ocean-borne critters eat away at the wood.”
— Stephanie Gandulla
Michigan’s underwater preserves were established where shipwrecks are common, whether due to high shipping traffic, underwater obstacles, treacherous weather conditions or some combination. Dense fog and high traffic, for instance, has led to ship-to-ship collisions, while sudden lake gales have capsized vessels or pushed them off-course and aground on shallow reefs and rocky outcrops.
Michigan’s notorious “Shipwreck Coast” on Lake Superior runs from Munising to Whitefish Bay. It’s a region with no natural harbors, according to Sarah Wilde, operations manager of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise. There are no places ships can duck out of a storm, and many have gone down. Wilde dives many of the wrecks along the eastern portion of Shipwreck Coast, especially those within the 376-square-mile Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.
The preserve spans the turning point from Lake Superior’s big water to the safe harbor of Whitefish Bay. Today, divers visit about two dozen shipwrecks there.
Many wrecks found in Great Lakes preserves lie on the bottom between 60-feet and 300-feet deep. They are accessible only to advanced/technical divers with proper certification (see sidebar). But shallower wrecks dot the shoreline on all three lakes. Found in 60 feet of water or less, they appeal to recreational divers, according to Bloomfield. Several dozen wrecks are even shallow enough for snorkelers.
One popular wreck in Whitefish Bay is the wooden steamer Yosemite, which sank in 1892. Located about 10 miles south of Paradise and a mile from shore, it rests in a mere 10 feet of water, and its boilers reach to just below the surface.
One of the more harrowing Shipwreck Coast tales, according to Wilde, is that of the Nelson, a three-masted schooner that was caught in a gale in 1899. Whipped with 50-mile-per-hour winds and pelted with freezing rain, the ship became encased in ice. As it began to sink, the crewmembers, the captain’s wife and supposedly his infant son, all scrambled into the yawl (lifeboat). The last to abandon ship, the captain jumped to the lowering yawl, but missed and dropped into the water. Just as he came to the surface, he watched the ship rise one last time and then quickly plunge, carrying the yawl and everyone in it to the bottom of the lake. The captain clambered aboard some wreckage and made it to shore, the sole survivor.
The Nelson finally was discovered in 2014, sitting 300 feet down and 35 miles from Whitefish Point. The ship was in nearly perfect condition, Wilde said, and the hull still displays the ship’s name more than a century after sinking.
WRECKS FOR EVERYONE
Seeing and learning about Great Lakes shipwrecks appears to be gaining popularity, according to Bloomfield, who said he’s noticed an uptick in the number of nondivers who want to see them. One appealing aspect of shipwreck diving in Michigan waters is that it is almost never crowded.
“Since we have a lot of clear water in Michigan, you can see a lot of shallow wrecks from the surface if you glide over them in a kayak,” Bloomfield said.
Glass-bottomed boat tours also are available (commercially in Munising or through the Thunder Bay sanctuary) to take people out to view wrecks without ever getting wet. “I’ve been able to share a lot of the archaeology and history with the thousands of people who have gone out of the glass-bottom boat,” Gandulla said.
Surface viewing is wonderful, but diving is still the best way to appreciate the wrecks, Gandulla said, and Bloomfield added, “When you descend and see the wreck, that’s where the cool factor sets in: the first glimpse of it, the view of the whole wreck laid out below. You just get goosebumps literally. What a cool thing to be able to do.”
HOW TO BECOME A DIVER
The first step is to get certified by taking an open-water or recreational SCUBA diving course. Recommended is a four- to six-week course so students have time to get comfortable with diving equipment and technique, advised diver Angie Klapish-Widmer, co-owner of the dive shop Dive & Glide of Bay City (diveandglideinc.com).
Courses can run $500-$700. They include in-pool training and two open-water dives. Students typically buy their own basic gear: mask, snorkel, boots and fins, about $200-$500.
Once certified, divers can explore depths up to 60 feet. Klapish-Widmer recommended joining a diving club. Most dive shops have them. They welcome newcomers but offer a wide range of diving events led by experienced divers.
Divers who want to go farther can obtain additional certifications, such as night- and limited-visibility diving; shipwreck diving; cave diving; advanced diving, which allows diving to depths of 130 feet; and technical diving, which permits even deeper diving.
SCUBA gear will run $1,100-$1,500, said Klapish-Widmer, offering assurance that quality equipment can last up to 20 years, maybe longer, if cared for properly.
Diving, she added, is a wonderful activity for individuals and for families, including children as young as 10 years old. It is an accessible activity for people with physical limitations. “If you have a passion to try it, there’s not a whole lot to prevent you from doing it,” she said. “It’s just a great sport.”
Photography courtesy NOAA/Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Leslie Mertz is a freelance science writer and environmental educator. She lives Up North near a branch of the Au Sable River.