Otherworldly graves lure photographer to Lake Michigan’s depths

Chris Roxburgh shares his rise to diving notoriety
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For some divers, it’s an innate desire for exploration and the glistening combination of water, sand and sun. For others, it’s the incredibly rare chance of spotting a prehistoric lake sturgeon.

Just about every Lake Michigan beachgoer and boater has wondered, what’s down in that deep, sapphire water? But few are courageous enough to find out.

An electrical contractor from Traverse City, Chris Roxburgh is one of the brave. Like his neighbors, he may be spotted picking up Vietnamese food from The Good Bowl on a typical Friday night, or cozying up at home to watch “Drain the Great Lakes” on National Geographic.

But this 40-year-young thrill-seeker lives to snowboard in the winter and dirt bike on his 450 KX in the summer. He has traveled to the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada to DJ techno music at Burning Man creative festival — not once, not twice, but five times.

While Roxburgh has always had many hobbies, it was only three years ago when he discovered the thrill of exploring eerie shipwrecks — and his willingness to brave the depths of Lake Michigan to photograph their waterlogged solemnity.

In 2017, Roxburgh was paddle boarding with his wife Bea out of Peterson Park in Northport, the northern tip of Leelanau County, when they noticed something peculiar in the wintry water. The couple came across the chilling site of an areological treasure: the George Rogers shipwreck in Lake Michigan.

“I decided to go back the next weekend and free dive the shallow wreck in a thin, 3-millimeter wetsuit to take some underwater photos in the freezing 35-degree water,” Roxburgh said. “Air temperatures were in the low 20s.”

Although he had been free diving his whole life, both in the bay and Lake Michigan, this was the experience that led him on a long, exciting journey of documenting shipwrecks.

“Right away, I wanted to see more wrecks, so I started scuba diving class,” Roxburgh said. “Once my class was done, I did not want to wait until summer, like most people do. I decided to finish my open water dives in the freezing-cold winter water with only a wetsuit, because I was not yet dry suit certified.”

Chris Roxburgh
Credit: Chris Roxburgh

Going viral

On his first certified dive, he took footage of a sink hole in Grand Traverse West Bay. The motion picture made its way to The Ron Jolly Show on WTCM, where Roxburgh talked about the anomaly he captured.

“On my second dive, a group of local divers brought me out to a Ford Pinto that mysteriously made its way into the water,” he said. “My video from that was shared by MLive and went viral. It had 100,000 views within a few days.”

Roxburgh’s Pinto photograph made the front page of the Grand Rapids Press, and also was shared by Detroit Free Press. USA Today even published an article about the Pinto he captured, nicknamed “the mussel car,” as its covered in invasive zebra mussels.

Ships (and apparently cars) have ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan for various reasons — storms, collisions, navigational errors and even explosions. Many remain undiscovered, undived and unphotographed. It’s this mystery that continues Roxburgh’s drive for underwater adventure, but even more so, he’s impelled by advocacy for environmentalism and conservation.

“After quickly gaining national recognition with my underwater photos and videos, I wanted to use my popularity to spread environmental awareness on our plastics pollution problem in the Great Lakes,” Roxburgh said. “I also wanted to share pictures of invasive species, like algae and aquatic life, that has devastating effects on the ecosystem.”

The Detroit Free Press commissioned Roxburgh for underwater photography in a Great Lakes plastics pollution story that made the front page of the newspaper, as well as national news including USA Today and PBS.

“Over the past three years, I never have stopped diving, even in the freezing temps of the coldest northern Michigan winters,” Roxburgh said. “I trained with great diving instructors at my local dive shop, Scuba North, and made my way into deeper, colder technical diving.”

Teaming up

As Roxburgh became more comfortable in his diving exploits, Bea began to join him. Together, they visit many shallow shipwrecks, and over time, Roxburgh has worked his way into deeper waters after many hours of training, certifications and practice. One year ago, he met fellow diver Dusty Klifman.

“We decided to get together for some wreck diving off of Muskegon,” Roxburgh said. “After diving three sites, we decided to continue diving wrecks together off of Dusty’s boat, fully equipped with sonar, an ROV drone that can reach 600 feet deep, and another drone for searching shallow wrecks from above.”

Chris Roxburgh (left) and Dusty Klifman
Credit: Chris Roxburgh

After months of diving shipwrecks, the duo gained community recognition for their extraordinary photography. Roxburgh and Klifman started hosting presentations to share their shipwreck diving stories and footage.

“Dusty and I dive deep to remote, seldom-seen wrecks, as well as shallow ones, to document Michigan’s great shipping history,” Roxburgh said.

They continue to explore wrecks all over the Great Lakes, including the Westmoreland, Typo, Windiate, Eber Ward, Sandusky, William Young, Selvick, Bermuda, Smith Moore, and just recently several shipwrecks from the remote north and south Fox Islands.

“The best time of the year to dive is in the early spring, just after the ice thaws off the lake,” he said. “The low algae and particles in the water make visibility much better than in mid- to late-summer.”

Submerged history

One of Roxburgh’s favorite wreck sites, the propeller steamer Westmoreland, was one of Lake Michigan’s greatest unsolved mysteries for 146 years. It lies nearly 200 feet deep in northern Lake Michigan waters, where it sank on Dec. 7, 1854.

“With a crew of 34, she steamed into rough seas with over 20-foot waves and a violent snowstorm after leaking the entire night before,” Roxburgh said. “As the crew made a bucket brigade to try to keep the engines out of the water, they could not keep up with the ever-increasing flow. Once the water stopped the engines, she could not keep straight into the waves. The lifeboat davits were used to lower the boats into the water as she sank.”

Westmoreland Credit: Chris Roxburgh

Out of the 34 crew, 15 went down with the ship. Two succumbed to weather on the shore of Platte Bay as the others walked 40 miles to a nearby town.

“When she was finally found in 2010 by Ross Richardson, the mystery was unlocked to her final resting place,” Roxburgh said. “Many wreck hunters have tirelessly searched for this vessel, rumored to have whiskey barrels and gold that was being delivered to the garrison army on Fort Mackinac.”

Legend has it, an entire winter’s pay for the Fort Mackinac garrison was onboard — worth millions today. The Westmoreland was one of the first 200-foot-long, steam-powered ships in the Great Lakes.

“I was very excited to dive her because only a handful of trusted divers have been given the opportunity to visit this site,” Roxburgh said. “As a dive team, Dusty and I will continue to document and share our photos publicly so that people who would never see these beautiful shipwrecks can experience them through our camera.”

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