LAKELAND BOATING: SEPTEMBER 2010
Over the years, the names Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg have become synonymous with Great Lakes diving. They are accomplished, internationally recognized maritime historians, scuba divers, authors, lecturers and photographers. They give presentations around the Great Lakes, and both have served as president of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago.
They also are husband and wife.
Lakeland Boating recently caught up with the dynamic duo as they worked to set up a Toronto office for their Illinois-based business, Seawolf Communications, which releases and distributes their many book and DVD projects. Taking a much-needed break, Kohl and Forsberg reflected on the twists of fate that brought them together, their successful careers and the uniqueness of Great Lakes diving.
Kohl grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and he said he loved water and boats from childhood. From there, it was a short step to scuba diving.
“I got certified in 1974, the same year I started teaching high school English and history,” said Kohl, who holds a master’s degree in history. “Windsor really does lie at the heart of the Great Lakes, and I had access to two scuba clubs — one in Canada and the other in Detroit.”
Forsberg, who also earned a degree in history, grew up in New York, moved to Chicago in 1974 and raised a family there. She said she started diving in the tropics, but everything changed when she volunteered to serve as chairperson for the Shipwrecks & Our Maritime Heritage Room at the Chicago-based “Our World — Underwater” dive show in April 1996
“Our first MC was a guy named Cris Kohl,” she said warmly. “He showed up, lit up the room with his smile, and that was that.”
About a year and a half later, Kohl introduced her to Great Lakes shipwreck diving.
“I was excited, but what if I didn’t like it?” said Forsberg, recalling her vivid case of nerves. “We dived the Sweepstakes off Tobermory. I was so comfortable… and so excited! I’d found my passion. We were lucky we shared that.”
“We fell in love, I sold my house in Canada, I moved to Chicago, and we started working together,” Kohl said simply.
The rest is well-documented history. Kohl is an award-winning photographer and author who has written 11 books, including the bestselling “Great Lakes Diving Guide,” and more than 300 magazine and newsletter articles about Great Lakes shipwrecks. He’s appeared in History Channel and Discovery Channel programs, and the past president of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago also is the 2008 recipient of the “Our World — Underwater” Achievement Award.
Forsberg, the onetime neophyte, has spearheaded research or survey work on more than 35 Great Lakes shipwrecks, and she’s one of the first women to have completed formal training in underwater archaeology from Great Britain’s Nautical Archaeology Society. She produces her own underwater video, and she routinely models for Kohl’s underwater still images. The first woman to be published in the internationally circulated publication Wreck Diving, she is now the magazine’s copy editor, and she’s the author of Diver’s Guide to the Kitchen.
Earlier this year, Forsberg was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. She also co-wrote the book “Shipwrecks at Death’s Door” with Kohl, and as the current UASC president — serving an unprecedented third term — she was involved with the creation of the Buccaneer artificial reef in southern Lake Michigan.
The 98-foot Buccaneer, built as the USS Dexter in 1925 to deal with Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico rum runners, served as a World War II ship and as an excursion party boat before the UASC purchased her at auction three years ago. This summer, she was sunk in 70 feet of water off Chicago’s Burnham Harbor.
“It was a last-minute thing,” Forsberg said of the final green light for the sinking, which concluded a two-year process that involved the Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard. Buccaneer will provide reef structure for local marine life and a new destination for Great Lakes divers, who largely financed the project’s $20,000 cost through donations.
“The Buccaneer was one of my biggest recent projects, and we’re still busy getting the word out,” Forsberg noted. “Another one is that we were asked to write a book commemorating the 40th anniversary of ‘Our World — Underwater,’ and we’ve had a ball putting it together!”
The husband-and-wife team is researching additional collaborative projects, and they continue to give presentations at regional events such as the Windy City’s “Our World — Underwater” and Chicago Maritime Festival, both in February, and Milwaukee’s “Ghost Ships Festival,” held in March. Their presentations, however, have changed with the times.
“For decades, I’ve done presentations with slides, which is a dying format,” Kohl said with a chuckle. “We finally decided to digitize so we could add video.
“We introduced our DVDs about a year ago,” he continued. “I focus on still photography, Joan does most of the video, and we add music and narration to make a commercial production.”
“We’re concerned about getting young people into scuba diving,” Forsberg said of the DVD projects. “We want to introduce it in a visual way. Then maybe they’ll buy a book, and then maybe they’ll get certified. We get so excited at our booth when we see something other than gray hair!”
Laughing, Kohl added, “We want to get young people away from virtual boating and diving. We want them to get out there.”
Both agreed that many Great Lakes residents and visitors aren’t aware of the treasure trove beneath the waves. With thousands of shipwrecks lying in cold, fresh water, the Lakes carry in their bellies the world’s best-preserved collection of wrecks.
“They also need to be the most intact wrecks in the world,” Forsberg said, speaking to one of the couple’s core missions: preservation.
“We’re fascinated by conditions in the Great Lakes,” Kohl explained. “The Lakes are unique, and unique wrecks lie in them. They are a nonrenewable resource.”
Ontario, he noted, has the highest level of legislative protection for shipwrecks within its waters, but all the Great Lakes states on the U.S. side have gotten involved to varying degrees.
“We’re happy with that,” Kohl said. “It’s hard to police, though, and divers are on their honor not to disrupt the wrecks. In the old days, it was a badge of distinction to bring up artifacts. But it’s far better to see items in their original locations, of only because some pieces — wood, especially — are hard to preserve out of the water.
“Fortunately, with younger divers, the word ‘green’ comes to mind,” he mused. “They accept the principle of ‘take only photographs.’ And most divers here truly want to keep our wrecks intact. There’s the occasional bad apple, but these days, that person really has to keep quiet or face prosecution as well as getting thrown out of the local dive club!”
For certified divers who are interested in pursuing Great Lakes shipwreck diving, Kohl and Forsberg had two recommendations: seek out a local dive club, and take a course, especially if you’re planning to penetrate — dive jargon for swimming inside the shipwreck, where you may not have direct access to the surface. There are wreck-diving specialty courses; you can even go a step further and study cave diving.
“I took a cave diving course in north Florida in the 1990s, which was intense,” Kohl said. “I learned how to solve problems underwater in an overhead environment, which helped a lot with Great Lakes wrecks.”
“You need training and experience for penetration,” Forsberg concurred, “but remember, there’s a lot to see on a wreck without going inside.”
And there’s a lot to see, period. While the invasive zebra and quagga mussels have damaged some wrecks, attaching to their surfaces and in some cases collapsing decking with their weight, they’ve also granted Caribbean-quality visibilities to the formerly murky Great Lakes. As they consume particulates in the water, they also filter it, and the results are staggering.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, especially in Lake Erie, 10 feet of viz would be an exceptional day,” Kohl said, laughing. “Now you get 50 feet. And in other lakes, we’ve seen visibilities of 60, 70, even 80 feet.”
“On the Straits of Mackinac, a ferry wreck off Chicago, you get 100 feet some days!” Forsberg added.
Kohl and Forsberg said they do understand the appeal of warm-water and ocean diving; they’ve spent time diving in Hawaii as well as off the U.S. East Coast. But they insist that Great Lakes-based divers who have never explored their own backyard will be blown away.
“When I wrote my first book about Great Lakes diving in 1985, I did it because I was frustrated with the people I got certified with,” Kohl remembered. “They hung up their gear and waited for that one vacation trip south each year, which a lot of people do. They don’t realize what they’re missing right here!”
To learn more about Kohl, Forsberg and their latest creative projects, visit www.seawolfcommunications.com.
Photo courtesy of Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg.