Wreck Diving 1




“The Great Lakes are so vast that one could spend an entire lifetime scuba diving in them and not see the same site twice.”

— Cris Kohl, “The Great Lakes Diving Guide”



The Great Lakes may not officially carry the moniker “Shipwreck Capital of the World,” but in reality, that’s exactly what they are. The statistics are mind-boggling: nearly 8,000 miles of shoreline, more than 95,000 square miles of water surface — and approximately 5,000 shipwrecks beneath the waves.

That’s not a typo; we didn’t accidentally slip an extra “0” in there. More than 15,000 commercial ships have used Great Lakes waterways since the 17th century, and hundreds upon hundreds of wrecks, from indigenous canoes to Age of Sail vessels to steamships, now rest forever in our inland seas. Thanks to the cold, fresh water, they are the best-preserved shipwrecks in the world, which makes the Great Lakes one of the top wreck-diving destinations in the world.

And that may be one of the recreational diving world’s best-kept secrets. A popular misconception, even among those who call the Great Lakes home, is that local wrecks are likely too deep and too dangerous for sport diver to explore. Warm, tropical locales seem more user-friendly.

While it’s true that you won’t be as comfy and warm as you would be diving in, say, Cozumel, the truth is that not all Great Lakes wrecks are L. R. Doty deep. Plenty of ships lie within easy reach of the surface, accessible to Open Water-certified recreational divers, snorkelers and, in some cases, even swimmers and beachcombers. And with the invasive zebra and quagga mussels filtering the water with an efficiency that is nothing short of spectacular, underwater visibility on a good day in the Lakes can rival that in any Caribbean or South Pacific dive destination.

Due to the sheer number of wrecks from Lake Superior in the west to the St. Lawrence River in the east, however, it might be difficult for a newbie to know where to begin. So we asked experts Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg to highlight a few of their favorite wreck-diving destinations for Lakeland Boating readers. Some of these might be obvious choices. Others might be, surprisingly, closer to your own backyard that you ever expected.

Door County, Wisconsin

“We love going up there,” Kohl said of the rugged Niagara Escarpment peninsula that separates Lake Michigan from Wisconsin’s Green Bay. “There’s such a visible appreciation for maritime history: anchors, plaques, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Trails markers and buoys.”

The peninsula also is home to the Door County Maritime Museum, 10 historic lighthouses, working shipyards, longtime commercial fishing families and, of course, a wide variety of shipwrecks.

Kohl pinpoints 27 different wreck-diving sites in his “Great Lakes Diving Guide.” Of these, 23 are either novice sites or offer sections at novice depths of 35 feet or less. At Washington Island, for example, the wreck of the Louisiana ranges from 10 to 25 feet and gives novice divers the opportunity to explore a ship that sank in the Great Storm of 1913.

Door County also offers sites for the more experienced. Intermediate and advanced divers won’t want to miss the Frank O’Conner, located about 2 miles off Cana Island at 50 to 67 feet. Although she burned in 1919, she remains quite well-preserved. Kohl’s guide notes that she “sits upright with most of her artifacts and much machinery in place, including her 20-foot-tall triple-expansion steam engine.”

When you’re not diving, enjoy a traditional fish boil, pick cherries or apples at one of Door County’s many orchards, visit a farmer’s market, explore one of the peninsula’s five state parks or take in a show at Peninsula Players, American Folklore Theater or Birch Creek Music Performance Center. To learn more, visit www.doorcounty.com.

Chicago, Illinois

“Chicago has wonderful underwater sites,” Kohl said of the couple’s next choice, “including three artificial reefs.”

“We have the whole gamut right here,” Forsberg agreed. “Our largest artificial reef is the 200-foot-long ferry Straits of Mackinac, and our most recent is the 98-foot Buccaneer. We also have beautifully preserved wooden schooners.”

That’s not all. Lake Michigan’s Chicago-area waters also feature wrecks of tugs, barges, a minesweeper and the ill-fated sidewheel steamer Seabird, which burned and sank in 1868 with the loss of 72 lives. She lies south of Waukegan in just 30 feet of water and is considered a novice-intermediate site.

“It may not be as obvious as it is in Door County, but Chicago also owes its existence to maritime history,” Kohl said. “And it’s here if you look for it.”

His dive guide lists 27 sites. Thirteen are novice or novice-intermediate sites, while the rest are intermediate or advanced. Kohl also notes that 14 wrecks remain unidentified with unconfirmed Loran and GPS coordinates. Opportunities clearly abound for divers who would enjoy wreck discovery, surveying and research. Just remember: Keep wrecks intact and take only photographs.

Visitors to Chicago will likely want to return time and again, and not only for the diving. This is a world-class city, the country’s third largest. Visits to the Museum of Science & Industry, Art Institute of Chicago, Shedd Aquarium and Chicago Museum of Natural History might be on your list, as well as shopping on the Magnificent Mile, experiencing the view from the Willis (formerly known as Sears) Tower observation deck or enjoying a Second City comedy performance. For more information, visit www.choosechicago.com.

Tobermory, Ontario

Ontario’s magnificent Bruce Peninsula, which separates Lake Huron from Georgian Bay, incorporates the same Niagara Escarpment dolomite that rears its head in Door County to the west and at Niagara Falls to the east. Tobermory, a small community of roughly 600 year-round residents at the peninsula’s tip, is third on Kohl’s and Forsberg’s list of hot wreck-diving destinations.

“It’s a diver’s mecca for sure,” Forsberg said. While she first explored the waters off Tobermory in the 1990s, Kohl’s experience with the area dates to the ‘70s; his dive guide highlights 30 wrecks in the town’s vicinity.

“There are 21 known shipwrecks (some unidentified) within five miles of Tobermory, Ontario, inside the boundaries of Fathom Five National Marine Park, plus another three just outside the park,” Kohl writes. “With… several thousand scuba divers each year doing an average of four dives each, there is much action along the docks.”

Tobermory proves to be the perfect destination for divers of all abilities, including would-be adventurers interested in getting certified. Of Kohl’s 30 featured dive sites, 17 are novice sites or contain segments suited to beginners. One of these is the 119-foot Sweepstakes, Forsberg’s first-ever Great Lakes wreck dive. The schooner lies at the head of Big Tub Harbor in 8 to 20 feet of water.

“Her external hull and deck exhibit wonderful items,” Kohl writes. “Sweepstakes is one of the best-preserved 1800s Great Lakes schooners to be found.”

When you’re not in the water, explore Tobermory and the nearby islands by canoe, kayak or sailboat. Hike the famous Bruce Trail or through Bruce Peninsula National Park. Visit art galleries or play a round of golf. And to learn more about the area, check out the St. Edwards Township Museum in an 1898 schoolhouse. The upper floor is dedicated to marine history. For more, visit www.tobermory.org.

Kingston, Ontario

At the eastern end of Lake Ontario, where the Great Lakes meet the St. Lawrence River, the city of Kingston, Ontario, serves as gateway to the 1,000 Islands and the 19th century Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This historically rich maritime crossroads has a high concentration of shipwrecks scattered just offshore.

“It’s incredibly beautiful, and there are so many historic wrecks,” Forsberg enthused.

In “The Great Lakes Diving Guide,” Kohl documents 21 dive sites, including five for novices. The rest are intermediate or advanced, offering a variety of challenges for more experienced divers. One of the most popular dives is the Wolfe Islander II, a 144-foot commercial vessel scuttled in 1985 to create an artificial reef and new dive site.

The ship’s superstructure starts at 40 feet, while her hull lies at 80 feet. According to Kohl, “visiting divers can explore her open deck area, complete with davits, bollards, dorades, smokestack, railings galore, a motorcycle… divers trained in shipwreck penetration can also explore her interior, including the engine room.”

Then there are the historic ships: St. Lawrence, constructed at Kingston for the War of 1812; the passenger sidewheel steamer Comet, which sank in 1861; the wooden steamer Varuna, which sank in 1926 and lies in the “ships’ graveyard” just 7 miles east of Kingston. There are many, many more.

You’ll definitely want to set aside some time for shore-based activities. Kingston is known as Canada’s “museum capital,” with attractions that include the 19th century Fort Henry, another UNESCO World Heritage site; the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation; and the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, which includes the ice breaker Alexander Henry.

You also can take a guided tour of the city’s historic sites, peruse the many art galleries or take in a performance at one of Kingston’s venerable theaters. To learn more, visit www.kingstoncanada.com.

Straits of Mackinac, Michigan

Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac is home to more than the famous island with its Grand Hotel, horse-drawn carriages and fudge shops. This is also where you’ll find the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, a 148-square-mile stretch of water at the confluence of lakes Michigan and Huron.

Kohl documents 26 sites in his dive guide. These include 24 wrecks as well as the historic harbor at St. Ignace, Michigan — one of the oldest cities in the United States — and a novice site known as The Maze, which lies in 35 feet of water or less and incorporates fascinating caverns, walls and rock pillars that tower to within a few feet of the surface.

Of the wrecks, eight are novice sites. The rest range from intermediate to “very advanced” and even technical, due to depth and the strong currents that can afflict the straits region.

One intermediate-to-advanced site is the 588-foot steel freighter Cedarville, which lies east of Old Mackinac Point in 40 to 106 feet of water. In 1965, she collided with a Norwegian freighter in a heavy fog and sank; 10 lakeboat men lost their lives. She’s one of the straits’ most popular dive sites, and while she lies on her side, she’s mostly intact.

Another popular site is the 218-foot wooden steamer William H. Barnum, which lies at 58 to 75 feet. She sank in 1894 when ice tore open her hull; no lives were lost. She, too, is largely intact and sits upright on the bottom; divers will enjoy seeing the boiler, windlass, steam engine and much more.

Build enough time into your schedule to visit Mackinaw City on the straits’ southern side,  St. Ignace to the north and of course much-loved Mackinac Island. With the museums, historic sites, parks, trails, shops, restaurants, pubs and fabulous views of the landmark Mackinac Bridge, affectionally known as Big Mac, you’re bound to fall in love with much more than the diving.

To learn more about the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, visit www.michiganpreserves.org/straits.htm. For information about visiting St. Ignace, Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, visit www.stignace.org, www.mackinawcity.com and www.mackinacisland.org.

Munising, Michigan

According to Kohl and Forsberg, Lake Superior offers its own unique brand of wreck diving — partially due to the lake’s long history of violent storms and sudden disaster, but also courtesy of its icy waters.

“The zebra mussels haven’t made headway in Lake Superior,” Kohl said. With a chuckle, he added, “It’s not polluted enough! They need more calcium and acidity.”

So the wrecks aren’t suffering from the encrustation that has happened in the lower lakes, and Superior provides good visibility without the invaders’ help.

For their next wreck-diving destination, the couple taps Munising, a community of approximately 2,500 on Lake Superior’s south shore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — “da UP,” to upper Midwesterners. It’s a popular port for divers seeking access to the Alger Underwater Preserve; like the Mackinac Underwater Preserve, it’s one of 10 special areas in Michigan that are formally recognized for their high concentration of shipwrecks.

“The Great Lakes Diving Guide” highlights 14 sites, of which a whopping 12 are perfect for novice divers. Kohl even classifies one as a “landlubber” site.

That spot incorporates the Au Sable Shore Wrecks near the Au Sable lighthouse. Two are wooden ships, whose remnants are scattered along the shore and into shallow water. The third is the 179-foot steamer Mary Jarecki, which stranded and broke up here in 1871. The deepest wreckage, her boiler, lies in just 6 feet of water.

“The wrecks off Munising are relatively shallow and are within 3 miles of the town harbor,” Kohl said. “You have easy access, even with just a small inflatable boat.”

Munising is the jumping-off point for the celebrated Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Grand Island National Recreation Area. Reserve space on a cruise boat or hop in your car and head for Pictured Rocks, which stretches for 42 miles between Munising and Grand Marais. Or take the tourist ferry and visit Grand Island for hours of hiking, fishing, mountain biking and even camping.

Have your trigger-finger ready, because photo opportunities abound — from the multihued sandstone cliffs and plunging waterfalls to sand dunes and interesting rock formations like natural archways. For more information about visiting and diving Munising, visit www.munising.com and www.michiganpreserves.org/alger.htm.

Whitefish Point, Michigan

Kohl’s and Forsberg’s final destination is roughly two hours east of Munising by car. This is Whitefish Point, home to yet another of Michigan’s underwater preserves — the aptly named Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve — as well as the historic Whitefish Point Lighthouse & Museum and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, the only museum in the Lakes that is entirely devoted to shipwrecks.

“Visitors come by the thousands, and not only for the museum,” Kohl said. “Whitefish Point is the closest point of land to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which has been declared off-limits by the Canadian government.”

“It’s extremely deep,” Forsberg said of the famous freighter, which sank in a now-legendary 1975 November storm with all hands and now lies broken in 529 feet of water. “Very few divers could go anyway.”

Specially trained divers dived the Fitz in 1995 to recover her bell, but as Kohl noted, such highly technical expeditions are exceedingly dangerous. And, perhaps, haunted.

“They spent eight minutes on the wreck and endured three hours of decompression stops,” Kohl said. “They said they have no desire to ever go back.”

Fortunately, recreational divers have a variety of opportunities off Whitefish Point. “The Great Lakes Diving Guide” documents 20 sites; only two are novice, but five more are accessible to intermediate-level divers, and even the advanced sites bottom out at 118 feet, well within the 130-foot recommended maximum depth for sport divers.

And, for those with technical diving training and experience, Kohl’s guide details nine sites with depths ranging from 172 to 270 feet.

Before you head home, make sure to stop at the shipwreck museum, where the Fitz’s bell now resides as part of a special memorial. Also on display are a variety of shipwreck- and diving-related exhibits and artifacts.

You can find lodging in and around Paradise, Michigan, and the area serves as a gateway to Taquamenon Falls State Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Plus, it’s a short trip to the Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie and the Museum Ship Valley Camp. For more information, visit www.michiganpreserves.org/whitefish.htm, www.shipwreckmuseum.com, and www.paradisemi.org.

Photo: Wreck of the schooner “Cornelia B. Windiate,” in 185 feet of water in Lake Huron. Courtesy of Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg.