Diving the Great Lakes

Typo, A three-masted schooner, 40m long, built in Milwaukee in 1873. Collided with the steamer W.P. Ketcham on 14 October 1899. Four lives were lost.

by Pete Mesley

For many years I have wanted to dive the Great Lakes and in August this year, a dream turned into reality. The obvious draw of this area was my incessant love of shipwrecks. Having dived many wrecks from different eras, from WWI to WWII, nuclear bomb blast fleets to finding ships lost in the Bermuda Triangle, it was the Great Lake wrecks that would feed my newfound lust, for wood!

Cornelia B. Windiate, built in Wisconsin 1874, disappeared with all hands on 28 November 1875.

Cornelia B. Windiate, built in Wisconsin 1874, disappeared with all hands on 28 November 1875.

Part of making this dream become real was my friend and dive buddy Steve Hubbard. Steve, an emergency physician and hyperbaric doctor who frequents my trips as diving doc, lives in Wisconsin USA, right on the edge of Lake Michigan. He so happened to have a 10-metre speed boat, perfectly decked out for diving. Steve’s son Kyle came with us as boat/surface support and off we went. Towing the boat we drove north from Sturgeon Bay up through Wisconsin and over the Mackinaw Bridge – an impressive sight, it looks very similar to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. After quite a few fuel stops we finally got to our destination of Presque Isle, on the west side of Lake Huron. This was going to be our base for the next two weeks.

The Great Lakes lie between the United States of America and Canada in mid-continental North America. They form the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. Strangely, they are all interconnected and form a single drainage system that discharges down the St Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean out to the east. The Great Lakes consist of five main lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. They contain 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water by volume. Lake Michigan is the largest, and Superior the second largest body of fresh water in the world. Equally impressive is that there are over six thousand wrecks just waiting to be explored! The lakes have been a major highway for transportation, migration and trade between settlements in the US and Canada for hundreds of years.

These massive bodies of water are prone to sudden adverse weather conditions (unlucky for boat traffic but lucky for wreck divers). Dense fog promoting collisions, large short swells swamping vessels, etc. It gets pretty nasty to say the least. Thousands of vessels have met their fate. So these waters need the respect they deserve.

Kyle Spangler, a 40m schooner built in 1856, sank after colliding with the schooner Racine on 7 November 1890.

Kyle Spangler, a 40m schooner built in 1856, sank after colliding with the schooner Racine on 7 November 1890.

What makes the Great Lakes so unique is the immaculately preserved wooden sail boats which litter the bottom. What keeps these wrecks in top form is the cold water, depth and lack of the wood-eating organisms that are found in the oceans. The introduction of non-native zebra mussels, first discovered in 1988, can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. The mussels, being filter feeders, have cleaned up the waters extensively making visibility exceptional for divers. On the other hand, all of the wrecks and bottoms of the lakes are infested with these small creatures. Personally I don’t mind them. They are small enough to still show the detail of the wrecks. It is the viz that wins at the end of the day.

Norman, a 90m steel steamer travelling light, sank within three minutes after a collision in thick fog with the steamer Jack on 30 May 1895, with a loss of three lives.

Norman, a 90m steel steamer travelling light, sank within three minutes after a collision in thick fog with the steamer Jack on 30 May 1895, with a loss of three lives.

There are numerous diving locations strewn round the Great Lakes. I chose Presque Isle because it had the largest amount of wooden wrecks in a small area. One of the things that I noticed was that these places were pretty isolated and there was a total lack of technical diving infrastructure in these locations. Usually operators drive up with their trailered boats from dive stores in the larger cities and dive the areas for three to five days, then make their way back. Thankfully Steve had his own booster, compressor, O2 and helium so we were totally self-sufficient.

Diving the Great Lakes is appreciated most by experienced divers who are comfortable in the use of drysuits, dry gloves and thick hoods and undergarments. Water temperatures on the bottom are 3ºC (that’s the recommended temperature for drinking Heineken!) climbing to a balmy 10ºC at nine metres and up to 15–16ºC at six metres, which is sheer bliss when you are decompressing for over an hour. The thought of this will probably scare most of you off, but once you get the right kit and get happy using it, you will be a happy camper and the cold water will not be a factor. Believe me, it’s worth it. Descending on a three-masted schooner with all the rigging still intact, sitting bolt upright on the bottom is a sight you will never forget.

Kyle Spangler, a 40m schooner built in 1856, sank after colliding with the schooner Racine on 7 November 1890.

Kyle Spangler, a 40m schooner built in 1856, sank after colliding with the schooner Racine on 7 November 1890.

Presque Isle has a small settlement 20 minutes’ drive away called Alpena. Everyone is extremely friendly and accommodating and it has one of the best ice-cream shops I have ever been to! We stayed at the Fireside Inn, a log cabin style establishment. Everyone would sit down each night to a set menu and share their experiences of the day. Don’t be surprised to see the Great Lakes as a Lust4Rust Dive Destination in the near future!
Most of the wrecks I was focusing on were in the 50–60 metre range so a normal dive would be a 40 minute bottom time followed by a 60–75 minute decompression.

About the Author:
Pete Mesley owns and operates Lust4Rust Diving Excursions, taking divers all over.
http://www.petemesley.com/lust4rust/

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