Stony shorelines and sandy dunes attract more than 60 million visitors each year to the edges of the Great Lakes, most of them never knowing what lies just out of sight beneath the chilly waves.

What’s there are shipwrecks—nearly 6,000 of them.

Scattered along the floors of the five Great Lakes are the pieces and parts of our national maritime history. Some of these wrecks foundered in storms and men were lost to the inland seas. Some were scuttled to create destinations for recreational divers. Some sank and have never been found.

Scuba divers have been exploring these sites for decades. And with the help of glass bottom boats and snorkeling equipment, even those not donning tanks can experience their allure.

Topping the list of must-see wrecks for both divers and non-divers alike is the Nordmeer, a 470-foot freighter that rests in about 40 feet of water just offshore in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary & Underwater Preserve. This 4,300-square-foot preserve —located off the shores of Alpena in the northeast Lower Peninsula—is the largest of the state’s underwater preserves and the only federal marine sanctuary in the Great Lakes.

For decades after its 1966 sinking, portions of the Nordmeer still loomed above the water’s surface. In 2009, it finally succumbed to the harsh weather and sank completely. Although no longer visible from land, the German vessel remains a reason to splash into Lake Huron and onto this playground of mangled steel blanketed in a carpet of plant growth.

Another of Thunder Bay’s shallow treasures is the Monohansett, a double-decked bulk freighter that sank after a fire destroyed it in 1907. Located off the shore of Thunder Bay Island, it lies between 14 and 20 feet. This ship, too, can be enjoyed with a mask, fins and snorkel. But bring your maritime imagination as not much of the ship’s structure remains.

Further south in Lake Huron and much deeper lies a Great Lakes dive destination that often tops the list of scuba divers’ favorites: the Regina.

This 250-foot steel freighter was one of many vessels that fell victim to the November 1913 Great Storm, sinking with the loss of all men on board. Discovered more than 70 years later in what is now the Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve, off the shores of Port Sanilac, the Regina lies upside down in about 80 feet of water. Great photo opportunities can be found at both the ship’s stern and bow, where its engraved name is clearly seen. But, the true appeal of this vessel, and what keeps divers coming back, is what is found scattered in the nearby debris field. Crates and ladders and other items used by sailors are strewn about, including ketchup bottles with the condiment still visible inside. Each item serves as a reminder of the 32 men who once sailed this ship.

TANTALIZING TALES

You can look but you can’t touch. Like all Great Lakes shipwrecks, the Regina and its artifacts are protected by laws prohibiting the removal of any objects. Visitors tempted to take a “souvenir” will find themselves facing hefty fines and likely criminal charges.

The State of Michigan is serious about protecting its maritime treasures and, with much input from active scuba divers, in 1980 created an underwater preserve system. In addition to imposing penalties for disturbing the shipwrecks and their artifacts, the state made removing items a felony. That is good news for divers who enjoy the anchors, chains and deadeyes still found on many of these treasures.

There are now more than 2,300 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland protected within the state’s underwater preserve system, including the Straits of Mackinac, the area between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet.

Here rests the Eber Ward, a wooden steamer that sank in 1909 when it struck ice, causing the deaths of five men. This is a journey for more advanced divers as the top deck of the ship is at a depth of about 110 feet and it hits bottom in about 140 feet of water. Sitting upright with its pointed bow intact—complete with anchors hanging off its sides—the ship’s demise can be easily understood, as there is a gaping hole in the front hull. Nearby, the arm of a lone davit hangs empty where a lifeboat once was secured.

Jumping north over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the deepest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior, is the 113-square-mile Alger Underwater Preserve. While tour boats and kayaks carry visitors along the shoreline to view the colorful weathered sandstone of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, scuba divers dip into the frosty waters to view the dozens of shipwrecks below. Among the most popular is the 145-foot schooner Bermuda. Sheltered within the bay just off the city of Munising, this intact boat sits upright in about 30 feet of water. There is plenty to see on this wreck, and because the shallow depths mean more light, most divers make sure they allow plenty of time to explore.

There are so many opportunities to study shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, and the excitement continues as more are found. In 2006, the steamboat Anthony Wayne was discovered in Lake Erie, more than 150 years after it sank in an inexplicable explosion.

The ship is broken up and buried in the lake’s muck and visibility is difficult, but it’s still easy to be awed by the incredible history of the 1830s-side-wheel steamship, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Whether through the lens of a glass bottomed boat or up close through your own mask, the Great Lakes are a treasure trove for history buffs and novices alike. The lakes offer more than the serenity of lapping water. They hide a realm of the past and create a world of adventure.

DIVE IN

Find information about Michigan’s 14 Underwater Preserves at michiganpreserves.org.

Dive boat operators that go to several of the preserves include:

Blackdog Charters (Lake Michigan and Lake Huron), blackdogdivecharters.com, (507) 236-2280.

Aquatic Adventures (all of the Great Lakes), aquaticadventuresofmi.com, (810) 225-9868.

Shipwreck Tours (Lake Superior), shipwrecktours.com, (906) 387-4477.

For non-divers, check out a glassbottom boat tour in Munising on Lake Superior (shipwrecktours.com) and in Alpena on Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay (alpenashipwrecktours.com).


This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.

Author

Erica Blake is a SSI certified Master Diver with extensive experience diving all five of the Great Lakes, as well as other international destinations such as Galapagos Islands, Guadalupe Island and the Maldives. She is a journalist by trade and spent more than 15 years as a daily newspaper reporter before transitioning into public relations. She lives in Toledo, Ohio, and is a marathon runner as well as scuba diver.

Comments are closed.