Michigan Underwater Preserves

Diving Thunder Bay a Michigan Underwater Preserve NOAA Photograph

When you think of scuba diving, the northern United States does not frequently come to mind. It is even less likely that shipwreck diving will be though of. However, the Great Lakes are some of the most dangerous waters in the world. There are thousands of ships that have been lost in these lakes. You might find it hard to believe that five lakes can have a reputation like that. The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, as an example, killed 250 people at sea and totally destroyed 19 ships, 12 of which sank with 3 still not found. Another 19 were stranded and an estimated 119 damaged to a degree that they needed to be repaired before becoming seaworthy again. The storm had 90 mph (145 km/h) wind gusts, waves over 35 feet (11 m) high, and whiteout snowsqualls. All that storm damaged was just between November 7 through November 10, 1913. There has been at least 25 killer storms in the month of November in the Great Lakes since 1847. Another November storm, November 27–28, 1905 saw 27 ships destroyed. Most smashed to pieces. If you just dismiss those as being long ago, do not forget the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. She sunk in a storm in minutes.

Michigan Underwater Preserves

The state of Michigan is one of the Great Lakes states. She was one of the first states to protect shipwrecks within state waters. The rules are very strict and fully enforced. If you remove something from a shipwreck and are found out, you can be fined $500 and spend up to 6 months in jail. Also, all personal property used in the recovery or transportation of the items will be seized. So your dive gear is gone and maybe your car if you drove to the boat. It should be noted that the original push for the protection was by local sport divers and the rules also protects diver’s rights to dive the shipwrecks and waters of the state. The state has taken further steps. There are now 14 underwater preserves that cover over 2,300 square miles. Wrecks within the reserves have additional protection and fines can reach $1,000 and violations are classified as a felony.

The peak dive season in Michigan runs from June to October. While some divers will wear 5mm wet suits, dry suit diving is more common. While the surface water temperature might hit 70°f for a few weeks, temperatures in the low 60s are more common in the summer dive season. Temperatures drop anywhere from 10 to 25 degrees as you dive deeper. Many cold water divers dive year round. While the air temperature will be below freezing for many months, winds and waves keep the majority of the lake surface free from fully freezing. Water temperatures will be just above the freezing point. The cold fresh water helps preserves the wrecks that have made the lake bottoms home. Most of the wrecks in deeper waters show very little signs of deterioration. They seem to be in the same conditions as the day they went down. While algae blooms may impact visibility at times, visibility often exceeds 80 feet.

The Defiance — Is that fog? NOAA image

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

While each of the 14 preserves of the Michigan Underwater Preserves system are worthy of an extensive study, the Thunder Bay preserve is an outstanding representative of the system. It is also noteworthy as it is also a National Marine Sanctuary. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is jointly managed by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the State of Michigan. When the National Marine sanctuary was established, it covered 448 square miles. That area has over 100 ships documented to be lost in it. Currently about 50 of those ships have been located and identified, 30 of which are moored and used as dive sites. In 2014, the park was expanded to cover 4,300 square miles. Here is a quote from NOAA’s website:

“Located in northwestern Lake Huron, Thunder Bay is adjacent to one of the most treacherous stretches of water within the Great Lakes system. Unpredictable weather, murky fog banks, sudden gales, and rocky shoals earned the area the name “Shipwreck Alley.” Today, the 4300-square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects one of America’s best-preserved and nationally-significant collections of shipwrecks. Fire, ice, collisions, and storms have claimed over 200 vessels in and around Thunder Bay. To date, nearly 100 shipwrecks have been discovered within the sanctuary. Although the sheer number of shipwrecks is impressive, it is the range of vessel types located in the sanctuary that makes the collection nationally significant. From an 1844 sidewheel steamer to a modern 500-foot-long German freighter, the shipwrecks of Thunder Bay represent a microcosm of maritime commerce and travel on the Great Lakes.”

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s website list over 70 wreck sites. There are too many wrecks to list them all here. Here are a few to “wet” your interest:

  • The Defiance, a Wooden Two-Masted Schooner, is an example of the condition that many of the deeper ships are in. Safe from the wave action that ships in shallow water may encounter, the Defiance is in excellent conditions. The ship shown in the photograph above is 115 feet long and has a beam of 26 feet. The photograph almost looks like it was taken on a slightly foggy day. She is in fact sitting in 185 feet of water, where she has been since October 20, 1854. That over 160 years and she still looks like she could be sailing.

  • The Grecian is another popular shipwreck. She is a 296 foot long 40 foot beam steel steamer that was launched in 1891. The Grecian collided with another ship in June 1906 and sank. Salvage efforts re-floated her but she sank again under tow. Now she rests in about 105 feet of water. Her deck is at 75 feet. Wreck trained divers can explore her triple expansion engine, boiler, decks and cargo holds. Mooring buoys are placed on both the bow and stern. The Bow is still intact and upright providing an excellent dive and great photography subject or background.

    The Montana was a 235 foot sidewheel steamer launched in 1872 and sunk in 1914 NOAA image

  • The Montana is one of the best wrecks for open water divers. The Montana was a 235 foot sidewheel steamer launched in 1872. She caught fire on September 7, 1914 and burned to the waterline. The wreck lies in 70 feet of water with the engine rises 30 feet from the bottom. Great for photographers because of the marine life and the ship itself.

If wreck diving is not your thing the Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve is still worth a visit. There are some unique geological formations that make great diving. The Misery Bay Sinkholes are in shallow water and are deep fissures in the natural limestone. Diving there is similar to cave diving and requires special skills and equipment.

The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is a visitor center for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It has over 10,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 95 seat theater showing films about the Great Lakes shipping. The exhibit include life size replicas of different eras of shipping that had once sailed and often sank in he Great Lakes. Visitors can also see the ongoing preservation works in the on site labs and see the research labs.