"You scuba dive? Cool! Have you seen lots of interesting and colorful fish?" That’s one of the most common questions I get when someone finds out I’m a diver. Then I answer, "Not too colorful, as I’ve never been diving out of the Midwest." That’s right, I’m a cold-water diver. Not completely by choice, as I dream of the day I dive in warm water with the pretty fish, sharks, and other aquatic life that ocean diving brings. But for now, money and vacation time (lack thereof) dictate that I dive around my home, which is Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Of course, the next questions I’m asked are where do I dive around here and is there really anything to see. But beware—if you ask me that, I could talk for hours! I absolutely love the places I have been: four quarries, two Great Lakes, and one inland lake. I have over 75 dives in, and I have never been cold yet in my 7-mil.
I admit I’m not picky when it comes to diving. As long as there’s water and it’s deep enough to descend, I’m basically happy. But there really are interesting sights to see diving in this area. For instance, at Lake Wazee (a quarry) in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, there’s an underwater "patio" that entertains divers. I saw it at night, which was even more thrilling, I think. Picture swimming along at dusk in dark water with your light shining ahead of you, when suddenly you see a bright pink flamingo! I laughed out loud right into my regulator. There were several other lawn ornaments, a white picket fence, and a couple space shuttles suspended on a tree branch, all right around 30 feet down. Maybe it’s the little things in life…but I found it rather amusing and well worth the dive.
In Redgranite Quarry, west of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, there’s a sunken snowmobile and a little boat or two. My buddy and I found a bowling ball (but left it there), golf balls, tennis balls, a VCR, a $1-bill still in good shape, and evidently there is a scooter somewhere, as we had a couple area youth ask us if we had found one. Apparently, they had ridden it in off the cliff and forgot to hold on to it…
Lannon Quarry in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, is my "home" diving spot. It only gets about 35 feet deep. There are plenty of fish, a mining cart of some sort, and a picnic bench. Those aren’t thrilling items, but to new divers they are pretty neat. It’s also just a good place to feel safe while diving, and to practice basic skills.
My favorite diving in the area, though, has been wreck diving. I don’t even penetrate yet, as I am not certified, but just seeing the wrecks from the outside is amazing. I’ve seen the E.R. Williams in Gills Rock, which is in Door County, Wisconsin. It’s a relatively newer discovery, and is still in excellent shape, sitting in about 95 feet of Lake Michigan water. You can see the mast and anchor and just off the stern a short distance is a stove. When I dove it, it was a lot of firsts: first boat dive, first Lake Michigan dive, first deep dive, and first wreck dive, all in one dive, so I was pretty much in awe. I couldn’t really tell you I remember seeing what my instructor assures me we saw, because it all looked the same to me. But I look forward to returning now that I have more experience so that I can really take in the sights.
In Munsing Bay, Michigan, there are some wonderful wrecks in Lake Superior. I saw three of them on one weekend trip, and again had lots of fun. One of the wrecks was only in about 20 feet of water, and was penetrable even to non-wreck-certified divers because it was a straight-through open shot from one end to the other. Since my buddy and I were the first down on it, visibility was good so we actually did go through. It was neat to look up and see light through the deck. I spent a lot of time on it poking my nose into all the nooks and crannies, having stare-downs with fish, and just watching the wreck diver class go about their business.
There’s no need to always travel across the state to see some wrecks, though, as there are several good wrecks right in the Milwaukee area. I have been on the Prinz Willem V a few miles out in Lake Michigan east of Milwaukee. "The Willie", as it is known locally, is a Dutch steel package freighter, 258 feet long, resting in about 90 feet of water, but her huge central superstructure is still completely intact and rises to within 45 feet of the surface. She was leaving Milwaukee with a load of general freight including printing equipment, car parts, picture tubes, and musical instruments. Just north of Milwaukee she ran into a towline running between a tug and its oil laden tow barge, which caused the barge to swing about and hit the Willie. A fun fact about the Willie is that a local contractor won the government bid to raise her to 40 feet below Lake Michigan’s surface so she would not be a navigational hazard. He arrived on the wreck site to discover that the only portion of the wreck extending above that level was a gangway, which he closed. The government still had to pay him in full.
The Willie is easily penetrated, but should be done so only by trained wreck divers. She has been picked clean by divers, so there aren’t many artifacts left to be seen except for well inside her, but she is an awesome sight to behold. Visibility varies but can be as good as twenty feet.
As you can see, diving in cold, freshwater actually provides a lot of variety and is quite entertaining. There’s so much more that I could tell about Midwest diving, but it really is something everyone should try, at least once. You might be surprised at how enjoyable it is!