Wreck diving in the Great Lakes is akin to visiting an ice-water museum featuring the best collection of shipwrecks (accessible to sport divers) in the world. The cold, fresh water has preserved the ships exactly as they sank -- figureheads, gauges, portholes and the discernable grain of wood -- lending a ghostly quality to every dive. Imagine on your descent encountering the delicate features of a mythical goddess thrust to the fore of the bow where she once charged waves and served as mascot and protector. Now she holds silent vigil for the vessel banished to its watery tomb.
In contrast to their saltwater counterparts that quickly morph into artificial reefs, the Great Lakes wrecks are dived on their own merit; you can plunge down the side of a multi-storied smokestack, glimpse the spokes of a paddlewheel revealed by your light, or press your palms against a 19th-century schooner that once transported immigrants -- perhaps even your ancestors -- into the heartland. What is lacking in abundance or diversity of fish life is made up for by the novelty of identifying bass, bluegill, burbot, carp, catfish, musky, perch, pike, smelt, sturgeon and walleye.
With more than 900 divable wrecks in the five lakes and the river system, bordering eight states and one province, finding a wreck in proximity to your hometown, summer cottage, old college roommate or next business trip hotel is easy. From the Upper St. Lawrence River to the remote reaches of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, here's a sampler of the Great Lakes' top dives.
For centuries, the St. Lawrence River has been the aquatic superhighway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Jacques Cartier first explored it in 1535; since then, kings, explorers, merchants and immigrants risked everything to traverse this treacherous river that has devastated hundreds of ships and taken thousands of lives. More than 100 wrecks are found in the upper reaches of the river alone. Just load your gear and filled tanks in the trunk and dive from shore. Pull off and park to join the ranks of weekend-warriors diving the Conestoga in the St. Lawrence. Resting in only 28 feet of water, the combination passenger and package freighter caught fire and sank in 1878, and it remains in good condition.
Moving east to west, don't miss Lake Ontario's 83-foot, perfectly intact wooden schooner, the George A. Marsh, a wreck replete with artifacts. The ship foundered in a storm in 1917, purportedly taking with it 12 of its 14 passengers, including the captain and five of his children. (New evidence, though, indicates that he survived and secretly fled to Nebraska to begin life anew.)
In Lake Eerie, off Barcelona, NY, is the twin-propeller wooden freighter Dean Richmond, which sank with all hands aboard in 1893 -- on October 14, a cursed day for many a ship. Lake Huron's The Sport rests 53 feet below the surface and is designated historically significant by the state of Michigan; in 1874 it was the first composite (iron hull with wood) ship built in the Great Lakes.
Just 8 miles from Chicago is Lake Michigan's newest and largest wreck, the Straits of Mackinaw, intentionally sunk on April 10, 2003. Last, don't miss the Lake Superior schooner Bermuda, which rests in about 35 feet of water. Sunk in 1870, it's wonderfully intact and has many opportunities for penetration -- all within sight of light. It's a great wreck for new divers.
Diving the Great Lakes' largely preserved shipwrecks will send you topside thirsty to learn more about their fascinating maritime heritage.
So, have you rearranged your "must dive" list yet?
FOR MORE INFORMATIONShipwreck discoveries, new developments and a calendar of events are all part of Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg's brand-new free quarterly print newsletter, "Shipwrecks! The Great Lakes and Beyond." Subscribe by sending an e-mail to SeawolfRex@aol.com or call 630-293-8996.
Visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and overnight in the oldest light station on Lake Superior. www.shipwreckmuseum.com
1. The Conestoga (St. Lawrence River)
2. The George A. Marsh (Lake Ontario)
3. The Dean Richmond (Lake Erie)
4. The Sport (Lake Huron)
5. The Straights of Mackinaw (Lake Michigan)
6. The Bermuda (Lake Superior)