Under the Freshwater Seas: Divers explore the otherworldy realm of Great Lakes shipwrecks

Shipwreck NORMAN in upper Lake Huron // Photo courtesy Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Flickr

It’s a totally different world beneath the Great Lakes,” says Bob Thorpe of Scuba North, a recreational diving center based by Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. “You’re suspended in that cold water—weightless, nothing but darkness around you. The sheer scale of it is humbling. Being down there is how I imagine an astronaut feels, floating in space and surrounded by stars.”

The stars of the Great Lakes are their shipwrecks. The Great Lakes are not hospitable to ships; fog, ice, storms, and collisions have sunk around 6,000 of them, according to The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, although numbers in excess of 25,000 have been thrown around. Ironically, while the Great Lakes’ surfaces may be disastrous for ships, the lake beds are an ideal place to preserve them.

“Most people think about the ocean when they think about shipwrecks,” Bob continues. “But the bottom of the ocean is a terrible place for them. Worms eat away at whatever the salt doesn’t get to first, and the currents and storms stir around the rest until the wrecks are crumbled away into nothing.

A diver examining the shipwreck AUDOBON // Photo courtesy Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Flickr

“Not so in the Great Lakes. There, the bottom water temperature hovers stably between 38 and 42 degrees, like a refrigerator, and there is no corrosive salt or worms that eat away at wood. We get to visit wrecks over 200 years old regularly. Their rigging is still up, and their figureheads are as detailed as the day they were carved. You could even go into their cargo holds and sift through the grain they were carrying when they went down.”

The oldest among the Great Lakes’ holdings is the HMS Ontario, a sixth-rate brig-sloop swallowed up by a storm in 1780. It was discovered via sonar nearly 500 feet deep in its namesake lake, still nearly intact thanks to its dark, airless, frigid surroundings. Its 22 cannons still look like they could belch back to life with the spark of a fuse.

Jitka Hanáková, captain of the Milwaukee-based charter Molly V, spends her time taking divers out on Lakes Huron, Superior, and Michigan to explore their shipwrecks, as well as to search for new wrecks. It was the Molly V that discovered the L.R. Doty in 2010, a steamship lost during a violent storm on Lake Michigan in 1898.

“We heard that a couple of commercial fishermen had gotten snagged while they were netting chubs in 300-feet-deep water not far from Milwaukee,” explains Jitka. “Based on their tip, we figured out the half-mile diameter patch of water where they must have been. With that settled, it was only a matter of trial and error. We swept the area with sonar using my patented ‘hairbow’ search pattern, and within a few hours had located it. The Doty was as intact as the day it went down, with the exception of the parts that had blown off when it sank.”

Jitka Hanáková points out a shipwreck from the cabin of her diving expedition boat // Photo by Jitka Hanáková

Jitka’s tourist divers often ask her if they might discover treasure while they’re down there. “The wrecks may contain an occasional odd, valuable trinket—a gold watch, a locket, even a classic car—but in reality, the wrecks themselves are the treasures, each a glimpse into the past that couldn’t exist anywhere else,” says Jitka. “Not to mention that for the most part they were carrying grain or ore when they went down. A wet pile of hundred-year-old flour is an underwhelming trophy to put on your mantelpiece.”

“Of course, whether you find a treasure in one of the shipwrecks is moot,” Jitka continues. “It’s against state law to take anything up from an embedded wreck. This is good, because it keeps things intact, and things are much better preserved if they stay down there. It’s also good for my business, because it ensures the divers I take down will have something to see.”

“Just because something is lost doesn’t mean it isn’t saved,” Jitka concludes.

(The law against pilfering Great Lakes shipwrecks is enforced, in part, by Jitka’s spaniel Deco. In addition to fulfilling his official greeting duties, Deco barks when he detects that a diver has brought up one of the lakes’ artifacts. He is a good boy.)

This is not to say that the lakes don’t conceal the stuff of dollar green fantasies. There is a rumor that a boxcar laden with pilfered Confederate bullion was jettisoned into Lake Michigan during a storm in the 1890s, but historians mostly discount it. A better prospect is the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, which sank in Lake Erie in 1909. Although its whereabouts are unknown, it reportedly carried gold coins worth $150,000 in today’s money. Of course, those coins will stay right where they belong whether the wreck is discovered or not—even if salvagers managed to recover the fortune without tipping off the police, Deco would sniff them out.

An old shoe rests upon a box of lifesavers, preserved by the cold water at the depth where the wreck sits // Photo by Jitka Hanáková

If you take the plunge into the Great Lakes with the intention of making money, you would be well advised to do something more practical than searching for alluring lost lockboxes. Follow the example set by Great Lakes Diving & Salvage, which only works on very recently sunken ships and other underwater projects.

“The thing about this line of work is that it’s dangerous, sure, but is it ever exhilarating,” says Tom Gouin, the vice president of operations. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I still get the same rush of adrenaline that I did when I first suited up for training. A good commercial diver has to be an adrenaline junkie who wants to get into dangerous situations, but also level-headed enough to mitigate risks. If you want danger for danger’s sake, you have no place underwater.”

Gouin’s business will only touch a boat if it has just sank and somebody can still claim ownership of it. “If we can bring it back to the surface and get it in running condition again, we will,” he says. “We just did that to an Army Corps boat—winched it up, pumped it out in dry dock, restored its engines, and had it back on the water in no time.

“A lot of the time, though, when we dive for a recently sunken ship, it’s only to recover environmental hazards like tanks that will leak fuel if they’re left down there for too long. Back in 2016, a major storm wrecked Saxon Harbor [in Wisconsin] when a nearby creek overflowed and destroyed dozens of boats there. Our work there was mainly for the long-term benefit of the environment.”

Outside of working with sunken boats, companies like Great Lakes Diving & Salvage focus on things like dam and bridge repairs, underwater construction, sewer and pipeline repair and replacement, and welding. It’s good work—an underwater welder clears, on average, $26 per hour, and can make much more in dangerous or exotic environments. If you would like to do that for a living, consider starting your training by joining the military. Great Lakes Diving & Salvage is nearly exclusively staffed by retired Navy Seals and Army Rangers, whose work is impeccable in part because their former employers have a very low tolerance for sloppiness.

Top left: A Lake Superior dive // Photo by Andrew Leidel. Top right: Shipwreck NORMAN // Photo courtesy Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Flickr. Bottom: A dive boat on Lake Superior // Photo by Andrew Leidel

If the ship has already set sail on your military career, you can still dive in the Great Lakes on your own dollar thanks to the help of organizations like Scuba North and the Molly V. With over six quadrillion gallons between them, the Great Lakes comprise one-fifth of the freshwater on Earth’s surface, and they offer a variety of underwater experiences. Consider visiting Shipwreck Alley in Lake Huron, named so because of its notoriously unpredictable weather and rocky shoals, which has roughly 200 wrecks dating all the way back to 1844. So long as you’re already wet, stop by nearby Sanilac Shores, which has more than 16 shipwrecks and none deeper than 120 feet, a safe depth for an amateur. 

It is easy to discount the Great Lakes as something vast and undefined, a blank expanse to glance down upon while you’re enjoying a packet of pretzels and an in-flight movie. Their real depth is unnerving. They are bodies of water which we have made to work for us for a long time, too often with disastrous results. The Great Lakes save every one of those mistakes like patient librarians. They are waiting for us to stop by and see.