Shipwrecks: A Non-Renewable Resource

Technical diver exploring shipwreck

Great Lakes wreck divers are justifiably proud of the wrecks we get to explore. Unlike their saltwater cousins, wrecks in the Great Lakes, wooden wrecks in particular, remain in amazing condition even after 100 years of immersion. For me, the Great Lakes comprise the greatest collection of shipwrecks in the world. We have wooden sailing ships, paddle wheel steamers, freighters, whalebacks, even personal luxury yachts to explore; all in excellent states of preservation. But how long will they last?

I heard Dave Trotter, the famed Great Lakes shipwreck hunter, say that we are living in the “Golden Age” of wreck diving because the wrecks we have are slowly crumbling and “We’re not making any new ones.” That made me think and re-evaluate my opinion of the wrecks we enjoy diving so much.

For years, veteran wreck divers, myself included, have told fledgling wreck divers that the wrecks have been there 100 years and will probably be there another 100. But that may be an exaggeration. Many seem to believe that the cold, fresh water of the Great Lakes halts the natural deterioration of shipwrecks completely. In fact, it only slows down the process. Eventually time will take it’s toll; supporting structures weaken, decks collapse, cabins slide off a tilted deck to rest on the lake bottom.

We also have to consider biological agents in the state of a wreck. While we do not have the wood-eating organisms and encrusting corals that destroy saltwater wrecks, we do have organisms such as zebra and quagga mussels. These invasive species attach to stationary objects like shipwrecks. Over time, they can completely obscure details of the wreck, or even the wreck itself. I started diving the wrecks in the Presque Isle region of Lake Huron before the mussels invaded the Great Lakes. While those wrecks are still amazing, many details, like the name boards and other small artifacts, have been completely encased and obscured by the mussels. Off the tip of Michigan’s “thumb” in Lake Huron lies the wreck of the Philadelphia. Part of it’s cargo was wood-burning stoves. When she sank, some of these stoves were strewn about the ship and the lake bottom. It used to be a highlight of diving the wreck to see the stoves. Today, the stoves are just big blobs of mussels. If you didn’t know what they were, you’d just swim past them unknowing.

And finally, let’s consider the history of shipping on the Great Lakes and it’s current state. Most of the wrecks occurred about 100 years ago. That’s when there were literally thousands of ships plying the water. There were no interstates, no trucks, no planes, and only a few rail lines in the Great Lakes area back then. The best way to transport goods from, say Wisconsin to New York was to ship it over the lakes. Also remember the lack of technology back then. There was no GPS, no radar, no radios, no cell phones, not a single luxury. Mariners had only rudimentary navigation tools like a compass and sextant to navigate by. Such conditions led to many collisions, some resulting in the wrecks we now dive.

Meteorology was in its infancy and there were no organized, reliable weather forecasts. Most captains relied on their own weather experience and the barometer in the wheelhouse to judge the weather. Sometimes their decisions were wise, sometimes not. Once again, due to lack of technology, ships got caught in storms and disappeared.

Today, none of these conditions exist. There are many alternatives to shipping goods via the lakes, hence the number of ships has dwindled. We now have better navigation systems, better charts, better communication and better weather forecasting. In short, technology has also reduced the number of shipwrecks. As Dave Trotter said, “we’re not making any new shipwrecks!”

Considering all of the above, we might conclude that we are indeed in the “Golden Age” of Great Lakes wreck diving. We still have the wrecks, we have the technology to dive to the depths required, so all we need to do is get out and dive. The wrecks are slowly deteriorating and there are no new wrecks being added (thank goodness). Now is the time to get out and enjoy the history of Great Lakes and explore these unique time capsules that we call “shipwrecks.”