The image I chose for this article is the reaction I often get when I tell people I actually scuba dive in the Great Lakes. It usually starts with idle small talk. At some point, I mention I’m a scuba diver. The person I’m talking to then asks where I dive. Florida? The Bahamas? Maybe somewhere more exotic like Fiji? I reply, “No. I dive in the Great Lakes.” Then comes that face. Invariably followed by “What do you see down there?”
It’s a simple enough question, with a simple enough answer. I dive on shipwrecks. But the more I think about it and try to formulate an answer, the more I realize the question isn’t so simple. In fact, I don’t think it’s even the proper question. The real question is, what do I experience down there?
The Great Lakes Highway
Wreck diving is more than just seeing things. It’s more than just looking at a wreck. Every shipwreck has a story, a human story. That’s the hook. That’s why I find shipwrecks so fascinating. Ships have plied the waters of the Great Lakes for hundreds of years. Before trucks, airplanes or even railroads, ships provided the only means of moving goods around the Great Lakes. Let’s not forget that this region was once the frontier. There are thousands of wrecks in the Great Lakes, from all periods in history. There are old wooden schooners over 100 years old and modern steel freighters that sank as recently as the 1970s. And they’re all wonderfully preserved in our cold, fresh water.
History comes alive
But let’s not forget the stories. Knowing the story of the wreck makes visiting the wreck so much more personal. One of my favorite wrecks is the Daniel J Morrell in Lake Huron. She was a steel freighter about 600 feet long. In 1966 she broke in half during a violent storm. When she broke, the stern section sailed away, still under power with lights blazing. Her bow section, with no power, sank. The stern eventually sank about five miles away. There was one survivor from the crew of 30. Both halves of the ship are upright on the bottom and both are visited by divers.
Knowing the story of how she sank makes a dive on the Morrell a very powerful experience. Visiting the bow section, you can see the area where the men, including Dennis Hale, the only survivor, gathered on deck to launch the liferaft. On the stern, you can almost feel the disbelief those crewmen felt as they continued to motor on missing the front half of their ship. You can sense the anguish they must have felt knowing there was nothing they could do for their shipmates stuck on the dead bow section.
Or there’s the story of the luxury yacht Gunilda. A rich oil investor owned her and was treating his family and some guests to a summer-long cruise of the Great Lakes. When she got up to northern Lake Superior, the captain accidently ran her aground. Apparently, the owner didn’t think it necessary to hire a local pilot to guide his ship around the island and shoals. He hired a salvage company to come pull her off the rocks. The salvage master suggested they call in another barge to help with the operation. The owner balked. Supposedly the owner said, “She went straight up on the rocks, she’ll come straight off. Just pull her.” So they pulled. She rolled on her side, filled with water and sank. A dive on the Gunilda is greatly enhanced by knowing the story.
Before you do your next wreck dive, do some research. Find about the ship, her career, her crew, why she sank. It will make your dive more meaningful.
So what do I see down there? History. Humanity. Inspiration. Heroism. And so much more. After 40 years of wreck diving, I guess I still don’t have a good answer.