I spent last week diving the wrecks off Whitefish Point in Lake Superior and “superior” is a good way to describe them.
Whitefish Point is located in the northeast part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It juts out into Lake Superior forming the entrance to Whitefish Bay. At the southern end of Whitefish Bay, you find the Soo Locks which allow ships to transit from Lake Superior to Lake Huron via the St. Mary’s River. Its proximity to the Soo makes Whitefish Point a very busy intersection for ship traffic. A number of ships have been lost in this area of Lake Superior over the years. Collision was a common cause of sinkings in the days before shipping lanes were well defined and before ships had any modern aids like radar and GPS. Fog was a factor in many of the losses. Combine cold lake water with warm, humid air and you get a dense fog bank.
Whitefish Point Diving
Diving Whitefish Point is a little different than diving other areas of the Great Lakes. It’s more remote than most places. That means you should bring all the breathing gas you’re going to need or bring a compressor to fill tanks during the trip. Divers don’t seem to visit these wrecks as much as they used to. Consequently, most of the wrecks no longer have permanent mooring lines attached. In that case, the captain will usually drop a shot line on the wreck. Hopefully, the line lands on, or at least within sight of, the wreck. Divers then use this line as the descent and ascent line.
Another big difference between Lake Superior and the lower lakes is the zebra and quagga mussel invasion. There is no infestation in Lake Superior. The wrecks off Whitefish Point have no mussels on them. We were able to see paint on the woodwork of the wrecks, identify small artifacts and even read the names on some of the wrecks. Of course with every up there has to be a down. The downside is that visibility here is not as good as we’re used to in Lake Huron. In Lake Huron, 50 or 60 feet of visibility is common and nearly 100 feet is not uncommon. Around Whitefish Point, we had from 30 to 40 feet of visibility.
John M. Osborn
The first wreck we visited was the John M Osborn. The Osborn is a wooden steamer nearly 180′ long. The steel steamer Alberta struck her in a dense fog on July 27, 1884. The Osborn sank in about 170′ of water.
The bow of the ship is the highlight of this wreck for me. The anchors are still neatly in place at the bow. The windlass is located just below deck. There’s a pot belly stove nearby and you can just imagine the sailors warming themselves by it on cold Lake Superior evenings. Swimming aft you’ll find fallen masts and rigging on the deck and lots of artifacts. The stern is broken up a bit, which gives access to the engine.
The Mather is probably my favorite dive in the area. She is located well south of Whitefish Point, nearer to the Soo Locks. It’s a bit of a ride to get there, but well worth it. The Mather is another wooden steamer, but at a length of 250′, is much bigger than the Osborn. Like the Osborn, the Mather sank due to a collision.
The stern section is my favorite area to explore on the Mather. She has a number of design features that make her a bit unique. First of all, she had two smokestacks. One is broken off and lying on the deck just in front of the after cabin area. The other is lying on the bottom off the wreck. Another interesting feature is the care and craftsmanship that went into the ship. For example, the supports that hold up the aft cabin roof were turned on a lathe and look like more like table legs than posts to support a roof. You can drop over the stern and descend to the lake bottom to see the prop as well. With her masts still standing, the Mather is a beautifully preserved wreck and a treasure to visit.
John B. Cowle
The John B. Cowle is another fantastic wreck just off Whitefish Point. The Cowle is a change of pace for us because she’s not a wooden steamer like the Mather and Osborn. The Cowle is a big (420′) steel steamer. She was the most modern wreck we dove (built in 1902) and also the deepest (220′). You’ll never guess how she sank. You guessed it, she was in a collision. She was struck by the Issac M. Scott on July 12, 1909.
Our dive on the Cowle was interesting. As you can see from the painting, she’s broken amidships. The bow section intact and level but the stern half is at about a 30-degree angle with the forward part buried in the mud and the very end of the ship suspended above the bottom. When descending, you reach the bow section at about 170′. The bottom of the lake is around 220′. As I mentioned, most wrecks don’t have mooring lines on them in this area. We located the wreck and put a shot line on it. My buddy and I were the first ones to descend. As we dropped down the line, I peered down waiting to see some sign of the ship. At 150′, I couldn’t see anything below me. 170′, no wreck. 180′, no wreck. 200′, nothing.
Finally at 215′ we landed on steel decking. Looking to my left, I could see lake bottom. Damn, we hit the wreck where the stern is dug into the bottom. With only about 20′ of visibility and time ticking away I started swimming up the deck towards the stern. The stern is at about 160′. We swam around the aft cabin area, dropped over the side to see the prop and rudder, then back up on deck to start making our way forward to our ascent line. We had to follow the deck back down to about 210′ to find the line to start going up again.
No trip to Whitefish Point would be complete without a dive on the Vienna. The Vienna is a really fun dive. She’s a wooden steamer about 200′ long. She collided with the Nipigon on September 17, 1892. The crew of the Vienna transferred to the Nipigon and she was taken under tow. The Nipigon was trying to tow her to shore before the Vienna sank. Sadly, they didn’t quite make it. The Vienna sank in 140′ only a mile and a half from shore.
The Vienna is mostly intact. She’s open at the stern, allowing an easy view of her engine. There’s a work bench on the port side that holds a collection of artifacts. There’s yawl boat sitting on her deck as you move forward. One of the most amazing sights on this wreck I think is the Roman numeral draft markings at the bow. There are no zebra or quagga mussels in Lake Superior, consequently, the white markings are as easy to read today as they were in 1892.
Diving hotspots are cyclical. A certain area will get really popular for a few years and then drop off as some other area gets all the buzz. After a few years, the popularity will rebound as people rediscover the area. So it is with Whitefish Point. I think right now it’s at the low end of the cycle with not many divers visiting. It’s a shame because the wrecks are so amazing. True, the visibility is not as good as parts of the lower lakes, but the utter lack of mussels makes these wrecks a real joy to dive. How fun it is to see original paint on the woodwork, not obscured by mussels. To be able to read the names on some of the wrecks and see small tools and artifacts are experiences you don’t often get elsewhere.
I’d like to thank my fellow divers who made the trip with me. Thank you as well to Greg Such of Shipwreck Adventures for getting us to the wrecks, getting us ON the wrecks, and getting us back to port safely.
If you visit any place near Whitefish Point, whether diving or not, I recommend a trip to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. It’s interesting and informative for divers and non-divers alike.