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Great Lakes Scuba Diving
A little background

Diving in the Great Lakes consists almost exclusively of shipwreck diving.

SCUBA caught on in the Midwest in the late 50’s with double hose regulators, “J” valves and neoprene skin wet suits. As it wasn’t uncommon, a hundred years ago, for underpowered steamers and schooners to miss the entrance to a harbor during a storm and wreck, divers swimming around these harbor breakwaters soon discovered the remains of these wrecks and the bronze fittings and other nautical items missed by early salvers. A wreck dive at that time involved driving to a state park; powdering your wet suit; donning a single “72”, mask, fins, and weight belt; walking out to the end of the pier; and jumping in. The dive would involve spending an hour or so in 15 feet of water fanning the sand in search of “goodies”. Divers joined into dive clubs, and state parks around harbors provided an excellent place for socializing after the dive.

During this same period, a few individuals started researching and hunting for deeper wrecks. Because many shipwrecks had cargo salvaged after sinking, it was possible to use early accounts by salvage divers to relocate these wrecks. A good example of this is the steamer William H. Barnum. Lost during an April storm in the Straits of Mackinac, the wreck was dove by an early salver, but not salvaged. The wreck was rediscovered in 1963 and photos from the early dives on this still popular dive show the incredible types of artifacts a diver could recover from a shipwreck during these early freewheeling times.

The 1970’s would become, I believe, the classic period of Great Lakes wreck diving. “Zebras” (as in zebra mussels now encrusting many shipwrecks) were an animal in Africa. Manufacturers would bring out the aluminum 80 and the dry suit. Dedicated shipwreck hunters would discover many of the legendary lost shipwrecks, such as the car ferry Milwaukee that disappeared on October 22, 1929, and was found in 1972 by John Steele and Kent Bellrichard in 125 feet north of the port of Milwaukee. Deep wrecks at Isle Royale and Whitefish Point in Lake Superior would be found and explored.

Armed with a Poseidon Unisuit, a set of doubles, submersible pressure gauge, depth gauge and watch, divers would push 200 feet and beyond. Deep diving during this time was “underground”. Training agencies set a limit of 130 feet for all sport diving. There was no training for deep wreck diving, and “technical” was twenty years in the future. Divers developed deep skills by progressively pushing deeper and quietly sharing knowledge in dive shops and bars. At this time the dive clubs were still very active, and it was not uncommon for more experienced club members to buddy up with greener divers on tricky dives, providing informal advanced training. By 1980 enough wrecks had been discovered, and equipment and skills had developed, to keep an avid shipwreck diver occupied for a lifetime.

By the end of the 80’s and through the 90’s, diving would continue to evolve. Equipment manufacturers would begin to treat the sport of diving like the ski industry: style would rule. Old mossbacks would see galvanized steel and black rubber replaced with hot pink, teal and other unpronounceable colors. Serious diving would split off into a new category: technical diving. To the old guard, technical diving looked a whole lot like the same diving they had done for years, except for the fancy expensive gear.

But technical diving did bring one major new improvement: mixed gas; specifically helium-based trimix. Using new computer generated tables and trimix divers could break below the 200-foot barrier with much greater safety than was done by the deep air divers. Florida divers developed a technique of pushing deep into caves beyond the depth where a single diver could carry enough tanks to complete a dive by providing additional team divers to resupply the “push” divers during the long decompression hangs needed after the dive. A few brave Great Lakes divers using cave techniques developed in Florida were able to do the occasional extreme deep dive, such as the drop-and-tag-the-wreck dive to the Edmund Fitzgerald at about 500 feet in the mid 90’s. These divers would gain instant “deep cult” status.

Technical training agencies were developed to profit from providing deep training to those with money who were willing to buy into the adventure. One of the deep shipwreck diving areas, Whitefish Point (Lake Superior), was to see the clash of two cultures in the mid 90’s, as young divers showed up with more money in their “dive rigs” than a lot of the older guys had invested in their dive boats. Today as more and more training agencies provide deep and mixed gas diving, and the older self-taught deep crazies are retiring, twin OMS 122’s with isolation manifolds and double bladder wings are showing up on wrecks even in 70 feet of water. Progress seems to mean more complicated, expensive, and heavier dive gear.

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Story and photos ©2005 J.R. Underhill Communications

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Double-hose regulators, on steel 72’s mounted on backpacks.

A club member who dove commercially made his old fishing tugboat available for salvage dives in the ’70s.

Dive club members on Great Lakes charter boat with aluminum 80’s.

Zebra mussels beginning to coat the Cedarville, a popular dive site in the Straits of Mackinac.

The harbor at Whitefish Bay.

“Technical diving” requires an impressive amount of hardware.

This bar in Paradise, Michigan hosted a lot of Whitefish Point technical diving discussion.

A few shipwrecks can be explored with far simpler equipment...

Not exactly pretty, but they grow on you—burbots inhabit many Great Lakes shipwrecks.

Great Lakes freighters still ply the shipping lanes where many wrecks are found on the bottom.

Other scenery includes this lighthouse in the process of restoration at Crisp Point on the south shore of Lake Superior.

Recommended charter:
North Star Charters: Scuba or snorkeling tours
324 E. Superior St., Munising, MI 49862
Cell 906-748-1667; Shop 906-387-3456