Dangerous Waters


Wreck of the SS George Rogers

The Great Lakes are among the most dangerous navigable waters on earth. Littered along the beds of the lakes are more than 6,000 shipwrecks. Since the late 1600s, when commercial shipping took off in the region, until the height of shipping in the 19th century, these vast waterways have claimed the lives of thousands. The unpredictable and sudden changes in weather make the Great Lakes particularly difficult waters to navigate. The first recorded shipwreck on the lakes was 1679, when the Griffon succumbed to Lake Michigan. As commerce expanded, growing numbers of mariners have faced the dangers of the Lakes. There is very little information available about the early shipwrecks on the lakes, a harbinger of things to come. 

Even in the best of sailing conditions, skippers of Great Lakes freighters worried about shoals, reefs, uncharted rocks, and sandbars that could snare a ship. Unpredictable winds and rocky shorelines meant that sailors did not have as much room to maneuver as those on the Atlantic seaboard. In the early years of the shipping boom, natural peril was only one facet of navigating the waters. Ship owners and corporations pushed ships out in dangerous weather, especially in November. 

Some coastal areas within the Great Lakes are more hazardous than others. Places like the Keeweenaw Peninsula, Isle Royale, and Whitefish Point are regarded as "the graveyards" for ships. These smaller "graveyards," however, only account for a small number of the wreckages. Looking at the lakes as a whole, Mark Thompson has argued that "[i]t's unlikely that there is any shipping industry anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Great Britain, that has experienced more shipwrecks than the staggering toll recorded on North America's inland seas" (22). According to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, around 550 ships rest at the bottom of Lake Superior alone, most of which are unnamed or undiscovered. At least 200 of the wrecks lie on a particularly nasty 80-mile stretch of shoreline, which sports the nickname “Shipwreck Coast.” Every once in a while, the forces of nature, storms, erosion, and wave power allow some of these “ghosts” of the past to be seen again.


Image of seven crew members launching a lifeboat

Visitors kayak and dive near a shipwreck in the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary

The cold environment and freshwater create an ideal preservation climate that allows for tourists and scientists alike to study the vessels. Many shipwrecks can be viewed from kayaks, canoes, boats, and other watercrafts. Others are visible by snorkelling and diving. The wrecks located in the deeper portions of the lakes, however, require more specialized equipment. The cold waters have even preserved some of the passengers and crews in the depths with their ships. Laws enacted in the Great Lakes Basin strive to keep historical shipwrecks safe from looters.

The Michigan Legislature has passed legislation and amendments to law to provide spaces for underwater preserves and the protection of shipwrecks.The Michigan Public Act 152 of 1980 allowed for the establishment of state Great Lakes bottomland preserves, which were established to provide special protection to resources of “historical, ecological, educational, geological, recreational, or scientific value.” The laws recognize shipwrecks to be part of the public trust (EGLE). The law as amended in 1994, Part 761, Aboriginal Records and Antiquities, PA 451, is under the jurisdiction of both the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of State. Under this legislation, all sunken property (i.e. shipwrecks, etc.) is to be in the public trust. Therefore, these two departments designate property for protection; issue salvage permits; and give out fines and penalties for the illegal destruction, alteration, or removal of public trust property. The law does not restrict divers from photographing the shipwrecks. 

From 1981, the introduction of underwater preserves and parks under Michigan law has peaked the interest of divers. Recreational divers operate under an honor system where they are expected not to remove any of the artifacts from the preserves, following the saying, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but bubbles." Nowhere else will they find such pristine shipwrecks than in the depths of the Great Lakes. From 17th century schooners to the modern freighters, the lakes hold thousands of sunken ships for divers to explore. Whether you are an ametuer or experienced diver, locations around Michigan offer underwater experiences for a variety of people. Indeed, some shipwrecks can be viewed from glass-bottom boat tours and on kayaks. 


Lake Ontario Dive Chart

Lake Ontario is both the smallest of the Great Lakes by area and also hosts the fewest shipwrecks of the five. Formerly known as Frontenac, Lake Ontario is 7,340 square miles, at a depth of 393 cubic miles, and 74 m above sea level. Despite the relatively low number of shipwrecks (approx. 200), there are some grisly stories. The so-called Great Lakes Triangle has claimed a number of ships that have mysteriously disappeared. With haunting ghost ships of the War of 1812, Lake Ontario hosts a number of sunken beauties in her east end. The oldest shipwreck discovered in Lake Ontario is the HMS Ontario, a British warship from the 18th century which lies in the deep waters off the southern shores. Ships in Lake Ontario tended to be wrecked in harbors or driven ashore; the 200 or so actually lost in the lake are among the notable finds. Because depths often exceed the range of recreational divers, it is a costly process to find the sunken vessels. 


Lake Huron Dive Chart

Often cited as a "magnet for shipwrecks," Lake Huron hosts thousands of island and very treacherous shoals that create ripe conditions for disaster. As the second largest Great Lake (area: 23,007 square miles, depth: 750 ft, 176m above sea level), it has the longest shoreline. Manitoulin Island alone is the largest inland lake island at 1,068 square miles. Connecting the two upper and two lower lakes, Huron has more ship traffic than the other four. The Great Storm of 1913 sank at least 19 ships and stranded many more, with 10 ships sunk in just one night. The 448 square mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosts nearly 100 historic shipwrecks alone. The collection of wrecks cover over 200 years of maritime history and reflect the transformations in shipbuilding. Fathom Five National Marine Park in the Canadian side of Lake Huron, meanwhile, contains over 20 historical wrecks, most of which can be explored by snorkellers and divers. In June 2021, David Trotter discovered the renowned Water Witch that sank in 1863.


Lake Superior Dive Chart

Despite being the largest of the Great Lakes, and largest lake in North America, Lake Superior, in terms of shipwrecks, fall behind the others. At 31,700 square miles, at a depth of 1332 feet, and 183m above sea level, Superior has a reputation for "not giving up her dead." Many of the crew who went down with their ship remain in their icy graves at the bottom of the northern-most lake. Famously, the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald remain with their ship. Only a few seamen have lived to tell the tale of the treacherous water phenomenon known as the "three sisters," which overload ship decks with water by the tons. In spite of the notoriety of the lake, only around 550 of the Great Lakes shipwrecks are located in Superior. At least 200 of them lie along "shipwreck coast," but because of Superior's depth and ferociousness, many of these shipwrecks remain undisturbed. The Alger Underwater Preserve near Munising offers many shipwrecks to discover along with Whitefish Bay as some of the most treacherous stretches of navigable waters.  


Lake Michigan Dive Chart

Third in size and second in volume, Lake Michigan sports a mixed reputation. While known for its recreational activity, Lake Michigan also holds the reputation for being the most treacherous. At 22,404 square miles, 176m above sea level, and a depth of 925 ft, Lake Michigan hosts the oldest of the shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. In 1679, the French schooner Griffon succumbed to the depth of Lake Michigan without trace. At an estimated 40 ft long, this ship was the first of its kind to sail the Great Lakes. Since the wreckage has never been discovered, several sailors claimed to have seen its ghostly voyages after 1680. The deadliest wreck in the Great Lakes was that of the Eastland, who rolled over in her bearth, costing 835 lives. People watched helplessly from the pier as the passengers perished in the frigid waters. The narrow passage way at Green Bay has been nicknamed "Death's Door" by many Great Lakes captains. Perhaps the most fascinating underwater preserve in Lake Michigan is located at the Manitou Islands, which hosts 75 shipwrecks 


Lake Erie Dive Chart

The smallest in volume and most southern of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie has an astonishing number of shipwrecks. Both the shallowest and smallest in volume, Erie at 9,910 square miles, 210 ft deep, and 170m above sea level has one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks across the Great Lakes. The only major naval battle fought on the Great Lakes took place on Lake Erie, where the Hamiton and the Scourge met their demise. Its relative size and shallow depths make storms deadly. According to Kevin Magee, an engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center, the shallowness of the lake actually makes waves worse. Storms blowing out of the west can raise the water levels by up to 13 feet. Seamen are known to have as much respect for a storm on Erie as they do for Superior. Only around 400 of the wrecks located at the bottom of Lake Erie have been discovered. The 40 miles of coastline on Monroe County hosts a number of shipwrecks. One particularly fascinating schooner, the Favourite, is said to have a number of sinking dates, ranging from 1839 to 1853. The oldest wreck in Erie is the remains of the Lake Serpent, which disappeared in 1829. The Walk-In-Water is another famous name to have sunk in Lake Erie. As one of the busier lakes, Erie has transported many across international boundaries.

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