By John Tapley
Launching from Grand Portage, Minnesota is Isle Royale Charters: one of Lake Superior’s most recognized charter operators. Specializing in sharing Lake Superior’s fine diving, Isle Royale Charters has been an established business for decades and offers underwater opportunities for both recreational and technical divers.
A beacon of Isle Royal diving, Isle Royale Charters is owned by veteran diver, instructor, and captain Ryan Staley. Staley was introduced to scuba through a friend in college, and he earned his open water certification in the summer of 1993. Following his graduation, he earned his instructor status and became part of the scuba diving industry: sharing dive trips and connections; learning valuable skills along the way; working with Isle Royale Charters. In 2008, Staley took over operations from owner Ralph Soren (who retired), and since has overseen charter trips and management.
Proper to its namesake, Isle Royale Charters primarily explores Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior: an area well-liked for its numerous wrecks, which offer a good variety of recreational and technical opportunities for clients of different interests. Recreational divers enjoy sites such as the American and portions of the Emperor while technical divers explore wrecks like the Kamloops. The charter also offers trips to other areas in Lake Superior, such as the Apostle Islands and North Shore. The company provides these services from mid-June to mid-September each year when conditions in Lake Superior are at their finest.
“The divers that come to us are going to be at least advanced open water certified with drysuit experience – usually at the beginning of the season, [temperatures] are around 35 and rarely get above 40,” says Staley. “You’re going to be more experienced than the average open water diver.”
“Isle Royale is one of the few places left – especially in the United States – where you can be completely detached from the rest of the world: there’s no Internet; no cellphone service,” he continues. “It truly is leaving the world behind and getting back to nature.”
Beyond diving, Isle Royale Charters complements group excursions by sharing the majesty of Lake Superior’s wilderness. Hiking trips are especially popular, and the groups often travel to historically significant destinations such as the Rock Harbor Lighthouse.
“On one of our trips I came within about 25 feet of a bull moose on a hiking trail: the first in 10 years I’d seen,” Staley laughs. “They tell us there’s 1,300 of them, and being that close to one was really cool. It doesn’t always have to be about dive, dive, dive: some groups like to have a mix of island time and underwater time.”
Isle Royale Charters frequently shares these adventures with local dive clubs and businesses, and other organizations such as the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth: cementing a community of Lake Superior scuba explorers.
“It’s developed. Every year we pick up a handful of new shops or groups,” says Staley. “We have a large return rate from the dive shops: many have come back year after year since I took over Isle Royale Charters. It’s nice to have return customers, but it’s always fun to bring in new people who have never been there.”
Looking ever forward, Staley has recently upgraded his services with a new vessel, the Discovery, which is slated to make its debut journey in May. The custom- modified, 42-foot-long boat offers a swath of amenities including a fireplace, hottub, a walkthrough transom, and plenty of space for storing and donning equipment. The Discovery is fitted to carry two crew members and six customers.
“As the sport has evolved and more people are taking up technical diving, I needed a bigger boat with more space to accommodate all the additional equipment,” he explains. “[Discovery] has benches on the back… three people on each side. Nobody has to pick up tanks over the stern – just walk right off.”
In their time, both Isle Royale Charters and Staley have experienced and shared many exciting adventures with their clientele; and it is this fervor for adventure and fellowship that inspires him to keep pushing forward. Ryan Staley is a sea explorer committed to his fellow divers: his business driving his passion.
“It’s four months where I get to live out a dream: spending time on Lake Superior and diving some of the most amazing shipwrecks the Great Lakes has to offer – we don’t have any zebra mussels up there so the wrecks are the same as when they went down,” Staley explains.
“It’s sharing those wrecks and experiences – learning to dive them – with new divers and repeat divers who have come up year after year with me,” he continues. “It’s having that bond with them and enjoying the island itself along with the wrecks.”