Home Go Diving! NOAA Discovers New Wrecks in Thunder Bay

NOAA Discovers New Wrecks in Thunder Bay

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Sonar image of the site first classified as ‘Target 2’ in May, 2017. AUV-based scanning was conducted in June to produce this image. The vessel was nearly upside-down and partially buried in the bottom of Lake Huron. Acoustic shadows reveal a rudder, propeller, and the outline of the stern cabin structures. Source: Michigan Technological University/Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

By John Tapley

Since its official founding in 2000, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS) has been a stalwart protector of shipwrecks located in Lake Huron within northeastern Michigan. Managed by NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries Program (NMSP), the sanctuary guards Thunder Bay’s treasured shipwrecks – from side-wheelers and steamers, this facility has protected nearly 120 historically significant wrecks, and has carried their significance for future generations to enjoy. On September 1, TBNMS Superintendent Jeff Gray formerly announced the discovery of two new vessels within its waters: adding to the already robust ensemble of submerged history.

Earlier, on May 23, TBNMS researchers, in collaboration is NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, and the University of Delaware, conducted a portion of an exploratory research project funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), and discovered what are believed to be the wrecks of the wooden steamer Choctawand steel steamer Ohio near Presque Isle.

The details were fuzzy at first, as John Bright, TBNMS Research Coordinator, explains:

“With any kind of sonar system, you’re trading resolution for coverage: the wider the area you cover, the lower resolution of the imagery. The imagery was good enough [where] we knew they were shipwrecks and could get approximate measurements – get focused on [their] potential identity and a description of the remains.”

Later expeditions, in June, July, and August added further credence to these findings, with assistance from a remote operated vehicle (ROV) controlled by Northwestern Michigan College, and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) from Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center. 

“The Choctaw, was turned upside. All we could see was the bottom of the hull, which doesn’t give much diagnostic information,” Bright continues. “Our ROV mission in August was in response: we needed a vehicle that could go in and peek up where sonars couldn’t look. We could see the features and compare it with historical photos and building plans, and more confidently assess the identity of the site.”

Currently, the parties involved are conducting further research to determine the exact identity of these vessels, though their tentative information points them to the wrecks of the Ohio and Coctaw: steamers, which respectively sunk in 1894 and 1915. Both vessels carry a significant degree of historical context, highlighting the culture, lives, and vocations of the time; showcasing architectural feats of Gilded Age America and Progressive Era America.

With two new wrecks to share with the public, TBNMS is thrilled to continue its mission in preserving the past and dissecting the ins and outs of shipwrecks with a wider audience.

Bright excitedly elaborates further:

“Discovering and identifying a shipwreck is just the beginning of how it can become a historical resource to the broader public. We hope with these sites, like we’ve done with others, we can bring shipwrecks to people who aren’t divers or who don’t go on the water. There’s still work to be done on, and exploration to be done throughout the sanctuary: finding areas where shipwrecks aren’t [at] is just as important to us as archaeologists.”

Protecting the Great Lakes and their rich maritime history through research, education and resource protection, the 4,300 square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects the Great Lakes and their rich history. Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water preserves nearly 200 historic shipwrecks in and around the sanctuary. Through research, education, and community involvement, the sanctuary and its partners ensure that future generations can enjoy Thunder Bay’s irreplaceable underwater treasures.

For more information on TBNMS and the many shipwrecks to be enjoyed in Lake Huron, visit https://thunderbay.noaa.gov.

Protecting the Great Lakes and their rich maritime history through research, education and resource protection, the 4,300 square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects the Great Lakes and their rich history. Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water preserves nearly 200 historic shipwrecks in and around the sanctuary. Through research, education, and community involvement, the sanctuary and its partners ensure that future generations can enjoy Thunder Bay’s irreplaceable underwater treasures.

For more information on TBNMS and the many shipwrecks to be enjoyed in Lake Huron, visit https://thunderbay.noaa.gov.