By John Tapley
Comprising 4,300 square miles in western Lake Huron is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS): a beloved attraction for vacationers interested in exploring ages past and experiencing history in motion. Shipwrecks, unique natural sites, and a rich maritime culture, lend to unforgettable adventures in this distinctive pocket of the Wolverine State; and as new discoveries are brought to light, scuba divers return year after year.
Uniquely, the area is simultaneously governed by the Michigan Historical Center, which organizes the preserve, and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), which safeguards the sanctuary’s natural and manmade offerings for future generations. Beneath preserve waters rests a special series of geological formations, such as limestone walls and reefs on Thunder Bay Island’s southeastern side, which make diving here a delight to behold. A number of sinkholes dotting the shoreline provide ample diving opportunities for scuba divers with the right technical know-how and drive.
Thunder Bay is acclaimed for its plethora of shipwrecks, which has granted the area its nickname: Shipwreck Alley. Today it is estimated around 200 wrecks, many of which date from the 1840s to the ‘60s, rest within the preserve zone, and shipwreck historians are still discovering vessels thought to be lost forever. In addition to protecting these treasured sites, TBNMS also works to uncover more finds: its latest discoveries, the Ohio and Chockaw, in 2017.
“It’s a great reminder there are still a lot of wrecks – a lot of mysteries – still out there in Thunder Bay,” says TBNMS Media and Volunteer Coordinator and diver Stephanie Gandulla.
“We have a diverse collection of shipwrecks: everything from old wooden schooners to huge steel freighters. People have been coming here for years because of this diversity and different accessibilities, which can be visited year after year. You can expect amazingly cold, clean water – this season crystal clear – which is why these wrecks are so well preserved. Take a step back in time and learn about the stories and people who helped build America.”
Whether they dive or not, visitors to Thunder Bay will want to take part in the many education opportunities shared by the TBNMS Visitor’s Center, which features entertaining and interactivie experiences for guests of all ages and interests: a life-sized wooden schooner for kids, a virtual underwater robot demonstration, and a collection of artifacts – thousands of pieces – that showcases discovers and adventures throughout the Great Lakes’ history.
“We invite people to experience these shipwrecks; and when they experience them, they connect to them and learn to love them,” Gandulla elaborates. “That’s a philosophy the local community and divers who visit have embraced. We all work together – the sanctuary, the State of Michigan, the community – to ensure these treasures are there for future generations.”
Although shipwreck diving is often equated with technical diving, TBNMS offers a swath of submerged opportunities for scuba explorers of all skill levels; divers and training can expand their skills in tiers: often on the same ship.
“The marine sanctuary takes pride in the accessibility of these shipwrecks: many of them are not just for technical divers and can be [available] for new divers at five, 30, 60 feet deep,” Gandulla explains. “A beginning diver – open water certification – can still visit a shipwreck that has a lot of relief; and even in snorkeling distance, you can see these intact wrecks.”
Meanwhile, seasoned technical divers who are up to the challenge will find a plethora of engaging relics spanning centuries. Shallower wrecks typically have fewer remaining artifacts than deeper varieties largely due to their vulnerability to changing wind and water; deeper wrecks also impose a barrier on artifact hunting: an illegal activity within Michigan’s bottomlands.
The E.B. Allen was a 112-foot wooden schooner, which collided into another ship and sank in November of 1871. Today she can be found intact on a sandy bottom within 100 feet of water. Scuba experts can discover her windlass and anchor chains in good condition, and the point of impact on her port side, which is one of the destinations key features.
“The E.B. Allenis one of those striking schooners that’s sitting upright on the lake bottom. It’s a beautiful wooden freighter: a canal schooner – cannalers – which were built to fit through canals and maximize cargo,” explains Gandulla. “What’s really striking is the collision hole, which you can swim through, though it’s not an overhead environment. It’s a wreck that, while at 100 feet, has the type of preservation you usually only see in much deeper wrecks.”
The Grecian was a 296-foot long steel steamer constructed in 1891. In June of 1906 she crashed into another vessel and sank, then was raised, but sank again while in tow. Today she rests intact and upright in 105 feet of water, making her an ideal dive site for scuba divers with advanced certification.
Penetrating the Grecianis a popular pursuit as her deck can be found in 75 feet of water: explorers can swim within her boiler, decks, cargo holds, and engine, though her middle section has collapsed. As one of the most popular wrecks in the preserve, the Grecian is carefully marked by buoys on the bow and stern.
According to Gandulla, divers with an eye for shipwreck construction will appreciate this Victorian-era steamer:
“It was a big steel freighter, the fastest when it was built, and the design is still evident. With all the relief, you can plan a great dive where you go deep to the bottom, then work your way up and swim along the entire length of the wreck. There are so many visible features – huge boilers; an exposed midsection – and it tales the tale of ship construction of the Great Lakes… the rocket ships of their day.”
The 235-foot sidewheel steamer Montana launched into preserve waters in 1872. In September of 1914 she caught fire and sank down to 70 feet of water. With her double steep compound engine at 30 feet from the bottom, she’s a great site for advanced and beginner divers. Fish aficionados will enjoy the Montanaas she has provided a habitat for local sea life for over a century.
“Even though it’s not that deep, it’s one of my favorite wrecks because you really get the feel for the entire site,” Gandulla explains. “There’s so many features to see on it… the whole bottom hull is there… the big boiler. There’s often lots of fish life on it: lake trout; burbot.”
“Historically, it’s one of those wrecks that tells a broad story of Great Lakes maritime commerce,” she continues. “It worked for over 40 years, and throughout its life, went from being a package freighter and adapted to rapidly changing technologies. It’s a good example of Great Lakes maritime history where you can see how technology changed and the many features of ship construction.”
Centuries in the making, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of Lake Huron’s – one of the Great Lakes’ – most iconic ports of call, and for good reason. Its bounty of pristinely preserved destinations, dedication to historical and scientific education and advocacy, and engaged community spirit have openly shared these treasures with the world at large.
For more details on TBNMS, visit https://thunderbay.noaa.gov.