LANSING - Thousands of shipwrecks lie at the bottom of Michigan waters. These cultural treasures attract thousands of visitors to the state, but changing conditions in the Great Lakes threaten their preservation.
According to Tom Graf, a water resource specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality, the Great Lakes are home to an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks with about 2,000 of them in Michigan.
But exotic, invasive species such as quagga and zebra mussels are causing problems previously unseen in the Great Lakes.
At left, diver Eric Smith emerges from the engine room of SS AMERICA at Isle Royale National Park. (Photo courtesy Eric Smith)
According to Terry Begnoche, site manager of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, zebra and quagga mussels are both a blessing and a curse for Michigan diving.
"At first it was nice because those mussels are filter-feeders and cleaned up the water. That improved visibility and made conditions even better for divers," Begnoche said. "But now it has gotten out of hand.
"It used to be you could see all of the details like the name of the ship or even paint that had been there for decades," Bergnoche said. "Now you can't see that level of detail, and shipwrecks here look a great deal more like what you would find in the oceans."
But the Great Lakes hold more than just ships. Piers, wharves and an estimated 200 military aircraft lost during training exercises in World War II litter the lake's floor.
Begnoche said the cold freshwater keeps these underwater cultural treasures preserved.
"Every site is a time capsule of sorts," he said. "They give us a lot of clues about the history of the state. Even wooden ships are well-preserved in these waters. Unlike the ocean, we don't have small organisms that eat away at the wood."
He said, "We have people come from around the world to dive the Michigan sites every year. Here at Whitefish Point, we've seen European tourists and folks from across the country, looking to see the ships."
Valerie Van Heest, director of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates in Holland, said those conditions make Michigan one of the best states for underwater exploration.
"A new shipwreck discovery that is shared with the public can generate an immediate tourist draw to the region," Van Heest said. "These tourists infuse dollars in food, gas, lodging and land-based attractions."
Consider the 1996 discovery of the wreck of the Three Brothers at South Manitou Island. That discovery brought reportedly over 1,200 people to the island that summer alone, specifically to dive or snorkel the shallow wreck, Van Heest said.
Last year, Michigan Shipwreck Associates discovered its oldest wreck, a 180 year-old sailing ship at the bottom of Lake Michigan between Saugatuck and South Haven.
The group is currently searching Lake Michigan for the remains of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2501, a DC-4 airliner that crashed in 1950, killing all 58 on board.
"That crash was the deadliest airline crash of that time," Van Heest said. "Finding it would be an incredible discovery."
But cultural and economic resources like these wrecks are deteriorating, according to the DEQ. The department blames human intervention and invasive species like quagga and zebra mussels.
While the DEQ is charged with punishing divers who remove, alter or destroy artifacts from underwater preserves, Graff said the illegal practice is nearly impossible to stop.
"It's extremely hard to police these sites," Graff said. "They are so remote and widespread that we aren't able to effectively stop divers from harming wrecks."
But the biggest threat for the long-term survival of the wrecks comes from invasive species.
Eric Smith, WNMU general manager, of Marquette has been diving on shipwrecks for about 30 years and has extensive knowledge of the shipwrecks in Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. Smith said his favorite part about diving on a shipwreck is the sense of exploration and thinking about what life was like on the beautiful ships back when they were sailing the lakes.
"You can't go inside a shipwreck and see that type of history literally as it was years ago without beginning to think a little bit about what life was like and what people use to do, whether they were working on the boats or traveling as passengers," Smith said.
Smith noted that he has found over the years that zebra mussels have attached themselves to shipwrecks, causing detail to be lost, especially in the lower Great Lakes.
"If you go in Lake Michigan, for example, the zebra mussels have literally taken over the wrecks," Smith said. "In some cases you can hardly tell what that ship looked like because of the number of zebra mussels just crusted over the wreck."
Smith said that Lake Superior doesn't seem to have the same problem as much and in large there are still pristine wrecks to look at when scuba diving. He said he feels a sense of loss because he can't see the ships that are covered in zebra mussels as they were when they sailed because of the loss of detail.
"The other thing that is somewhat sad is the loss of history that divers of the future won't be able to experience," Smith said. "As soon as you take a shipwreck and raise it up out of the water it begins to deteriorate. So the best place to leave that shipwreck is literally in the water. But the zebra mussels have helped to destroy some of that natural preservation that occurs by having the wreck in water and I think that's somewhat sad."