Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve, Michigan

A warm summer day coupled with layers beneath my drysuit, hood and gloves makes for a stifling couple of minutes, but when I make my giant stride into Michigan’s Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve, I’m immediately greeted with an icy blast. After shaking off the shock and descending into visual range of the Col. A.B. Williams, numb lips and cheeks seem like a small price to pay for a trip back in time. Only in cold, fresh water — on this day 42°F from surface to floor — will a diver find a 145-year-old wooden schooner so well-preserved that its jutting bowsprit still appears ready to sail.

The five Great Lakes have thousands of shipwrecks; nearly two dozen of them rest within the 163-square-mile boundaries of the Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve off the southern portion of Michigan’s thumb. With sites in novice, advanced and even technical diving depths, the preserve offers something for every diver willing to don a drysuit and explore the region’s maritime past.

Because of its relatively short length of 110 feet, one can easily explore the Williams in one dive. Located at a depth of 80 feet, the schooner has a relatively intact bow, including its wooden railing and the bowsprit. It’s awe-inspiring, a throwback to an era when thousands of stately wooden ships plied the lakes, transporting all manner of goods.

Sponge-encrusted ship's wheel

A leisurely swim down the middle of the vessel finds me hovering above penetrable cargo holds that sink into the ship’s belly. Just to the front of the first hold is a large windlass, and in between the two openings is its broken mast. The stern of the ship is broken up, too, perhaps as a result of the violent 1864 storm that sent it to the depths with a load of coal. Like all boats in the preserve, the ship is encased in silt and zebra mussels, so we swim carefully — one misplaced fin kick can create a billow of debris and obliterate the 30-plus feet of visibility.

Two of the most popular wrecks in the preserve are the Regina and Mary Alice B, and each offers a different diving experience. The Regina, victim of the November 1913 gale that sank dozens of ships across the Great Lakes, is a 250-foot steel package freighter that rests upside down in about 80 feet of water. Although its position means the top decks are lost from view, the fact that it flipped produced a debris field where everything from crates and tools to ketchup bottles can be found. Its massive propeller and rudder, still fully intact, loom over divers as they near the ship’s stern. At the bow, the ship’s name, though upside-down, is still visible, thanks to fellow divers who ritually rub the letters clean.

The intact tugboat Mary Alice B is the newest wreck found in the preserve and an easy dive for advanced open-water divers. Sitting upright in 94 feet of water, the tug’s pilothouse offers a safe swim-through and a spectacular wheel that is intact and appears ready to steer. Underwater for just 35 years, the tug also has horns, a searchlight and an engine compartment to explore. Off the port side of the bow and sunk into the mud is an anchor, offering yet another exciting area to explore. It’s intact and somewhat sturdy, but like all sunken Great Lakes vessels, the Mary Alice B is decades old and should be
treated with care to avoid any damage.

Another challenging wreck, the Checotah, endured its fair share of abuse when it was running the inland seas. Sunk in the St. Mary’s River in the 1880s after a collision, it spent seven years underwater before being raised and put back into service as a tow barge, only to return to the bottom for good during a 1906 storm. At first glance, the wreck appears to be little more than a length of broken decking, but the machinery on this 199-foot ship is still visible — including a steam boiler, windlass and capstan at the bow. Watch your gauges on this dive. The Checotah’s decks rest in 95 feet of water, but it’s 117 feet to the lake floor.

How To Dive It

Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve is located near Port Sanilac, Mich., about one hour and 45 minutes northeast of Detroit. Sanilac Shores is one of the state’s 11 underwater preserves, which together protect more than 2,300 square miles of bottomland. Removing artifacts or disturbing wrecks is a felony offense punishable by two years in prison, stiff fines and immediate confiscation of boats, cars and dive gear. For more information, see Michigan Underwater Preserves.

Conditions: Visibility at Sanilac Shores, as throughout the Great Lakes region, ranges from 5 to 50-plus feet. Although surface temperatures in summer may reach the mid- to upper-60s°F, count on bottom temperatures in the 40s°F. Drysuits are highly recommended. The diving season runs between May and October.

Getting there: From Detroit, travel I-94 east to Port Huron, then north on M-25 along the Lake Huron shoreline to reach Port Sanilac.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2010