I started scuba diving at a young age and was immediately enamored with every type of underwater environment. Before I saw a shipwreck underwater, my young mind pictured it as a perfectly preserved ship sitting on the bottom like something you’d see in a Disney movie. When I started diving recreational wrecks in Florida, however, I found it difficult to make out parts of the more dilapidated wrecks. The intact or artificial sites, stripped of doorways and machinery, looked far barer than what I had in mind. Fast forward to 10 years ago when I began diving the Great Lakes, and my childlike visions of shipwrecks appeared for real. I immediately fell deeper in love with shipwreck diving.
The wrecks in the Great Lakes range from 1800s wooden schooners to modern steel freighters. Steamers, wooden freighters, sidewheel ferries and more are preserved in the cold, fresh water. Most of them are picture-perfect shipwrecks, and each has a story to tell. Some are stories of tragedy, some are stories of mystery and survival, but each of them makes wreck diving in this area special. I’ve dived recreational and technical wrecks in all five Great Lakes, and each area has something different to offer, but the Straits of Mackinac is one of the best places for recreational diving with a variety of wrecks.
The state of Michigan approved the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve in 1983 to protect underwater resources. Covering 148 square miles spanning Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, the well-maintained preserve currently has 12 buoyed shipwrecks, with many other marked sites closer to shore. Seasonal moorings make diving safer and protect the shipwrecks from boat anchor and hook damage, but rocky shoals and shallows make navigation dangerous, especially in stormy weather. The currents, wind and waves can build in this narrow area and cause ships to founder, with other wrecks occurring due to fog and ice.
The first time I left the dock to dive I could sense how different this area was from other places in the Great Lakes. There are more boats, and it’s not uncommon for a 900-foot freighter to pass closely. When underwater, be ready for the rumbling sounds as those freighters move in and out of each lake. Some sites are almost under the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, and most of the wrecks are within 7 miles of the shore. In a single day I dived two completely different wrecks in two different lakes.
The third-largest shipwreck in the Great Lakes, the SS Cedarville rests a few miles from shore at depths ranging from 40 to 106 feet. The visuals, along with a compelling story and shallow depth, make this one of the premier wrecks to visit in the area.
The 604-foot steel freighter was built in 1927 for the Pittsburgh Steamship Company. On May 7, 1965, the ship departed in thick fog with a crew of 35 men on Lake Huron near Rogers City, Michigan, with a cargo of more than 14,000 tons of limestone. There was a miscommunication, and the Norwegian ship Topdalsfjord struck the port side midship of the Cedarville. The Cedarville was hit below the waterline and began to list to port. The captain ordered ballast water to be pumped into the starboard side of the ship to offset the list. He intended to run the ship aground to prevent it from sinking, but as the Cedarville moved toward land, water forced the bow under, and the entire ship rolled over. Ten of the 35 crewmen died, and the rest were rescued from the icy lake waters. The captain of the Cedarville survived and was later found at fault for the horrible accident.
The wreck now rests on its starboard side with the bow almost overturned. Lines are on the bow and stern since the site is so large, and it’s best to do several dives on the wreck to be able to see both areas. As you come down the line, the beige hull appears at 40 feet. The bow is confusing with the way it’s almost turtled. The wheelhouse, which sits in shadow at 100 feet with the radio antenna sticking into the mud, is haunting when you think about the decisions made there that put this ship on the bottom. The self-unloading crane is striking, and tons of limestone has poured out of the cargo holds. On the stern you can peer into cabins that still have bunk beds, sinks and clothing, and some still have intact light bulbs. For divers trained in overhead diving, the entrance to the engine room is a decent size, and the triple-expansion steam engine, gauge panels and fuse boxes are so clean it looks like the ship sank yesterday.
SS Eber Ward
Built in 1888, the SS Eber Ward was a 213-foot wooden freighter with two decks, steam propulsion and a fore and aft compound engine. The ship was carrying a cargo of corn from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Port Huron, Michigan. The captain thought he could navigate through slush, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but ice tore open the wooden bow on the morning of April 20, 1909. The Eber Ward sank in 10 minutes, taking five lives.
The wreck sits upright in Lake Michigan at 111 to 143 feet. Like the Cedarville, this is a large wreck with lines on both the bow and stern. The stern has an impressive propeller. Peering inside, you can see the engine and intact wood paneling. This wreck has excellent swim-throughs with beautiful blue light pouring into the cargo holds, where you can see self-unloading machinery and other artifacts. The bow is photogenic with several anchors, including a unique mushroom anchor on its port side. The gaping gash from the ice that sunk the ship is on the left side of the hull and is large enough for a diver to easily swim through. Inside the bow is a crew member’s boot, an ominous reminder that men were working on this ship and scrambled to save their lives the day it went down.
The 110-foot two-masted brig Sandusky was built in 1848 in Sandusky, Ohio, and sank in Lake Michigan during a violent storm in September 1856. Because it sank in 85 feet of water, the masts reached just above the surface, and three men clung to them in the rough seas before the crew of the side-wheeler Queen City saw them and attempted a rescue. Unfortunately, the rescue failed, and the entire crew was lost.
One of the oldest wrecks in the preserve, the Sandusky has a lot to offer. It sits upright with a slight list to its port side. The intact bowsprit is an impressive sight. It’s not common to see figureheads on wrecks, but the Sandusky has an excellent replica of a scroll figurehead under the jibboom. You can see the original in the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. The wreck also has two bow anchors, a windlass and many other artifacts.
Michigan State Police search and rescue divers discovered the William Young in 2002 while searching for a missing woman and her child. The 139-foot schooner, which had been converted into a tow barge, sank in 1891 while being towed behind the steamer Nashua. It sank slowly enough that the crew survived. Today the wreck sits upright and mostly intact in 120 feet of water, with lots of deadeyes, artifacts and cargo holds filled with coal. The bow is splayed open, and anchors and chains run along a swim-through from which you can see more coal inside the hold. The stern has a picturesque wooden wheel, which makes this dive one of the highlights of the straits.
If you like diving under bridges, the wooden steamer Minneapolis is a great site. It’s interesting to moor almost below the bridge and to dive while hearing cars above. The Minneapolis also suffered ice damage, and the water leaking in put out the boilers and caused the bilge pumps to quit working. The crew survived by boarding one of the schooner-barges the ship had been towing.
When you descend to the wreck of this 225-foot ship, you’ll first see the engine and boilers; the prop and rudder are lying in the sand near the stern. A few traffic cones have blown off the bridge and into the water as well. The Minneapolis can be prone to high current even on the bottom at 124 feet.
Newell A. Eddy
The Newell A. Eddy sank in 1893 while being towed by the steamer Charles E. Eddy. The 240-foot schooner barge broke free during a gale, and the crew could not get the sails up because of ice on the rigging. The ship sank with nine people aboard, who were never recovered. The University of Michigan discovered the wreck in 1992 near Cheboygan, Michigan. Resting in 165 feet of water (making it a technical dive), the ship is intact and upright with its bowsprit and rigging still attached. All three masts stand tall, which is unique and impressive. The water clarity in the area can vary. There is no permanent buoy here, but a tag line below the surface leads straight to one of the anchors that rests on the bottom near the wreck; from there you can follow the chain to the bow.
My advice is to look for the wreck around 130 feet. If you can see it from the line, you won’t have to go to the bottom. This wreck is off the beaten path, but it’s worth the trip to dive an intact schooner barge at a good depth for technical diving. I was impressed with the state of preservation on this site and the size of the wreck. Seeing standing masts takes my breath away, especially knowing they’ve been like that for 127 years.
Diving in the Straits of Mackinac is best from June through September. Surface temperatures are usually around 55°F, and bottom temperatures are typically around 39°F but can vary depending on the depth of the wreck, the time of year and currents in the area. The minimum visibility is usually 50 to 80 feet. Most sites have no noticeable current, but several that are near or under the bridge can have powerful current down to the wreck. The bottomlands of the Great Lakes are protected, and taking anything off the wrecks is illegal. The wrecks are also gravesites, and divers should respect them and any remains that they find.
For hundreds of years ships have used the Great Lakes, and for hundreds of years ships have collided in the fog, burned in fires, been sunk by storms or ice, or just vanished. What’s exciting about diving the lakes is that people discover new wrecks every year using the latest side-scan technology. With advances in dive technology we can see more of the wrecks during our dives.
These wrecks ignite my imagination every time I see one sitting perfectly on the bottom, just how I had pictured a shipwreck in my mind when I was young.
See more imagery of diving in the Straits of Mackinac in this video by Becky Kagan Schott.
© Alert Diver — Q2 2020