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Diving in Lake Superior, Michigan

Updated on April 28, 2010

Fog wraps the early summer morning in cotton. On a small dive boat, a group of adventurers slips past the Whitefish Point breakwater into the waters of Lake Superior. At 31,820 square miles, this is the largest freshwater lake in the world, but today, visibility has shrunk to a circle of pond-flat water the size of a swimming pool. For 10 minutes, the captain guides his vessel through this shrouded world, navigating solely by radar and the signals of GPS satellites. It's easy to see why, in the days before radio and electronic navigation, collisions were common here. Whitefish Point marks the beginning of Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast, a treacherous 80-mile stretch extending west to Munising, Michigan.

The boat coasts to a stop within an arm's length of an orange mooring buoy. After a briefing, neoprene-suited explorers backroll into the water. Things may be foggy upstairs, but it's a different story below the surface. As the group pauses at 50 feet to double-check computers and dive lights, every detail on the bottom of the dive boat above is still clear.
Farther they go, through thermoclines that place frosty kisses on exposed cheeks, dive lights winking on as blackness closes in. The line angles slightly, and they follow it to a shadowy shape that gradually resolves into the rounded stern of the wooden steamer Vienna, topped by a broad, shallow rail. Lower down on the boat's stern, the waterline markings, Roman numerals applied with white zinc paint, are still visible. The deck is 115 feet beneath the lake's surface, yet despite the violence of a trip to the bottom, much of the planking lies straight and true. In the hold, close inspection reveals that the wooden knees joining hull and deck were made by hand; hundreds of barely visible axe marks attest to hours of labor.
It's hard to believe the Vienna has been down here for more than a century.

Liquid Time Machine

Great Lakes diving may not be time-travel, but it's certainly the next best thing. Although there are natural wonders galore here — underwater caverns off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising, for instance — it's the shipwrecks that draw divers from all over the world to the waters of Lake Superior.
All five Great Lakes have brisk, fresh, mineral-free water, which can keep extremely old wrecks in remarkable condition. Ships that went to the bottom during Abraham Lincoln's presidency often look as if they could be raised, repaired, and sailed again. If the Great Lakes have, as their proponents say, the best shipwreck diving in the world, then Lake Superior offers the best of the best — a magic combination of great wrecks, clear water, and a wild-and-woodsy North Country ambiance.
Amazingly enough, many divers living only minutes from the Great Lakes are unaware of their underwater wonders. Temperature is the main deterrent, but it's easily kept at bay with proper protection. Casual divers may settle for heavy-duty wet suits with hoods and mitts, but frequent underwater visitors should probably invest in the gear and training for dry-suit diving. Dry suits afford perfect comfort, even while drifting through the 40°F (4°C) bottom temperatures that Lake Superior commonly registers in high summer.
Continued In: Diving in Lake Superior, Michigan - Part 2


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