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Of all the tantalizing ways to bond with northwest Michigan's waters, none is more dramatic than searching for shipwrecks. Thousands of ships have sunk in the Great Lakes, many of them in fickle Lake Michigan where storms blow up quickly and fiercely.
In Manitou Passage alone, says underwater photographer Thaddius Bedford, at least 130 ships went down since 1850; he says only sixteen have been found. Bedford believes many lie buried in sand – as was the case of The Three Brothers, a 160- foot-long steamer that disappeared off South Manitou Island in 1911. For nearly a century “people had been walking right over it,” until the current shifted and sands dispersed, yielding the intact ship in a mere 12 feet of water. Since its “uncovering” in 1996, it’s become a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers. The Francisco Morazon, also off South Manitou, doesn’t require gear to see – the steel freighter that sunk in 1960 sticks right out of the water.
After a week’s training at one of Traverse City’s scuba shops, novice divers can search for lost ships of their own, though some hide in deeper waters. “The wrecks around here are world-class,” says Bedford. “Nowhere else in the world are wrecks preserved like they are here.” The secret is in the freshwater that lacks seawater’s corrosive salt and wood-eating worms.
In Traverse City, scuba divers can choose to bring their own gear or to rent. Also, divers can choose whether to dive independently or with organized groups. Local dive shops Great Lakes Scuba and Scuba North rent gear and organize guided diving trips. The trips include some with charter boats that visit the sites of Lake Michigan shipwrecks in The Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve, thus providing an efficient way for divers to find the shipwrecks.
The sites are protected by national legislation passed in the 1980’s and is now virtually surrounded by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It is an area 282 square miles of blue water where great shifting sand is continuously uncovering some wrecks and covering others.
The proposed Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve is a community movement to establish an underwater preserve in Grand Traverse Bay in order to promote underwater recreation and Maritime Heritage Tourism in the Great Lakes. The group's goal is to acquire a Great Lakes related ship or aircraft to sink in Grand Traverse Bay as a new dive attraction to supplement the other great dive sites in Grand Traverse Bay. Read more about this grassroots group by visiting its Web site, www.gtbup.org.