Photo Courtesy of Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Photo Courtesy of Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Michigan is famous for its shipwrecks. But state officials don’t want to add any more boats to the below-water collection.

PARADISE, Mich.—Sean Ley remembers the plunge well. First, he felt the pressure build in his ear canals. Then, diving deeper, repressurizing and readjusting equipment on the way, he felt the nitrogen seep into his nervous system right around 180 feet down. 

“Believe me, at least 80% of your brain should be, or at least mine is, focused on taking care of your own darn body,” Ley said. “Because if not, you can easily wind up dead.”

But fighting through the gas-induced haze is worth it, he says, because at the end you’re transported to a place and time otherworldly.

The Great Lakes are home to more than 6,000 shipwrecks, which people around the world travel to see. 

Michigan is the jumping off point to many, including some of the most spectacular ones. Lake Superior’s waters are too cold for zebra mussels, an invasive species that hugs the lake bottom and debris that gathers there, so many wrecks remain unblemished and in their original state. 

A retired diver in the Great Lakes, Ley has visited 150 shipwrecks, all with unique qualities.

“It’s very adventurous. You feel like you’re going back in time,” said Ley, who’s the development officer for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

Each sunken ship is different. Some are in relatively small inland lakes, doomed by malfunction or poor piloting. Others are out on the brutal and barren water of the Great Lakes, the sacrificial lamb to deadly storms.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point studies these shipwrecks, looking for commonalities and historical markers of significance.

Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, recalls a recent expedition when the museum dropped a remote operated vehicle (ROV) down into Lake Superior. 

As the ROV traveled downward and came across the wreckage, “The Atlanta” came into view, her script lettering cinematically unblemished after more than a century underwater. Onboard the Atlanta, the ROV showed a manual pumping station, still with the handle screwed into to the pump—revealing the final last-ditch efforts to save the sinking ship.

“Suddenly, here comes the nameboard right in front of us,” Lynn said. “Very clearly, you could see ‘Atlanta’ on it, the name of the vessel, and there was this ornate scrollwork around the name… And it was all still there.”

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The Modern Era of Shipwrecks

Fast-forward to the modern era and shipwrecks are less common than they were at their peak in the 19th century, Ley said. Experts say this is because of modern technology and safety instruments.

But despite advancements, those in the maritime space have seen more boats go underwater in recent years—in no way paralleling the 1800s height, but a relative bump compared to 20 years ago nonetheless. Maybe the most obvious explanation for that is the commercial availability and boom of boats and watersports, in what used to be a very prohibitive luxury or technical, trained business. In 2020, boat sales reached a 13-year high.

Now, many Michigan families have boats out on lakes but don’t have the expertise on how to guide them through troubled waters or tie them up right.

Boating safety has been a hot topic recently, as more people crowd the water. But even when those aboard are unharmed, sunken vessels still prove a hazard to the environment, economy, and people around.

First, sunken boats can obstruct navigation and endanger others who are out and about on the water. These hazards need to be removed as soon as possible or else others could crash or be hurt.

As soon as ships wreck, the state is on site.

The first priority for the state Department of Natural Resources is to retrieve any oil from the wrecks, so it doesn’t permanently impact the lake habitat. Sometimes this amount can be relatively small, such as 30 gallons, while other times it can be the few hundred gallons that are in a tugboat.

Usually, the easiest way to do this is hauling the vessel out of water, especially if it’s in shallow depths or only partially sunk. As far as the state is concerned, this is the owner’s responsibility, and either the owner or insurance company will be on the hook for removal costs.

The state’s preference is always to haul up a ship when possible, and not condemn it to the underwater graveyard below.

More times than not, this happens without a hitch. After all, most boats sink at the place they’re docked, making for easy retrieval.

But on occasion, if a boat is irrecoverable, divers will have to extract the oil themselves, leaving the wreckage behind.

Problems can arise because unlike with automobiles, Michiganders don’t need insurance to operate boats. If a purchase takes on water, then it can be cheaper for the owner to write it off as a sunken cost rather than to retrieve it.

Under Michigan law, vessels that lie on the bottom of lakes and rivers are property of the state. Because the ships are Michigan property, divers cannot remove objects. If a shipwreck is a suspected gravesite, people cannot take pictures of human remains.

Many laws that govern the bottom of lakes are unique Michigan features, experts are eager to note. But as far as modern boating is concerned, Michigan laws may not be comprehensive enough. 

When a modern vessel sinks or runs aground, it doesn’t immediately become an item of nostalgia or time-capsule. It’s an eyesore and a hazard.

The owner has a certain amount of time to reclaim it before it becomes state property. But if the state and Coast Guard cannot get the owner to retrieve their property, then it becomes the state or local government’s property, with removal cost and all. 

On these rare occasions, Michigan treads into legally murky waters.

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The Fine Print

Detectives for Michigan’s Environmental Investigation Section have had several cases recently that caught their eye.

In one case, a man bought a 76-foot luxury boat in need of repairs and piloted it all the way from Florida to Michigan. In front of Ludington State Park, the boat began taking on water, and eventually ran aground. Waves shattered the remaining structure, scattering debris all over the state park. The man abandoned the ship in time, but he also bailed on cleanup costs.

The state prosecuted the man under litter law, which is the standard law investigators use for enforcement, said Detective Lt. Erick Thorson, criminal investigator and conservation officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But the man has failed to pay, claiming no money and no insurance. To date, the state park footed the $115,000 bill for cleanup and removal.  

Currently, Arkansas and Utah are the only states to have laws in place requiring boat insurance for motorized vessels. 

State litter law has expanded in recent years, most recently in 2014, but Thorson still says a more concrete, specific policy would help. Vence Woods, a first lieutenant for the state’s EIS team, has been actively talking to state legislators about a new bill, but nothing has come to fruition as of yet.

“We all want the same end result,” Thorson said. “We want to keep the lakes clean and get vessels out of the water, so we do the best we can with what we have. But I think more specific legislation aimed at making people take responsibility for sunken vessels would definitely be beneficial.” 

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Lessons and Lore

What shipwrecks of old tell us is some insight into boating safety nowadays. 

Before radio, TV, and satellite, the Lifesaving Service used to take off to rescue ships that were in trouble. With several stations in Michigan, the Lifesaving Service piloted small maneuverable boats and carried out sturdy liferafts to sinking ships.

“The stories are just amazing to think about what these guys did,” Lynn said.

Nowadays, the Lifesaving Service is defunct, and local safety units and the Coast Guard have taken over safety and rescue missions.

While technology has improved and boating is safer than ever, the risks are the exact same.  

As the waters are more open to people than ever, officials encourage people to enjoy the water, but do so safely and responsibly. Deep down below in Michigan waters, there are numerous reminders of just how perilous the activity can be.

“It’s only natural to want to go out in a boat of some type,” Thorson said. “But I think a lot of people don’t think long-term about what the potential cost is of being out there.”