Great Lakes Diving: A week of diving in Presque Isle & Whitefish Point

SS Comet

I wanted to do a quick recap of my Great Lakes diving trip to Presque Isle (Lake Huron) and Whitefish Point (Lake Superior).  This was my 2nd time diving up in this area. I went last year in July for the first time with my friend Shawn and was blown away by the diving up here.  This year we planned to do 4 days in Presque Isle, MI (Lake Huron) and 3 days in Whitefish Point (Lake Superior).

What can I say? First of all, it was truly awesome diving with some amazingly preserved wrecks. I know it sounds cliche but like I said last year I think think it’s some of the best wreck diving that I’ve ever done.  I didn’t take as many pictures this year because I had some camera issues but hopefully next year I’ll get more decent ones. I’m writing this after the trip so my memory of things may not be exact.

Getting to Presque Isle, MI

I flew into Alpena, MI (APN) which is about 25 minute drive to Presque Isle, MI.  It’s a tiny little regional airport that has connections from Detroit.  I flew Boston to Detroit to Alpena.  Once you’re in Detroit the flight to Alpena is only about 45 minutes; it certainly beats the 4.5-5 hour drive.    The downside to flying of course is I had to pack intelligently (unintelligent in my case) cramming every single nook and cranny in my suit cases chock full of dive gear.   It was not a pretty sight but it worked.   I had camera gear wrapped in underwear, scrubbers packed around sweatshirts and regulators overflowing from my bags.  I rented a mid-sized car from Avis.  They have a booth that is conveniently located next to the terminal (of which there is only one so you cant miss it).

Flying out of Logan

As expected in Boston my rebreather was overweight (~64lbs) because I packed it in hard pelican case with fully packed scrubbers. I got dinged $100 bucks for that. Not too terrible, I was expecting that. My other checked bag was balanced at exactly 50lbs while my I might as well have been carrying lead weights in both of my carry-own bags.

Here’s where things went as well as one might expect when dealing with the glorious government agency that is the TSA.  The lines were ridiculous but luckily I got there a little over 2 hours early because I know how much TSA likes to confuse dive gear with bombs and chemical weapons. Hint: All the time..

I took all electronics out of my bag, laptop, video lights, cameras, dive computers. Surprise, surprise my bags need to be un-thoughtfully molested because there appear to be weird things in there.  Yes TSA..I know you’ve never seen scuba gear before.. Nobody in the history of Boston Logan airport has apparently ever flown out of the airport with scuba gear in their luggage. I’m the first one.

Thank you for informing me that next time I fly everything needs to be taken out of the bags. This is completely new to me.  No where on TSA’s procedures does it say that I should put SCUBA gear in a bin. Perhaps you should update your literature?

Anyway, after about 20 minutes of them taking EVERY piece of dive gear out of both of my carry-on bags I was allowed to re-pack and leave security.  The guy was actually pretty cool besides taking every single item out of my bag. One thing I’ve learned with TSA is just be patient and put on your game face. Getting visibility frustrated, while completely expected, is not going to help the situation.

Gear Prep and Accommodations

Shawn rented us a waterfront house on Grand Lake for our group since Grand Lake Resort was fully booked. It was about a 10 minute drive from the boat launch in Presque Isle.  It was small but really nice. Full laundry, a new patio with grill/bbq.  It certainly saved us money grilling instead of eating out every night.

Grills apparently take 4 people to start..
Grills apparently take 4 people to start..

Unfortunately the winds weren’t in our favor for Monday diving.  Such is life. This meant I had plenty of time for gear prep and beer hydration activities. John and Jenn introduced me to some fine Canadian craft beer/brewery (Refined Fool Brewing Co. and Nickel Brook Brewing Co. from Ontario) and rum that I had never had before.  Shawn and John S. also both graciously lent me a couple AL80s for bailout.  After I analyzed them, marked them, and strapped my stage regulators on them I was good to go.

I dove with two AL80s for the trip.  I had 15/55 for deep bailout gas and 50% for deco gas. Jitka also hangs O2 at 20ft with regulators and LP inflators for offboard gas for emergencies that I didn’t factor into my gas planning but of course it’s nice to know it’s there.   We were originally planning on hitting some deeper targets hence 15/55 for bailout otherwise I’d have asked for 18/45 or 21/35.    I dove with 10/55 for diluent the entire week.  Shawn/John brought a trailer with a T bottle of O2, pre-mixed diluent and plenty of drive gas.  Doug provided the booster since Shawn’s needed to be rebuilt.  I mostly dove with Doug, Shawn and of course my favorite dive buddies me, myself and I for the majority of the trip.   John/Jenn dove together and were usually second team to splash while Me/Doug ended up splashing in first or second.

Rebreather Issues

Upon opening my rebreather I immediately noticed that TSA had inspected it as evident by their nice little pamphlet they left in my Pelican case.  It was pretty jostled around and re-packed kind of poorly but looked like it survived the trip fine. They didn’t do a great job of repacking wires like I had.

Unfortunately as soon as I built my unit it pretty much failed positive and negative checks. Not good. I was cursing TSA and my blessed aquasealed counterlungs but truth be told I don’t really know what caused it.  My hunch was that the OPV was acting up so I took that apart, cleaned the o-rings and increased the cracking pressure by adjusting spring.  I also carefully cleaned all sealing o-rings on my case, p-ports and loop.

After that it held negative and positive for a “respectively” 15-20 minutes.  Not perfect but enough for me to consider it worthy of diving. I’m going to order a new OPV and pull my case apart to check for leaks when I get home.

Presque Isle Diving

Monday was blow out day but we managed to get out on Tuesday as the winds settled down considerably.  We went to bed to a beautiful sunset on Grand Lake and watched as the chop and waves on Grand Lake flattened out to barely a ripple.

Grand Lake Sunset in Presque Isle

Tuesday

Our first dive of the trip was the SS Norman, a steel steamer that sunk in 1895.  She sunk when the Canadian steamer Jack collided with her in fog just off Presque Isle.  The Normans hull is broken just forward of the boiler house with the majority of the ship listing hard to port. A yawl boat sits on the lake bottom just off the amidships section.  She’s an awesome wreck and one of my favorites in Presque Isle.

Apparently Ryan and pals thought so too because they were also tied into the Norman as we approached.  I managed to say hello to Josh and Nate underwater as we met swimming through her cavernous decks and cargo holds.  It’s funny running into local divers underwater in a completely different part of the country.  Unfortunately I didn’t take my camera on this dive so here’s a couple pictures from last year..

SS Norman SS Norman SS Norman

[SS Norman]
Max depth: 201ft
Runtime: 102 minutes
Visibility: ~75-100ft
Water Temp: 38f on bottom and 62f on deco above 50ft.

Our second dive was also an old favorite of mine from last year, the Cornelia B. Windiate.  She’s an intact three-masted schooner sitting on the bottom at ~180ft.  She is pretty unique because unlike a lot of schooners in the Great Lakes her cabin is still fully intact.

“For many years, the story of the Windiate’s disappearance was a mystery.  It was thought to have gone down in Lake Michigan, since it was spotted there in a fall gale and was never seen again.  More than 100 years later, the wreck was discovered deep in Lake Huron’s waters.  The ship is in nearly perfect condition with masts upright, cabin intact, and the yawl boat lying alongside the stern.  The Windiate is now thought to have sunk because heavy seas covered the decks in ice causing it to settle slowly to the bottom of the lake.  No signs of the eight crewmen have ever been found.” (Source: https://thunderbay.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/cornelia_b_windiate.html)

[Schooner Cornelia B. Windiate]
Max depth: 185ft
Runtime: 92 minutes.
Visibility: 50-70ft.
Water temp: 38f on bottom and 63f on deco.

I didn’t take pictures because I’m stupid and apparently I charged everything BUT my camera battery. Luckily I did have my GoPro charged so I took a short GoPro video.

Wednesday

Sadly the winds picked up but we managed to sneak out and get in one dive on the Kyle Spangler before it got too rough. I kept my runtime purposely shorter due to some seasick (lake sick?) people on the boat.  She’s a little closer to shore than some of the other wrecks so we didn’t get beat up too badly. The Kyle Spangler was a two-masted schooner carrying corn when she collided with schooner Racine and sunk in approximately 180ft of water on November 7th, 1860.

[Schooner Kyle Spangler]
Max depth: 177ft
Runtime: 75 minutes
Visibility: ~75ft but very dark today with no sunlight.
Water temp: 38f on bottom.

Kyle Spangler Kyle Spangler

Thursday
The winds died down beautifully making Lake Huron look like a mill pond and afforded us the opportunity for two stern tie-offs.  The day started off a little foggy and rainy but cleared up nicely. Our first dive was another favorite, the SS Florida. She was a steam ship that sunk in 1898 in approximately 200ft of water.

“During a dense fog the steamer Florida was sunk by collision with the steamer George W. Roby off Middle Island. The ship went down in deep water and was nearly cut in half by the collision. Florida sits upright on the lake bottom and still contains much of its package freight. The Florida was discovered by Ed Ellison.” (Source: https://thunderbay.noaa.gov/shipwrecks/florida.html

[SS Florida]
Max depth: 190ft
Runtime: 105 minutes
Visibility: A dark 50-60ft maybe a tad more.
Water temp: 39f and 62f on deco above 50ft.
Unfortunately I was having major lens condensation issues so nothing really came out. I’m also a pretty shitty photographer so there’s that too.

SS Florida SS Florida SS Florida

Our last dive on Thursday was the wreck of the Typo, another three-masted schooner.  She’s also an awesome wreck like all the others up in Presque Isle.  The Typo has an intact bowsprit, two of the masts still standing (one snapped off 20 ft up) and lots of items on the deck. Due to being metal, not brass, the bell was not salvaged and remains in place. She sunk on October 14, 1899 in collision with Ketchum.

Bell on the Schooner Typo

[Schooner Typo]
Max depth: 189ft
Runtime: 83 minutes
Water Temp: 39f
Visibility: 50ft+/-

Again, I was having camera issues. 🙁 My camera completely locked up and I couldn’t turn it off so here are a couple photos from Jenn S. showing me wearing the Deep 6 Eddy Fins in action. They really stand out in photos and are great eye catcher.  In a sea of black fins I was the only one in orange fins and fairly easy to identify.

Deep 6 Eddy Fins on the Schooner Typo Deep 6 Eddy Fins on the Schooner Typo

Trolls in Paradise (Whitefish Point, Lake Superior)

We ended Thursday by packing up all our stuff, helping Jitka put the Molly V on her trailer and began the ~3 hour drive, crossing over the Mackinac Bridge to Whitefish Point, Lake Superior in Paradise, MI for more Great Lakes diving.   For those of you wondering the Mackinaw Bridge now accepts credit cards. Ask me how I know? You learn these marvelous things when you forget to carry the $4 cash required to pay the toll.  I’ve since learned this is a recent development.

Molly V on trailer Molly V on trailer

Like a scene out of the twilight zone we soon entered a region of the world known as the Upper Peninsula by Michigan natives. The local residents up here are referred to as “yoopers.” If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought yooper diet solely consisted of things called pasties, smoked whitefish and premier American beer like Budweiser.  Thankfully that was not the case. 🙂

Urban Dictionary has this to say about the term…”Yooper is a common term for residents of the Upper Penisula of Michigan. It is derived from the initials U.P. which is pronounced you-pee. U.P. stands for Upper Peninsula, as opposed to the lower peninsula of Michigan.”

Finally, unlike the “yoopers” the people who live below the bridge are affectionately called “trolls.”  What then are people from Boston called? I’m not sure, probably “assholes tourists” if I had to guess..

Nevertheless things move very slowly and people are a little different here in “paradise.” We arrived at the venerable Curley’s Paradise Motel proudly offering this nascent invention called “Color TV by RCA” and even “direct dial phones.”   The future is awesome.  They also did have wireless internet although it wasn’t advertised on the sign. Bummer.   I didn’t try using the Color TV but the wireless internet maybe worked about 25% of the time.

Curley's Motel in Paradise, MI

Friday
Lake Superior was absolute glass in the morning in Whitefish Point. Our first dive was John M. Osborn, a wooden steamer that sunk in 1884. She sits in approximately 180ft of water.
lake superior lake superior lake superior

[John M. Osborn]
Max depth: 175ft
Runtime: 81 minutes.
Water temp: a very brisk 38f with no thermocline until about 30ft where it warms up to 43f and finally 52f around 20ft.
Visibility: 30-40ft+.

Second dive was John B. Cowle, a 480ft bulk freighter that sunk in 1909 and sits in approximately 220ft of water.

[John B. Cowle]
Max depth: 208ft
Runtime: 86 minutes
Visibility: 30ft or so.
Water temp: 38f and a “warm” thermocline of 54f at 30ft.

The detail on these wrecks are remarkable due to no zebra/quagga mussels. You can see the wood grain and carvings. Visibility is good just dark. I kept my runtimes shorter for the first day since I did not have the tropical thermocline of Lake Huron to warm me up. I ended up adding more layers and saving the heated vest for deco for the rest of the week and I was in much better shape. The thermocline is much colder than Lake Huron but not too bad with proper layers.

This was my first time in Lake Superior and I was blown away.  The visibility is slightly better than average visibility in New England but with fully intact wrecks and artifacts littered everywhere.  I’m still not sure if prefer Presque Isle or Whitefish Point. They both have awesome wrecks with a lot to offer.

After diving on Friday we visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. I highly recommend it. All the artifacts that should have been on the wrecks or sitting in someone’s basement are displayed prominently in the museum for everyone to see.   They also had some very nice drawings and models of all the shipwrecks in Whitefish Point so it’s a good place to visit before diving the wrecks.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Saturday
We decided to do a double dip on the SS Samuel Mather since she’s a little further out than some of the other wrecks.  She is large (~250ft long) and interesting enough to warrant two dives. She sits in approximately 175ft of water. The Mather sank in 1891 after she was rammed by the steel freighter Brazil in heavy fog in Whitefish Bay 8 miles (13 km) from Point Iroquois, ending the Mather’s 4-year career. Her intact wreck is a rare of example of wooden freighters that plied the Great Lakes (Wikipedia).

[SS Samuel Mather]
Max depth: 170ft
Runtime: 101 minutes
Visibility: 25ft+
Water Temp: 39f and 55-56f on deco.

The Mather is awesome. Here are some photos straight from camera. No editing yet. No strobes, just video lights hence the backscatter. For my second dive on the Mather I played around in the engine room and tried to play pretend photographer with my Fischer Price camera.

[SS Samuel Mather]
Max depth: 168ft
Runtime: 81 minutes.
Water Temp: 39f on bottom
Visibility: 25-30ft

Sunday
On Sunday we dove the Comet and the Vienna.  In addition to having 3 days of flat calm seas and stern tie offs the Comet was my favorite wreck so far in Whitefish Point.

She sits in approximately 230-240ft of water. The Comet was built in 1857 as a wooden-hulled propeller-driven cargo vessel that was soon adapted to carry passengers. She sunk in 1875 causing the loss of ten lives. She became known as the only treasure ship of Lake Superior because she carried 70 tons of Montana silver ore when she sank.

Pottery, and china, machinery liter the entire deck and in the debris field. There are also piles of pig iron ingots lying in the hull.

The Comet also presents a rare chance to see intact hogging arches on a shipwreck. These are the arches that run the length of the ship that for a short time in ship construction history were added to stiffen the ship. Unfortunately they also made loading and unloading more difficult so were soon replaced with steel re-enforcing straps imbedded in the hull under the planking. The hogging arches on the Comet are intact and are a great example of how these structures were built. (Source: https://www.superiortrips.com/Whitefish/Comet_Shipwreck.htm)

Amazingly after 142 years on the bottom you can still make out the name “Comet” that is painted ornately on one of the cylinders of the engine.

[SS Comet]
Max depth: 219ft
Runtime: 105 minutes
Water Temp: 39f on bottom (52f-56f on deco above 40ft)
Visibility: Maybe 20-25ft.

The SS Vienna was built in 1873 during the era when steamers were built with sail rigging. She had a 19 year career marked with maritime incidents including sinking when she was just 3 years old. Finally, she sank for the last time in fair weather in Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior after she received a mortal blow when she was inexplicably rammed by the steamer Nipigon on 17 September 1892.

[SS Vienna]
Max depth: 147ft (Apparently I found an extra 7ft in the mud).
Runtime: 82 minutes.
Visibility: 25-30ft
Water Temp: 39f on bottom (balmy 63f on deco at 20ft!)

These photos aren’t edited but I wanted to upload some anyway..

 

SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna SS Vienna

Monday
Everyone else in my group left on Sunday night but I opted to stay an extra day and get one more dive in before flying out on Tuesday afternoon. I originally scheduled Monday as an “offgas day” but my flight wasn’t until 2:30pm on Tuesday so I’d have plenty of time out of the water before flying. We returned to the wreck of the John M. Osborn.  The lake was super foggy on the ride out requiring us to use radar and AIS to track ships in the area.  Thankfully the morning fog burned off just as we got out of the water.   Sadly I didn’t take my camera on this dive so here are some top side pictures.

[John M. Osborn]
Max depth: 168ft
Runtime: 85 minutes.
Water Temp: 38f on bottom
Visibility: 25-30ft.

Overall it was another fantastic week of Great Lakes diving.  Even though we lost one day of diving in Presque Isle we still had a great string of weather and got some quality diving in.  I’m looking forward to scheduling two weeks up there next season.   Additionally, Jitka’s new engine in the Molly V is also very nice.  She gets up on plane quite easily and has plenty of power.

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