A buoy floats in an otherwise empty Lake Huron bay, a small button in the water, just 10 minutes’ paddle from the beach.
Below are the remains of the LM Mason, a 45-foot wooden schooner that was hit by a violent storm on October 22, 1861. He was carrying a cargo of grain and crouched in the bay with 13 other ships off the Presque Isle peninsula in northeast Michigan to escape the wind, waves and snow. The other ships survived, but the LM Mason was too badly damaged and sank.
Because of its shallow resting place and exposure to the wild storms that hit this section of Lake Huron – called Shipwreck Alley – only the hull and some support beams are left. But the fact that it is 160 years old and still so relatively well preserved testifies to the unique conditions of the waters in which it rests and is part of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
In the sea, the wood in shipwrecks is often eaten by shipworms and the metal rusts, but in the cold fresh water of Lake Huron these wrecks are exceptionally well preserved. Especially in deep water. About a dozen miles from the LM Mason, the schooner Cornelia B. Windiate rests in 180 feet of water. Sitting upright on the lake bed, the schooner is almost untouched. Its three masts, rigging, lifeboat and even its cargo of wheat are still there, though it went down on November 27, 1875.
The LM Mason and the Cornelia B. Windiate are two of the nearly 100 known shipwrecks that comprise the Thunder Bay Sanctuary, a 4,300 square mile underwater park in Lake Huron off the northeastern coast of Michigan. It was established in 2000 as the first National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes.
Think of the National Marine Sanctuary System as the underwater equivalent of national parks. It was founded in 1972 in response to the growing awareness that marine areas of exceptional historical and ecological importance also need to be protected. A key event that spurred the creation of the system was a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, which was the worst in US history at the time.
The system is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022. It includes 15 salt and freshwater sanctuaries in locations such as the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Massachusetts, and Flower Garden Banks off the coast of Galveston, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico. There are also two Marine National Monuments, one of which is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, which is larger than the total area of all national parks. It is in the process of being designated as a protected area, which adds additional protection levels and durability to the protective measures.
With over 620,000 square miles of water, the total area of the sanctuary system is almost the size of Alaska, but since the landmarks are underwater, it’s more difficult to access. It’s also more difficult to count visitors to the protected areas as NOAA doesn’t control full access to them, but it’s likely a fraction of the hundreds of millions of annual visitors to the national park system.
Still, sanctuaries are important factors in their local economy. Stephanie Gandulla, a maritime archaeologist and research coordinator for NOAA in Thunder Bay, told me that for most years the sanctuary is visited by divers from Australia, New Zealand and Germany, all eager to explore wrecks like the Cornelia B. Windiate that lie in technical diving depths. These are dives that exceed the limits of recreational diving, usually deeper than 130 feet. They require advanced training and the use of equipment such as astronaut-like dry suits and special air tanks.
Diving to the wreck
We didn’t put on dry suits or sucked air from tanks during our visit. Wetsuits, fins, snorkels, and kayaks were hard enough to handle – but well worth the effort. We began our exploration of the sanctuary the day before our visit to LM Mason with a ride on the Lady Michigan, a glass-bottom boat that docks in Alpena near the sanctuary’s headquarters. The excursion boat sails into the waters off Thunder Bay Island, an area with several known shipwrecks. Near the island we peered down at the shallow wreck of the wooden steamship Monohansett, which sank on November 23, 1907. The crew was rescued by the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard. Even without the glass floor windows, the kettle and hull of the freighter were clearly visible from the surface.
The boat tour was a fun and comprehensive introduction to the Thunder Bay Sanctuary, but it’s hard to beat the experience of soaring over the LM Mason and diving down to swim past its wrecks. We were the only visitors at that moment, and the wild waters of the north bay of Presque Ile were devoid of human noise.
The wetsuit kept me warm as a seal, the sunlight that penetrated to the bottom of the clear bay, and the thick, unbroken forest that populated the coast was easy to see how attractive this sanctuary is. It was the kind of experience that makes dreams of career change spring to mind, especially when I learned that NOAA is hiring divers across its sanctuary to do research, exploration, and outreach.
Jeff Gray, the superintendent of Thunder Bay, told me that the lure of visiting shipwrecks is a gateway to furthering the sanctuary’s main missions: conservation, research, education, helping coastal communities and contributing to the local economy. Initially, however, the designation of the Thunder Bay Sanctuary was controversial. The residents of Alpena voted against in 1997 for fear that the federal government would replace local supervision and restrict their waters.
Today, however, these fears have largely disappeared. Thunder Bay is seen as the engine of the local economy, which suffered when a large paper mill closed around the same time as the sanctuary. In 2012 the Alpena Area Convention & Visitors Bureau changed its slogan from “A warm and friendly haven” to “Sanctuary of the Great Lakes”. Three years later, in 2015, the sanctuary received widespread support for its expansion from 448 square miles to 4,300 square miles.
After a day and a half of boating, kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing in the sanctuary waters, we spent the rest of our short weekend not in the sanctuary but along the coast. We visited the Rockport Recreation Area, a Michigan State Park on the shores of Lake Huron between Alpena and Presque Isle. This state park, Michigan’s 100th, had a charming, quirky quality. Signs to the park are hard to find and we drove on a dirt road for so long that I was sure we had taken the wrong turn. (Apparently porcupines keep eating the trail markers.) Finally the entrance appeared, the water of the sanctuary grouped like a halo behind the parking lot. There we learned that the park contains a ghost town, a shipwreck, natural sinkholes and a bat hibernaculum.
These features need to be saved for a second visit as I couldn’t stop my children from climbing the abandoned limestone quarry along the park’s coast to look for 400 million year old Devonian fossils. They were especially motivated because Rockport allows each visitor to take home up to 25 pounds of fossils a year. But the fossil my 7-year-old put her heart on weighed at least 50 pounds in knee-deep water, so we left it alone.
As the last stop, Mr. Gray and Ms. Gandulla took us through the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, which is temporarily closed to the public due to Covid restrictions. Mr. Gray said he hoped the museum would reopen soon with free admission as it was the public gateway to the sanctuary and the nexus of NOAA’s educational, scientific and community work. The centerpiece is a faithful replica of a classic Great Lakes schooner, complete with the audio re-enactment of a shipwreck. There are also artifacts of shipwrecks and a history of shipping on the Great Lakes, from the birch bark canoes used by indigenous peoples to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
On the way out we visited the NOAA diving facility next door, where I met Russ Green, a former deputy superintendent in Thunder Bay and the NOAA employee responsible for opening the newest National Marine Sanctuary, the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast, a 962 Square meters, responsible was -mile area north of Milwaukee. It is the first sanctuary on Lake Michigan and the second on the Great Lakes after Thunder Bay.
The Shipwreck Coast was officially designated a sanctuary on June 23rd and contains 36 known sunken ships. But as with Thunder Bay, there is reason to believe that there are many more ships waiting to be found.
As I drove away from Lake Huron, surrounded by solid land – vegetable farms and orchards – I wondered about this concept of a park made of water. There was undeniably moving about being in the sanctuary, floating in a cove known for being shallowly calm one moment and angry the next. It was different from visiting national or state parks. Perhaps because we were in unpredictable water, couldn’t touch the bottom, and were at the mercy of something much more powerful. Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, which begins with a shipwreck, ends Act I, Scene 1 with this passage: “Now I would give a thousand stages of sea for one morning of sterile soil: long heather, brown gorse, everything. The above will is done, but I would like to die a dry death. ”I can imagine sailors on storm-hit ships thinking that way.
About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is water, but less than 15 percent of the Great Lakes and less than 10 percent of the world’s oceans have been mapped using modern sonar technology. Compared to the popular and well-trodden paths over mountains and through forests, the National Marine Sanctuaries are an entry into a mysterious world. Perhaps the wildest part of this country is underwater.
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