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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A diver explores below the surface of Wisconsin's maritime history. © J. Kronschnabl

August 2004

Wisconsin Traveler
Scuba do!

How to take a dive
in Wisconsin.

A diver explores below the surface of Wisconsin's maritime history.
© J. Kronschnabl

The urge to dive below the depths always has been part of human nature. In ancient Greece breath-hold divers plunged for sponges and engaged in sub-surface sea warfare. The first diving bell rang the fathoms in the year 1530. Each generation added innovations and refinements to the apparatus needed to keep a body alive underwater.

And then, in 1943, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan patented the Aqua Lung, a simple yet reliable combination of a valve regulator, hoses, a mouthpiece and a pair of compressed air tanks. Their unit breathed life into a new sport: Scuba diving.

Today where there's water, there are Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus divers – even here in Wisconsin, where half the year the water is hard, and the rest of the time it is just plain cold. We lack the brilliant colors and rich marine life of warm tropical sea reefs, but experienced divers know fresh water preserves sunken hulls and artifacts much better than corrosive salt water. Shipwreck sites in Wisconsin's Great Lakes attract divers from around the world.

The Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute invite everyone – divers and landlubbers alike – to explore the state's watery depths. The best place to begin your adventure is at Wisconsin Great Lakes Shipwrecks. On the site, divers will find dive guides, maps, mooring locations, and important safety tips. Those preferring to stay dry can watch videos of wreck dives, tour Wisconsin's maritime trails, catch up on recent research and even post questions to WHS underwater archaeologists Russ and Cathy Green.

Lake Superior has six wrecks open to divers, and each has an extraordinary tale to tell. The schooner Lucerne, now resting at a depth of 25 feet on the northeast side of Long Island near Bayfield, had been fitted with heavy-duty sails to withstand Superior's notoriously foul weather. The ship encountered a vicious nor 'easter in November 1886, and even the most tightly-woven canvas jibs were no match for the heavy snow squalls and gale-force winds. The Lucerne's 195-foot hull is intact and upright on the sand bottom; the cargo of iron ore is still visible around the wreck.

The Noquebay fell in 1905 not to snow and ice, but to fire. The schooner-barge, laden with a cargo of 600,000 board feet of hemlock, caught fire in the forward part of the ship while the crew was eating lunch in the aft deckhouse. No one noticed the flames until it was too late to fight the raging blaze. Today large sections of the Noquebay's wooden hull, scattered wreckage, a boiler and the ship's wheel can be found 10 feet down in Julian Bay, just off Stockton Island near Bayfield.

Lake Michigan is purportedly the less temperamental of the two lakes, yet 15 wrecks open for diving lie below its comparatively calm surface. There's the Carrington, grounded by fog in 1870 and now resting 32 to 57 feet down along the north side of Hat Island shoal in Green Bay. The steamer Frank O'Connor, one of the largest wooden ships ever built, met fate in the form of a fire from a discarded match in 1919; it is now 65 feet under about 2.6 miles north-northeast of Cana Island, off Door County. Three schooners – the A.P. Nichols, the Forest and the J.E. Gilmore – lie in a heap 15 to 40 feet down near the cement dock on Pilot Island in Door County, at the infamous Death's Door passage.

Wherever you choose to dive, please secure the proper permits, don't remove any artifacts, take care when anchoring your boat, and keep close track of current weather conditions and marine forecasts. And remember, this is Wisconsin...although summer surface water temperatures can reach 70°F underwater temperatures will still be in the 40s and 50s, so make sure you've got the proper diving gear.