Underwater treasures make Lake Michigan a National Marine Sanctuary contender

Deep below the surface of Lake Michigan, dozens of known shipwrecks stay intact because of isolated locations, frigid water and a lack of salt to erode what has sunk.

“We have masts still standing on a schooner, almost like a prop for a movie,” says Russ Green, regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Many wrecks remain undiscovered in the 307- by 118-mile lake, whose average depth is 279 feet.

You’ll hear more about the Great Lake’s underwater treasures if a 65-mile-long stretch of the inland sea, from Port Washington to Two Rivers, is designated as a National Marine Sanctuary. Only 13 sites elsewhere – such as the Florida Keys and California’s Monterey Bay – have earned this designation from NOAA. All but one – Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, on Lake Huron and off the coast of Alpena, Mich. – are in oceans.

“We’re feeling very positive,” Russ says, and his paperwork should be finished by the end of summer. Barring unknown complications, that means the Wisconsin – Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary could be official by 2018.

About the only point of debate, it seems, is whether Kewaunee County also should be a part of the project. The original nomination from state government was based on letters of bipartisan support from individuals, municipalities, businesses and tourism offices in Two Rivers, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Port Washington and Mequon.

Fifteen of the area’s 37 known shipwrecks in 1,075 square miles of Lake Michigan remain intact, and another 80 sunken ships are possible. That makes the area a dream destination for divers to historians to researchers. The average tourist would get new opportunities to get acquainted, too.

“The shipwrecks represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in the settlement and development of the Midwest during the 19th and early-20th centuries,” NOAA explains, online. The ships and their contents are preserved history, “locked in time,” as Russ sees it.

The area’s known shipwrecks include two of Wisconsin’s oldest: the Gallnipper (1833) and the Home (1843). These and 16 other sunken vessels already are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The bottom line, for Russ, is to “increase public access while protecting the sites” – their contents, condition and integrity. That means coming up with anchoring practices and moorings that allow access but not shipwreck damage. It also means being respectful of complex ecosystems.

“A great way to foster maritime protection is to educate” average people about the area’s unique assets, Russ says, and deep-water diving is not the only way to see or appreciate what has sunk.

Not from of Point Beach State Park, for example, are nautical artifacts within view by kayaking, snorkeling or paddleboarding. Strategic placement of underwater cameras could reveal ship remains in real time, and “what’s in the water complements what’s already on shore.”

The reference, in part, is to museum artifacts. “The area’s underwater archaeology is well-documented,” says Rolf Johnson, a scientist and CEO of Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc. He says new maritime discoveries are inevitable because of the many submerged vessels that are known but undiscovered.

Rolf’s museum preserves and explains nautical history, which he says will deepen as more about Lake Michigan heritage is understood. “It will generate a lot of the inherent altruism that many already have for the area,” he believes.

Designation as a national sanctuary would invite more research, more discoveries and “new storytellers with new stories to be told by future generations – you build on the accomplishments and insights of those who came before you.”

Rolf refers to marine sanctuaries as “a very exclusive group” and notes the potential for new businesses of interest to travelers: diving tours to glass-bottomed boats.

“People don’t think of Wisconsin as a maritime state, but we are.” he says. And, “as a scientist, I don’t believe in fate, but this is lining up pretty nicely. It’s cool to be at this place, at this time and with these opportunities.”

Public hearings on the Wisconsin – Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary proposal are 6:30-8:30 p.m. at:

Knudson Hall, 620 Lake St., Algoma, on March 13.

Wisconsin Maritime Museum, 75 Maritime Dr., Manitowoc, on March 14.

Wombat Room in the Main Building at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, 1 University Dr., on March 15.

Wilson House, 200 N. Franklin St., Port Washington, on March 16.

Can’t attend but want to express an opinion? March 31 is your deadline. Go to sanctuaries.noaa.gov/wisconsin for details.

For more about shipwrecks in Wisconsin, check out wisconsinshipwrecks.org.