You Don’t Need An Ocean to Go Wreck Diving
Captain Jim Gentile of Windy City Diving has a poetic way of describing scuba excursions in Lake Michigan. He’s likely to compare a school of common bait fish to “a shimmering cloud that opens up as you get closer,” or expound at length upon the smooth texture of a lake trout he once swam up to and pet.
Still, Jim’s close encounters with marine life pale in comparison to his true passion: wreck diving. The rotted wood of a cargo ship’s hull, the glint of an antique coin preserved in cold freshwater—Jim delights in such long-buried remnants of the past.
To Jim, a shipwreck’s artifacts are “things that represent human interaction, and are part of everyday life,” regardless of the fact that they’ve been buried underwater for decades and, in some cases, centuries.
So, why did he set up a scuba diving shop in Chicago rather than Cape Cod or the Caribbean? It’s not just because of the hundreds of ghostly Great Lakes shipwrecks accessible from the city. Plenty of coastal towns lay claim to just as many wrecks, if not more.
Visibility in Lake Michigan can extend as far as 100 feet on a clear spring day, giving divers crystal clear views of the wreckage. And the Great Lakes have another advantage: saltwater tends to rapidly eat away at wrecks. Like its counterparts, Lake Michigan’s cold temperatures and fresh water can act as remarkable preservatives. Over in Lake Ontario, the USS Hamilton and USS Scourge remain intact, just as they have since they sank during the War of 1812.
There’s an undeniable “mystery and history inherent in shipwrecks,” but that doesn’t mean they’re off-limits to civilian exploration.
Windy City Diving and other local companies offer guided wreck diving tours of the most famous sites, but divers can explore the lake’s buried treasures on their own. If you want to join their ranks, there are a few things to keep in mind before venturing beneath Lake Michigan’s surface—or any other inland sea, for that matter.
- Certification: The first thing any wreck diver needs is a certification. Jim recommends starting out in the controlled environment of a quarry, where calm waters and a rocky shoreline allow for a gentle learning curve.
- Regular scuba gear: The list of must-have equipment includes a mask, an air tank, fins, and maybe even an exposure suit (it gets cold out there).
- Specialty items: a reel and line to use as a lead when penetrating a wreck, a knife to carve through any entangling fishing lines or debris, and underwater lights to make sure you spot the pirate skeletons before they spot you.
- Know your limits: “Take your medication early if you’re subject to motion sickness,” Jim advises. He should know—he’s seen waves on Lake Michigan increase by more than 6 feet in a matter of hours, a natural phenomenon that can make diving on this inland sea “overly exciting,” to put it lightly.
Where to Begin
Luckily for folks living in middle America, world-class wreck diving doesn’t require a trip to the Carribbean or one of the seaboards. Thanks to the sheer concentration of wrecks around the city, scuba diving in Chicago gives adventurers the most bang for their buck.
Better yet, Chicago shipwrecks tend to be the shallowest and closest to shore, so they’re a good place to start. From there, many divers head to the deeper waters off Wisconsin’s coast. Even if you aren’t diving alongside Captain Jim, consider exploring one of his five favorite Lake Michigan wreck diving sites.
The Material Service Barge
- The Ship: Built in 1929, this nearly 240-foot barge once navigated the Chicago River.
- Where to Find It: The MSB sits upright in roughly 30 feet of water just off the shore of 95th Street on Chicago’s South Side.
- Experience Level: While not technically in Lake Michigan, its simplicity makes it ideal for beginners.
Straits of Mackinac Artificial Reef
- The Ship: A former car ferry that measures in at about 200 feet in length. A reefing project has since transformed the wreck into an artificial habitat for marine life.
- Where to Find It: The shallow waters off the coast of Evanston.
- Experience Level: There are plenty of easy access points, making it easy for beginners. In fact, Jim once led a 72-year-old grandmother on the dive.
The Wells Burt
- The Ship:This three-masted schooner sank in 1883 and remains mostly intact—as do its ghosts, according to paranormal investigators. At the reportedly haunted wreck, you might even find preserved dishes, bottles, and other household items resting on its decks.
- Where to Find It: Located just 3 miles off the coast of Evanston
- Experience Level: The wreck is fairly accessible, making it a little bit of a challenge for new divers. It should be a breeze for adventurers with a few dives under their belt.
The SS Wisconsin
- The Ship: An 1881 steel steamer that sank in 1929 taking its cargo of elegant 1920s-model cars and trucks with it. When Jim investigated the wreck, he found many of the vehicles were still lashed in place.
- Where to Find It: Just off the coast of Waukegan, Wisconsin. Today its hull rests under more than 130 feet of water.
- Experience Level: Due to the force of the waves on the coast, the ship’s superstructure is now mostly broken up. Still, there are plenty of access points for more experienced divers.
The Thomas Hume
- The Ship: In the late 19th century, this schooner shipped lumber between Chicago and Muskegon. During a fateful squall on May 21, 1891, she and her crew of seven disappeared.
- Where to Find It: Decades later, divers discovered its husk 20 miles off the coast and 150 feet below the water in Lake Michigan’s South Basin.
- Experience Level: Diving here requires a charter and years of experience, but the journey is well worth it: wreck divers have discovered coins, jewelry, and clothing perfectly preserved in the cold freshwater. When Jim explored this wreck, he stumbled upon a particularly chilling reminder of the fate that befell the ship’s crew: seven pairs of shoes placed on the decks, waiting for their owners.