Captain Jim Gentile of Windy City Diving has a poetic way of describing what goes on in the depths of 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. Even after more than 30 years of diving, moments like these never fail to capture his imagination.
Still, Jim’s close encounters with marine life pale in comparison to his true passion: exploring the hundreds of ghostly shipwrecks that line the sandy floor of Lake Michigan. The rotted wood of a cargo ship’s hull, the glint of an antique coin preserved in cold freshwater—Jim delights in searching for these long-buried remnants of the past. To him, these 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.
Though there’s an undeniable “mystery and history inherent in shipwrecks,” that doesn’t mean they’re off-limits for civilian exploration. Many wrecks are moored with ropes that guide divers from the surface, and Jim claims that visibility in Lake Michigan can extend as far as 100 feet on a clear spring day. Windy City Diving and other local companies offer guided tours of the most famous wrecks, but more and more divers are choosing to 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 the lake’s surface.
Getting Out There
The first thing any 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.
Secondly, make sure you have all the gear you need before heading out into the water. The list of must-have equipment includes a mask, an air tank, fins, and maybe even an exposure suit (it gets cold out there). A wreck diver also needs a few 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.
Even if you have all the necessary gear, it’s important to 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.
Wrecks in the Chicago area 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 shipwrecks:
1. The Material Service Barge
Built in 1929, this nearly 240-foot barge once navigated the Chicago River. Seven years after its construction, a storm sent it to the bottom. Today, the MSB sits upright in roughly 30 feet of water just off the shore of 95th Street on Chicago’s South Side. Given the MSB’s coordinates, Jim jokes that it’s the preferred wreck of White Sox fans. Its simplicity also makes it ideal for beginners.
2. Straits of Mackinac Artificial Reef
Located in the shallow waters off the coast of Evanston, this former car ferry measures just over 200 feet in length. Jim has a special connection to the wreck, as he once participated in a reefing project that transformed it into a new artificial habitat for marine life. There are plenty of easy access points, which is one reason Jim recommends this wreck for beginners. By way of example, he mentions that he once led a 72-year-old grandmother to its submerged decks.
3. The Wells Burt
The realities of ship travel in the 1800s meant that people were often forced to live onboard for months at a time. Such was the case with this three-masted schooner, which sank in 1883. The ship remains mostly intact, and you might even find preserved dishes, bottles, and other household items resting on its decks. Located just 3 miles off the coast of Evanston, the wreck is fairly accessible. This is a boon to both divers and paranormal investigators, as it’s rumored to be haunted.
4. The SS Wisconsin
When Jim investigated the wreck of this 1881 steel steamer, he noticed that the ship’s cargo of elegant 1920s-model cars and trucks was still lashed in place. The ship went down just off the coast of Waukegan, Wisconsin, in 1929, and today its hull rests under more than 130 feet of water. 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.
5. The Thomas Hume
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. Decades later, divers discovered its husk 20 miles off the coast and 150 feet below the water in the Lake’s South Basin. 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.
Photo courtesy of Windy City Diving