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Lake Erie: Under the Waves

Written by: Halle Minshall & Ray Danner

 

There’s more to Lake Erie than meets the eye. We talked to one of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium’s divers about his experiences exploring this Great Lake’s hidden depths while surveying historical shipwrecks.

Lake Erie has a long history of shipping traffic and ideal water conditions for preservation. Still, you might be surprised to know that there are an estimated 1,400 shipwrecks in Lake Erie alone. With an average depth of just 62 feet and a maximum depth of 210 feet, the wrecks of schooners, barges, tugs and sidewheel steamers are mostly accessible to SCUBA divers.

How did you get involved in Lake Erie shipwreck diving?

Ray: I am always looking for interesting dive opportunities. I began volunteering with the Maritime Archaeological Survey Team (MAST), a nonprofit group founded in 2000 and dedicated to documentation, study and education pertaining to the underwater resources in the Great Lakes. MAST trains divers of any skill and experience level in the finer points of underwater surveys so that they can join the field teams in Lake Erie. We use a lot of the same skills to survey a shipwreck as we do diving at the Aquarium.

How many shipwrecks have been surveyed?

Ray: So far ONLY five have been surveyed and registered as official archaeological sites with the State of Ohio, meaning there are lots of unrealized survey opportunities. The freshwater of Lake Erie aids in the preservation of these shipwrecks so there are a good number yet to be located and identified.

 

What do you do when you survey the wrecks?

Ray: We lay a tape measure as a baseline running the length of the wreck. From there, we use a method called trilateration to nail down the distances from one object to another and determine the relative position and size of all items on the wreck. It can be challenging to do underwater measurements in three dimensional space, especially in cold water with low visibility. Learning underwater communication techniques and task-loading strategies is very important for all of the divers. Each dive team is assigned a small section of the wreck to survey and it can take several dives to cover even a 5-foot section of a shipwreck. After each dive all of the diver teams come together to input there new data onto a working map and sort out what data points are of priority for the subsequent dives. Through this tedious process an image is slowly formed of the bits and pieces of shipwreck lying on the lake bottom.

Two divers measuring the hatch cover of the Schooner the Dundee in Laker Erie. The diver on the left is recording the distance from the baseline to the interior edge of the hatch cover. The diver on the right is holding position on the baseline as a reference point. (Photo Credit: Jack Papes)

That sounds really interesting can I get involved?

Ray: Yes, MAST hosts a workshop every spring at the Great Lakes Museum, which trains local divers and non-divers alike. During the classroom training workshops, you’ll practice using mock surveys and the trilateration method for measuring and mapping a wreck. A final lesson is held in the waters of the White Star Quarry where divers put their new skills to the test.

Why is this important?

Ray: Lake Erie is closely tied to the lives and livelihoods of many Ohioans and it is a great resource. I think it is extremely interesting to take a look at how we used this resource in our past with the shipping and transporting of goods along the lakes shores. In learning about these shipwrecks we also learn how much we need to protect the lake they rest within.

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