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Protecting Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes

Thunderbay Shipwreck ImageMarch 26, 2019

Did you know that Michigan has 13 underwater preserves protecting approximately 7,200 square miles of Great Lakes public trust bottomlands in Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron? That's an area larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The Thunder Bay Great Lakes State Bottomland Preserve in Lake Huron is also jointly administered by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve. An estimated 6,000 vessels were lost on the Great Lakes; approximately 1,500 of them are in Michigan's waters. 

The cold, pristine waters of the Great Lakes have done an amazing job preserving shipwrecks. A few of the shipwrecks can be viewed from the shoreline. Some of the shipwrecks are in shallow water and can be viewed from kayaks, boats, and other watercraft, or you can dive these wrecks while snorkeling. Other wrecks are in deeper water that require scuba gear.  Glass-bottom boat tours, kayak tours, and dive boat charters are available in Munising, Alpena, and other Great Lakes ports located near the bottomland preserves.  You'll find bottomland preserves close to many of your favorite Pure Michigan travel destinations. There are also shipwreck museums worth visiting at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula, at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve in Alpena, and the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. 

The first underwater preserve was designated in 1980 through legislation, now Part 761, Aboriginal Records and Antiquities, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended (NREPA), developed and supported by Michigan sport divers.  Mooring buoys are located adjacent to many of the shipwrecks to protect the wrecks from accidental damage from boat anchors and provide access to the wreck site. 

How do we protect Great Lakes shipwrecks?  The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Water Resources Division issues permits to recover artifacts from shipwrecks and other historical artifacts (like the wreckage of a P-39 fighter flown by one of the Tuskegee Airmen from what is now the Selfridge Air National Guard base during training in World War II) that are cosigned by the Director of the Michigan Historical Center (in the Department of Natural Resources [DNR]), Sandra Clark, after being reviewed by the State Archaeologist, Dr. Dean Anderson, and the State Maritime Archaeologist, Wayne Lusardi.  NOAA provides funding under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act for the DNR Law Enforcement Division to help protect shipwrecks from being plundered by divers. 

Metropolis Shipwreck ImageIn September 2018, the DEQ Water Resources Division staff received an anonymous complaint from a diver who witnessed people on another dive boat removing artifacts from the wreck of the METROPOLIS in East Grand Traverse Bay within the Grand Traverse Bay Great Lakes State Bottomlands Preserve.  Some of the individuals involved even posted photos (since removed) of themselves with some of the artifacts on their watercraft on a social media site!  This complaint was referred to the DNR Law Enforcement Division, who received similar complaints from other concerned citizens.   

Lt. Dave Shaw, Great Lakes Enforcement Unit, assigned Cpl. Sean Kehoe to be the lead investigator.  Sgt. Dan Bigger, Cpl. Craig Milkowski, and Cpl. Nick Atkin also assisted in this investigation.  Their investigation led to two individuals pleading guilty to a charge of removal of antiquities from state-owned bottomlands.  They will serve 20 hours of community service and pay $1,025 in fines, and $1,450 in restitution.  If they don't meet those requirements, they'll spend 30 days in jail.  The restitution money will go towards shipwreck protection and education.  The pieces of the METROPOLIS' ribbing were returned but they cannot be placed back in the water.  They are going through a conservation process at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena. 

Protecting the METROPOLIS is a success story of how concerned citizens, DNR Law Enforcement Division, DNR State Archaeologist and State Maritime Archaeologist, and DEQ Water Resources Division staff worked together to protect a valuable part of Michigan's underwater cultural heritage. 

The METROPOLIS was a 125-foot schooner that was lost in a snow storm in November 1886 and ran aground south of Old Mission Point.  The ship's cargo of pig iron and lumber was salvaged but the ship was abandoned.  Part of the debris field is in 8 feet of water, while the rest of the wreck lies in 120 feet of water. 

You can find out more information about Great Lakes shipwrecks and the laws that protect them at; click on the Shipwrecks link in the left-hand navigation column.



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