Drain the Great Lakes Blog by Crispin Sadler

12th September 2010

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Lake SuperiorDraining the Great Lakes is as awesome a project as the size of the lakes themselves. The area we had to cover, the subjects we wanted to film required a lot of planning and decision making about what was in and what wasn’t. We knew we couldn’t go everywhere or film everything!

So when we began filming in August 2010 we had identified certain hotspots of interest split evenly between Canada and the US. Finding ourselves in the decaying industrial town of Alpena on the shores of Alpena, we were pleasantly surprised that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Maritime Sanctuary lived up to its name. With our dive team (Dan Stevenson from the UK, Mike Robertson, Jim Kozmik and Ralph Hoskins from Canada and Christiaan Coetee from South Africa) suitably inspired we were confident that if the weather allowed us we would get excellent images of these wrecks. I am still amazed by how many ships ended up on the lake bed, not just here but across the Great Lakes, but nothing could prepare me for the images these guys brought back. Those wrecks in deeper water, the 50 to 60 metre range, look like they sank yesterday, masts still standing, life boat poignantly still next to the wrecks. The visibility was awesome, the fact that wood is still so well preserved leaves me astounded Having dived all over the world on wrecks I am happy to say that these wrecks are some of the best in the world by far. No where else can one see such beautiful ships, wrecks that fit every Disney preconception of what a ship should look like on the bottom. But in spite of their magnificence there was one aspect of the wrecks which we were to find out is having very disturbing consequences for the Great Lakes. Each and every surface was covered by small mussels, many no bigger than a couple of centimetres. At a distance they give the wrecks a slightly fuzzy outline, on closer inspection you can only imagine what those ships would have looked like before the mussels had arrived. Apparently if we had dived these wrecks as recently as 2002/2003 we would have had the benefit of clear water (the mussels have had a huge effect in filtering the lake water and improving the visibility) but without the thick covering of shellfish.

Toronto waterfront, Lake OntarioMussels notwithstanding the Great Lakes have to be one of the best kept diving secrets in the world. Unlike the Caribbean and the Red Sea there is little infrastucture to support the visiting diver, the only place being Tobermory on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The short season and cold water probably making it difficult for anyone to set up in business, but with the kind of support provided in Alpena it could herald a new form of income in the otherwise down at heel town.

Travelling north we crossed over the huge bridge at the Straits of Mackinac. Given what I knew what was underneath and its history it was an awe inspiring moment and it was then we discovered the Labor Day walk, the only day of the year when pedestrians could have access to the bridge. As the bridge would feature in the film we decided to do this, carrying our camera kit the entire way with all the thousands who also walked the bridge. We thought at the time, what an awesome effect it would be to drain the water from beaneath the bridge, we knew what we might see but very few of the other pedestrians would have any idea.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake MichiganBut it was on the shores of Lake Superior that the vastness and wildness of the Great Lakes truly hit me. We were spoilt by phenomenonally hot weather, and having heard that the temperature of the lake was warmer than it had ever been recorded we were keen to get in and start diving. We decided that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore would a good place to film and we were not disappointed. The cliffs, the rock formations, the colouration was all magnificent, not what one would expect on a lake! The underwater landscape was equally interesting and with calm weather we could get right up to the edge of the cliffs. The pure white sand beaches were also a magnet and with the turquoise colour of the water we could have been in the Caribbean not on a body of water which is subject incredible storms and freezing cold conditions in winter. The only thing that marred the trip was an annoying fly which looked like a house fly but gave a painful bite. These stable flies, as they are known there, were a real pain in all senses of the word and we only found them on Lake Superior. We got through cans and cans of repellent, hwich only seemed to be effective for 20 minutes, after which time the flies were back in force. The bites remained itchy for days afterwards and did take the edge of what was otherwise perfect conditions.

We got some fantastic footage whilst at the same time appreciating a part of the world that is virtually unknown. By visiting this and the other great locations on the Great Lakes I have been privileged to see one of the natural wonders of the world. Wherever we went I could only marvel at the forces of nature that had sculpted and fashioned these huge bodies of water. For me a lake is something small where you can see the other side, these lakes are just like the ocean.

Crispin Sadler is a Producer/Director at Mallinson Sadler Productions

Mallinson Sadler Productions (MSP) is the documentary division of Mallinson Television Productions (MTP), Scotland’s largest and most successful commercials production company. Headed up by documentary producer, Crispin Sadler, MSP is dedicated to the production of high quality films in the areas of history, science, natural history and sport.