Drain the Great Lakes Blog by Dan Stevenson
8th September 2010
Arrived jet lagged and weary in Alpena, Michigan, Lake Huron and met up with the team of 4 Canadian divers, who were providing all the logistical and support systems that a pampered Nat Geo underwater cameraman might require. They have hauled an ex police launch all the way from Toronto, loaded with cylinders, lead, rebreather bits and shiny toys. It was great to catch up with “Ralph”, who I had worked with previously and would be my dive buddy and underwater model / lighting assistant, and the others – Mike, Christiaan and Kozmik, all of whom seemed sterling chaps, especially after a few stories were told over a couple of rum and cokes.
The warm up dive, the next day, was preceded by the normal banter – You are going to freeze yer xxxxxx off in that! What you need is this…. , I remember when….etc. We dropped in on a wreck in the harbour and were a little disappointed that it was completely covered in mussels and algae. Later, when the footage was reviewed it was described as needing a good hair cut! In the afternoon we played the game of “Run the cameraman down with the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle”. This seemed to give the AUV operator great joy and also helped to keep me nice and warm, as I ducked and dived around this decidedly torpedo shaped bull.
Every night we would review the weather forecast and every morning we would be surprised at just how wrong it was. The lakes are so big they generate their own weather effects, which can change rapidly, I guess this is one clue as to why there are quite so many shipwrecks here.
Over the next few days we filmed mussels, tree stumps and the local wrecks. Always with an eye to be able to run a little North of our location, because rumour had it that the best wrecks were North of the Thunder Bay preserve. One sunny day we had our chance and headed off to Presque Isle to dive the Cornelia B Windiate. This was our deepest dive so far – 54m, in chilly 4°C waters, so the extra warm underpants were required. It was a hot sunny day and witnessing 4 burly divers struggling in to extra thermals, rubber suits and then clipping on a stupid amount of equipment, in restricted spaces was nothing short of hilarious, when watching, and torture when it was your turn. Falling off the boat in to the stunningly clear cold blue water was the most glorious feeling, especially when you feel like you are being boiled alive! To then descend the line and see a complete and stunning shipwreck appear before you, was the most amazing experience. This shipwreck is exactly how you think every shipwreck should be, perfectly intact and looking like she could sail away at any moment. Then the cold thermocline kicks in and you know you have a job to do, before your hands become so cold you cannot hold the camera anymore. After 45mins my valiant buddy gives me the signal that he is a little chilly (in no uncertain terms) and it is time to start the ascent. Back on the boat all the divers are stunned by what they have seen and excited about the possibilities for the next dive.
We were only able to get back to this location once more, to dive the wreck of the “Florida”, but again this was a world class shipwreck with breath taking structures. Everything from 3 cargo decks to explore – still intact wooden barrels floating on the ceilings after 130 years! – and a fantastic bow.
Our next destination is Whitefish, on Lake Superior, so we up sticks and head off to a charismatic little motel. The weather was still kind to us, so we started diving and filming the “Vienna”. This was particularly well preserved and because of the qualities of the lake water the mussels had not invaded, yet. The woodwork and structures of the ship were plain to see. Although the visibility was nothing like Lake Huron it was impressive to still see the paint work and artifacts on the wrecks.
We then teamed up with the local dive expert, who also runs the shipwreck museum, and dived the wreck of the Cowle. This is a Great Lakes cargo vessel in 60m of water. It is a dark and eerie wreck, but with the ROV buzzing around us as we film it, we relax in to the dive and enjoy ourselves.
The next dive location is “Pictured Rocks”, Munising, Lake Superior. This is a very pretty geological feature that may also have interesting formations underwater. The boat is launched and a great day is spent puttering around the cliffs getting shots above, below and split level of the features.
After reviewing the footage, over night, it was discovered that something had gotten onto the lens of the underwater housing and the footage was unusable. The local biting insects were blamed (they were particularly pesky and resistant to all sprays) so we had to re-shoot the next day. Unfortunately the dive team had to leave, along with all the support logistics (boat etc). This resulted in us hiring a small pontoon boat, so that we could get back out to re-shoot the underwater shots. As this “Raft” was being driven, as speedily as was possible, to the dive site, the sea worthiness of the vessel was tested by a very large and unexpected trough in the waves. This resulted in a wall of water sluicing the entire length of the raft – straight at the producer who was busily distracted by his new and very expensive camera. The resulting squeals and acrobatics were most impressive, as he managed to keep his camera and most of the bits for it dry. After we were able to re-film even better shots of the cliffs, he even let me drive back.
The next location was Bayfield, Lake Superior to try to get footage of the Apostle Islands. This is a beautiful town and set in a lovely place. After contacting the local dive operator for additional equipment we were able to get underwater shots of some of the rock formations around these remarkable islands. This was only possible due to the kindness of 2 local ladies, who very kindly took us on their boat and fed us home made muffins and rolls. The lake was glass smooth and the sun was shining, sometimes things just fall in to place and a very enjoyable time was had by all.
After this we headed to Duluth to interview a couple of experts and try to decide how the stories were shaping up and what the next priorities should be. This then resulted in a change of plans and I was sent home a few days early. There then followed a very long drive to Detroit and a flight home. Many thanks to the flight crew who kindly upgraded me to business class, as my seat was covered in chewing gum and the flight was full!
Dan Stevenson is an Underwater Cameraman, Sound Recordist and Data Wrangler at Mallinson Sadler Productions