Our dive boat captain cuts the engine, and we can see, just below the surface in Lake Superior's cold, clear waters, the broken remains of the Saturn, a wooden schooner barge that had eluded discovery for decades. We back roll in and descend to the wreck in less than 25 feet of water. Broken as if it was sliced in half lengthwise, the Saturn is still loaded with the iron ore it once carried as well as several hand tools, all reminders of the crewmen who died when it sank. Carved into its bow are draft marks, numbers that indicate how deep the ship's cargo pushed it into the water. A swim toward the stern brings you to sand where the rest of the ship may be buried.
Known as "the graveyard of Lake Superior," the waters off Whitefish Point have claimed countless ships like the Saturn that met their fate in brutal storms. Most were headed to the protected shelter of Whitefish Bay.
The Saturn was only three weeks old when it sank into the rough and stormy waters off Michigan's Upper Peninsula (about 400 feet from Whitefish Point) in 1872. Its sister ship, the Jupiter, sank nearby. It wasn't until July 2006, after decades of searching, that local divers found the Saturn's remains, the latest shallow wreck found in an area long thought of as a deep dive destination. Local divers say the Jupiter will be the next to be discovered.
Located at the southeast end of Lake Superior, Whitefish Point is only a few hours' drive from most cities in Michigan and many in southern Ontario, Canada. Best known as the final resting place of the Edmund Fitzgerald--which foundered about 17 miles from the bay in 1975--Whitefish Point offers a variety of shipwrecks in both shallow and deep water.
Whitefish Point is one of Michigan's 12 established underwater preserves. There are 17 shipwrecks listed in Whitefish Point guides, although local divers and Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve officers continue to find more. And while a mecca for those wishing to dive deep, there are at least 10 shipwrecks within recreational limits, proving the area is not just for technical diving anymore.
Further out lies another well-visited ship, the Vienna. A wooden steamer whose top deck is about 120 feet down, the Vienna sank in 1892 while being towed to shore after a collision with another ship. A great wreck with plenty of gearing to see, the Vienna also has a lifeboat on its upper deck, and divers can find remnants of its cargo, iron ore.
The buoy line brings divers to the curved stern railing where we found a large hand wrench laying on the deck. At this depth, you'll need a dive light to explore the broken remains of the ship's boiler and its toppled capstan. The bow of the ship is crushed open, a reminder of the crash that sank the steamer.
There is much more for technical divers to explore below the recreational limit of 130 feet--the ship rests on the lake's floor at about 150 feet--but open-water divers have plenty to enjoy at 120 feet.
The Sadie Thompson
Another deep wreck is the Sadie Thompson, an overturned barge that sank in 115 feet of water. Built in the 1890s, the vessel sank some 60 years later after breaking its moorings during a storm.
Located in a relatively protected area of the bay, the Sadie Thompson still has its crane, gears and spindle, although those divers not attuned to what broken up components of a ship look like may find it difficult to recognize some of the machinery as it is upside down and sometimes hanging off the deck. Because the barge sank to its side, divers can see the most by exploring and lightly penetrating the ship's exposed side. There's a lot of machinery, including the boilers, to explore on the Sadie Thompson's overturned deck. Nearby, its photogenic bell stands upright in the sand.
Like most visits to shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, marine life is at a minimum. And although the occasional burbot or walleye may swim by out of curiosity, a visit to a site in each of the lakes can frequently be accomplished without a single native fish sighting.
One species of fish you can expect to see in abundance on the Sadie Thompson (and on most other wrecks in the region), however, is the round goby, an invasive species found in all the Great Lakes. The gobies, native to the Black and Caspian seas, probably found their way to the Great Lakes in the ballast water of transoceanic ships.
Divers can also get a good look at the area's maritime history at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and the neighboring restored lighthouse. Artifacts salvaged from area wrecks are on display, including the brass bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Visitors can also tour the restored lighthouse or spend some time in the car to take in the expansive wilderness scenery, including Tahquamenon Falls State Park.
Whitefish Point Topside Excursions
If you're planning a summer vacation to the Whitefish Point area, don't miss these local landmarks and topside attractions.
Located on the eastern point of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Take I-75 to Rte. 123 to Paradise, Mich. Once in Paradise, continue north on Whitefish Point Road for 11 miles.
Water temperatures at Whitefish Point vary, but usually hover in the 40s. A dry suit is recommended, though longtime Whitefish Point divers say sometimes the water can stay as warm as 70 degrees down to 100 feet. Visibility varies, but usually ranges between 20 and 40 feet. Although the winds that whip around the Point can often mean a dive is blown out, many of the wrecks that lie in the protected waters of the bay are usually accessible.
Divers using their own boats will find launches at Whitefish Point, Little Lake Harbor, Tahquamenon Rivermouth, Brimley State Park and Bay Mills.
Divers planning multiple dives with mixed gases should bring their own. The only air station in Whitefish Point is at Curly's Motel--no nitrox or mixed gases available--in Paradise, Mich. (800-236-7386 or 906-492-3445). Divers are reminded that removing artifacts from Michigan's shipwrecks is illegal.