In Michigan, Lake Huron’s Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve beckons wreck seekers
Diving in the dark water near the massive blades of the Philadelphia’s propeller brings on somber thoughts of the 24 lives lost when this 236-foot ship sank after a collision in the fog with another vessel. But this dive is also awe inspiring: Somehow, this ship managed to propel itself forward for three miles after its 1893 crash while suffering a gaping hole in the stem of its bow.
The Philadelphia now sits upright in 125 feet of water. At that depth, the portside anchor rests below the crushed bow and forward of some of its cargo of iron-cast stoves. The ship’s engine and boiler are at its stern. But the ladder ascending from the ship’s engine room is easily the most striking feature — you can almost hear sailors’ worn out boots thumping up and down its growthcovered rungs.
This vessel is one of dozens of casualties lying in the waters of the Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve, a protected 276-square-mile area of Lake Huron near the town of Port Austin off the tip of eastern Michigan’s “thumb.” For more than 150 years, upbound and downbound ships have been colliding off this part of the state, once thought of as the Great Lakes’ most dangerous area. The Thumb Area is one of the state’s 12 protected underwater preserves and beckons wreck seekers from around the country, giving them a revealing look at maritime history.
Topside, the area features more than 90 miles of beaches, as well as the Huron County Nature Center and several museums and state parks, including Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park, which is home to Michigan’s only known Native American rock carvings.
But people come here to dive, and to do that you’ll need the experience and comfort to go deep — real deep. The Iron Chief, a 212-foot-long wooden steamer lost in 1904, lies in 125 feet of water, as does the Glenorchy, a steel steamer now resting upside down. Many other ships in the preserve lie beyond the 130-foot level, including the Dunderberg, but there are also plenty of ships — like the Goliath, which sank to a depth of 104 feet in 1848 — that are more accessible.
The Troy, a 182-foot wooden steamer, is another of the Thumb’s highlights. The vessel foundered in 1859 and is now broken up in 97 feet of water. Divers descend at the buoy anchored to the ship’s large, four-steeple engine. The unburned wood in the firebox of the the five-bladed propeller and various artifacts in the debris field.
Although it’s thrilling to see these three-dimensional underwater museums, the cold water, extensive amount of gear, and sometimes-poor weather and visibility can make each dive challenging. But the wreckage and artifacts that serve as reminders of the sailors who once plied these waters are overwhelming, and these ships continue to attract divers hardy enough to overcome the obstacles.
Day 1: From Detroit, drive north to Port Austin, about 130 miles and three hours away. Check in to the Lake Vista Resort Motel and Cottages (lakevistaresort.com) or Breakers-onthe- Bay Beach Resort (breakersonthebay.com), both in Port Austin. (1) Dive the bow of the Philadelphia. The ship is about 5.5 miles offshore. (2) Dive the Troy. The wooden steamer rests 7 miles north offshore. Visit the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse (pointeauxbarqueslighthouse.org) and adjacent museum. Artifacts from many of the ships that sank in this area can be found here.
Day 2: (3) Dive the stern of the Philadelphia. (4) Dive the Dump Barge/Scow, an unidentified barge, about 5 miles offshore. Visit the Huron City museums (huroncitymuseums.org). The historical buildings include a large collection of equipment used by the rescuers of doomed vessels and their crews. Open weekends, June through September.
More Info: portaustinarea.com, harborbeachchamber.com, michiganpreserves.org
Need To Know
- Getting There - From Detroit, take route M-53 North to Port Austin.
- Weather - Diving season is May through October, with air temperatures averaging in the 70s. Summer storms can cause dives to be cancelled.
- Dive Conditions - Water temperatures hover between 40 and 45°F, making a drysuit necessary.
- Visibility - Ranges from 10 to more than 50 feet. Price Tag Accommodations are generally between $85 and $125 per night, and two-tank dives are between $90 and $125.
- Local Operators - Explorer Charters (explorercharters.net); Rec & Tec Dive Charters (rectecdivecharters.com); All Seasons Diving Company (allseasonsdiving.com).