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What It's Like to Discover a Shipwreck


This is the story of a Great Lakes shipwreck discovery.

Steven P. Hughes

Divers plunge into a world not natural to human beings, a realm where individuals can defy gravity and breathe ­underwater. Add a shipwreck to that ­otherworldly activity, and the stage is set for a second element of the unnatural — a visit to the long-gone world of the past. Wreck diving is, in effect, a double fantasy. But the thrill of examining a just-found wreck that no one has explored — or ever seen — is wreck diving on steroids!

I have hunted for shipwrecks with ­various partners since 1983 in four of the five Great Lakes. Early in summer 2018, I was part of a three-person team who found the most historic shipwreck of my life, the J.H. Jones. From the ­second we ecstatic wreck hunters danced ­jubilantly upon seeing the small, oblong, dark-shadowed outline of a shipwreck on our sonar screen — a sight that can take months or even years to achieve but, research and luck being with us, took less than two hours — to the tingling anticipation of our descent to the wreck ­itself, were among my most profound ­moments in diving.

To be the first divers to see this untouched shipwreck nearly 200 feet deep in Lake Huron — with all of its nautical artifacts still in place, exactly where they were the day the ship sank — triggered the feeling of being true adventurers.

The explorer’s imagination soars: How hard did the wheelsman grapple with the helm to try to save his ship? How ­frantically did the engine-room crew struggle ­before rising waters extinguished the boiler fires? Who last walked on this deck or gripped that railing before the ship went down and met its fate?

To explore a shipwreck is a trip back in time, made more powerful and memorable if the diver knows, with ­certainty, that no one has been there since the sailors who perished. Even after ­locating 12 wrecks, the feeling never gets old. ­Being the first visitor to a just-located shipwreck plummets the diver into a triple fantasy — perhaps the most thrilling type of diving a person can hope for.