Shipwreck Diving in the Great Lakes with Kevin Ailes

Shipwreck diving can be some of the best scuba diving because you can see underwater mysteries first hand. We were able to speak with Kevin Ailes who is a professional scuba diver and has dived on numerous shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. Here is some guidance on shipwreck diving in the Great Lakes!

 

As a disclaimer, this isn’t technical scuba diving advice and there’s professional training through PADI that is required for scuba diving in the Great Lakes. This by no means is a replacement.

 

kevin ailes great lakes shipwrecksPhoto Credit: Kevin Ailes

 

Kevin Ailes has dived over 500 times and that’s mainly in the Great Lakes. He’s dived on many of the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and has worked closely with other experts of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes such as the Michigan Underwater Preserves. The answers to the questions we asked are a summary of what Kevin mentioned to us, not an exact word for word answer.


Here’s our conversation:

 

Question 1: How do you go about finding shipwrecks?

Kevin mentioned that the easiest way to find shipwrecks is online and through books about shipwrecks. However, the GPS coordinates of the shipwrecks are usually more accurate through online sources. This is important since some of the book GPS coordinates can be a few hundred yards off which is quite a difference, especially if you’re already underwater. The Michigan Preserves is a great resource for finding the GPS coordinates and for more information.


For a little history on how shipwrecks were found, Kevin mentioned that in the past, mainly the 1960s and 1970s, that there would two boats with a 5 mile cable between them. 3 miles of the cable would be on the bottom of the lake and if the cable snagged on something, they knew they probably had found a shipwreck. This was a common practice in the Great Lakes.


Today, most shipwrecks are found through side scan sonar. It’s a lot less work than dragging a 5 mile cable by two ships through the Great Lakes.

 

 

Question 2: What are the differences between diving shallow versus deep shipwrecks?


Deeper shipwrecks need more precaution by the divers as air goes a lot faster and decompression is a lot faster too. A scuba diver has to be more conscious of what they are doing if they are diving on a deeper shipwreck.


The shipwrecks that are more deep are usually in better condition though as storms aren’t able to harm them as easily. With shallow shipwrecks, storms can damage shipwrecks further. There are some shipwrecks that are the exception to this rule though. One of the shipwrecks we mentioned a couple weeks ago in our blog, the Bermuda, is an example of an exception.


The Bermuda is in a cove, and because of that, it’s protected quite a bit. The cove is a significant reason why the Bermuda is still in great condition as a shipwreck.


In addition to deeper shipwrecks being in better condition, there is usually better visibility near them. The cold water helps with this and keep the shipwrecks in good shape.


One fun fact to know too is that one of the reasons the Great Lakes are great for shipwrecks is that there aren’t organisms to eat the wood of the shipwrecks like many other places in the world. In many other parts of the world, such as the Baltic Sea, there are organisms, shipworms mainly, that eat the wood of the shipwrecks which over time destroys the shipwrecks completely.


For those who want to learn more about the shipwrecks in the Baltic sea, check out this post by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

baltic sea shipwrecks great lakesPhoto Credit: Australian National Maritime Museum

Question 3: There was story on MLive about recovering “Kalamazoo’s Coney Island” back in 2014 from the bottoms of Woods Lake. What ever happened? Did you recover anything?


A lot of the remnants were still at the bottom of the lake, but in very bad condition. There was nothing that could be brought up to be a good museum artifact. There was an electric meter that was built in 1917 from Dayton, Ohio, but that was about it. Nothing really eye-catching.


Kevin did say there were some old boats and even old rollercoaster cars, however, none of them were in good enough condition to be brought back up. Most of the rollercoaster cars are under a retention pond now too, so they’re not accessible anymore.

kalamazoo coney island scuba diving great lakes

Photo Credit: MLive

 

Question 4: What are the biggest differences between scuba diving in saltwater and freshwater?


Kevin has mainly dived in freshwater in the Great Lakes, however, the biggest difference he mentioned was the visibility. In fresh water, 50 feet of visibility is normal whereas in saltwater, 200 feet of visibility in the norm. That’s a pretty significant difference of water clarity.


The nice thing about scuba diving in freshwater though is that they’re aren’t as many creatures that could harm you. Yes, sharks can show up in saltwater, but sharks aren’t scuba diver’s main issue when it comes to marine life. The marine animal that causes the bigger issue is actually jellyfish. They’re sting can leave scars and do some damage.


Sharks are only an issue if they’ve been fed by humans purposely. The sharks will think that humans are feeding them again, but humans aren’t, they can get confused on what the food actually is. Normally, sharks ignore scuba divers and stay away naturally. As long as you’re not feeding marine life, you should be fine scuba diving the marine life.


fish are friends not food scuba diving great lakes

Kevin and I were able to have more of a conversation as went along, and we covered a lot in that time. From other shipwrecks Kevin has dived in the Great Lakes to how Kevin has been diving in the Great Lakes lately was incredibly interesting.


One aspect of Kevin’s diving recently has been using a rebreather instead of scuba diving traditionally. As Kevin put it, it’s the next generation of scuba equipment and it doesn’t make any bubbles either. This is perk if you’re recording video while you’re scuba diving.


If you’re interested in learning more about diving with a rebreather, Florine did a great piece about her use of a rebreather.


Kevin mainly takes video with his GoPro while he’s scuba diving, and then if he wants single shots, he will take stills from the GoPro footage. Additionally, Kevin mentioned that color correction is huge for taking underwater footage.


A lot of this has to do with the green that so many scuba divers are used to seeing in the Great Lakes. As Kevin put it, it just becomes normal for those who see it all the time. For those who don’t scuba dive in the Great Lakes, white balance can help eliminate the greenness that the video or photos can have while scuba diving.


Lastly, Keven recommended some shipwrecks to us that could be great for using the Fathom One on. The ones he mentioned were the Ann Arbor #5, the Ironsides, and the Cedarville.


The Ann Arbor #5 is close to South Haven, Michigan and was a 1920’s car ferry. It has a massive rudder according to Kevin and definitely identifiable as a boat still.


The Ironsides, one of the shipwrecks we mentioned in the past, is really broken up as Kevin recently dived on it and isn’t as recognizable as a boat as the Ann Arbor #5 is. It does usually has good visibility and is a bit more shallow than the Ann Arbor #5.

 

Cedarville Shipwreck Great Lakes

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

 

The Cedarville, one shipwreck that we did not know much about here at Fathom, is in the straits of Mackinac is actually quite similar to the Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s 90 feet deep, and is almost upside down. It’s easiest to reach by traveling out of Mackinaw City.


This insight on the shipwrecks was great to learn about, especially from someone who dives shipwrecks all the time in the Great Lakes. We really appreciated Kevin taking the time to chat with us about his experiences on diving shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, and hope to join him soon with our Fathom Ones!