Scuba Diving the Shipwrecks of Isle Royale
There are eleven official scuba diving preserves that have been established in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes. These preserves mark and protect concentrations of shipwrecks that have collected over the hundreds of years that commercial shipping has operated in the lakes. One additional preserve is a National Park, Isle Royale, a large rocky island in Lake Superior. Isle Royale is extremely remote, twenty miles from the nearest shoreline and several hours’ travel by boat harbor to harbor in the often-rough water.
As an avid sport diver, I have dived in most of the Michigan preserves and on many shipwrecks but had written Isle Royale off as too expensive and remote to ever dive in. So, I jumped on an offer to fill in a spot on a 4 day live-aboard scuba diving trip to the island. My charter boat was the RLT Diver III of Fairmont Minnesota captained by Ralph Thoren who makes regular summer, multi day scuba diving trips to the island. The remoteness of Isle Royale and lack of facilities actually meant that this was an expedition dive trip in my mind as the boat had to be fully provisioned for 7 people, self contained and equipped for diving for 4 days in one of the most remote and dangerous areas of the Great Lakes waters. The RLT Diver III is just the boat for this type of long range, off shore diving with on board air compressors to fill scuba tanks and mix gases, oxygen for accelerated and safety decompression, radar, radio, GPS, and depth finders with backups to find the wrecks and navigate these dangerous waters.
We had planned to leave the Portage, Minnesota harbor early Monday morning July 18th. When I arrived the Sunday night before and after a two day 15 hour drive from South Bend, Indiana I found my way down to the boat at its dock to check in and drop off my diving gear. The rest of the group had done the same and I was the last to arrive. That’s when I learned that the weather was getting bad and was predicted to get worse the next day. We needed to leave now!! So I very quickly unloaded, cancelled my motel reservation and settled in for the 3-½ hour cruise to Washington Harbor on Isle Royale.
We left after dark and around 9:30 PM. At first we couldn’t even see the light of the island lighthouse but after a few miles the Rock of Ages light came into view.
The reef this light sits on has been the location of some famous shipwrecks and some of which we planned to dive during our trip. Our destination was the North Gap passage and Washington Harbor. Ironically, this course took us right past the shipwreck America that struck bottom and was holed just as she was leaving the harbor and sank after beaching there. I have to admit that all this and the night passage made me a bit nervous. A dive buddy of mine had put a similar trip together with friends and their own boat. They made it to the island but after only a short time there severely damaged their boat in the rocky waters, eventually taking out several lower units on their stern drive. As the story goes, after the THIRD one they decided to cancel the rest of the dive excursion at Isle Royale and limp on home to the mainland!!! And after all, these are dangerous waters, which is why the wrecks are there.
Map and Shipwrecks of Isle Royale, Figure reprinted with permission from the Divers Guide to Michigan
About an hour out we started getting some rain and a little lightning. Too late to turn back now. But, true to his word and with the help of radar, GPS and keeping an eye out for freighters and logs Ralph safely and professionally made it to Washington Harbor and the main dock at Windigo and landing at about 1:00 AM. We quickly made up the bunks and sacked out.
The next morning we slept in a bit and had our first taste of Ralph’s soon to be famous cooking and a huge breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage and in the light of day we also had our first chance to get to know each other better. This was going be a recreational level diving trip. No planned decompression diving but we were still going to hit most of the major wrecks, weather permitting, and work our way up the coast to the north end of the island over the next few days overnighting in the various bays and coves as necessary. The other divers were mostly guys affiliated with Ralph’s dive shop and from the St. James, MN area.
Captain Ralph in the Galley Breakfast on the Boat
America (183 ft, steel hulled, wooden passenger freighter, Depth 3-80 ft)
The America was our first dive site and is probably the most popular and well-preserved wreck at Isle Royale. This shipwreck lies near shore in the North Gap entrance to Washington Harbor. The America was launched in 1898 and had a long career carrying passengers, delivering mail and supplies and servicing the many towns and villages along the shores of Superior. Often this ship and others were the only link early settlements had to the outside world before roads and the railroads reached them. The America was holed as she was making her way out of the harbor in 1928 and the captain ordered the ship beached in an attempt to save her. The bow was run well up on the rocks but the stern sank and soon the entire ship slipped beneath the water. Today it sits at a sharp angle and is very much intact. As a diver you can swim through virtually all of the remaining portions of the ship (caution, tight quarters) including the crews quarters, galley, ballroom and engine room. There is even a Ford Model T stake rack type pickup truck that never made it to its new owner. The ship’s engine has an American Flag painted on it and this is a famous have to see if you dive this wreck. This is truly one of the best wrecks and dives on the island, my favorite and a wreck you can spend several dives on.
Drawing reprinted with Permission of National Park Service
America Historical Photo reproduced courtesy
Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
North End of Island
After diving the America, we cruised up to the North end of the island and over nighted in the various protected bays. The National Park Service has installed docks and campsites for boaters and kayakers and we were able to tie up each night without any problem. This also was a nightly break and a chance to get off the boat for a while. We chose to sleep on the boat but at Duncan bay there is a nice campsite with screened lean-to type cabins. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous here and at night there wasn’t a single sign of man or light to be seen in this huge bay.
A lot of people have asked me what it was like to live on a dive boat for 4 days. The answer is that it was “cozy” and certainly not a Carnival cruise but a lot better than camping. I’ve done the wilderness canoe camping outings and the food, service and accommodations are much better and very comfortable on a dive cruise like this one. I thoroughly enjoyed Ralph’s cooking, the diving and the scenery was fantastic.
Shot of scenery off stern cruising North Duncan Bay campsite and site of T-bone steak night
Congdon Bow (532 ft. Steel freighter, Depth 65-106 ft.)
The Congdon struck the Canoe Rocks reef in 1918 and eventually broke in half. The bow is largely intack and sets at a very sharp angle. The ship’s cargo and some equipment were salvaged before she broke up and sank. The pilothouse wheel and navigation equipment are gone but still its a great dive and my personal favorite after the America. The shear size of this portion of the ship and fact that the thick steel is torn like paper is awe inspiring and a testament to the power of the lake. She’s a great example of a typical Great Lakes steel cargo freighter.
Drawings reprinted with Permission
of National Park Service
Historical Photos reproduced courtesy Historical Collections
of theGreat Lakes, Bowling Green State University
Emperor Stern and Bow (Depth 80-150ft)
The Emperor was a 525 ft steel freighter that also ran aground on Canoe Rocks in 1910 and then split in two. The stern is very intact but because of the deeper depth is a low bottom time dive. The stern is a very interesting wreck that it would take several dives to see it all. The bow is a separate dive and unlike the Congdon, the pilothouse of this wreck is missing and the bow decks are pretty broken up. Still, a lot to see including intact porthole window and massive steam powered winches. The aft hull portion of the bow is above the lake bottom and makes its possible to cross under the hull, which in doing so gives you an idea of the immense size of these Great Lakes freighters.
Drawings reprinted with Permission of National Park Service
Historical Photos reproduced courtesy Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
The Monarch was a 240 ft wooden steamer than ran aground in 1906 at Blake Point. It lies in water starting at 10 ft running to just over 70 ft. for the majority of the wreckage. The ship is mostly broken up and would be just the proverbial boards on the bottom if it weren’t for the numerous artifacts of cargo and hardware that litter the site (anchor, grain bottles, bathtub, tools, boxes of steel rivets, etc.) A very interesting dive site. The ship ran aground at this point in a blinding snowstorm. One of the crew braved the freezing cold water and rough waves and made it ashore and climbed these rock cliffs to attach a rope. A line was rigged and the passengers and crew were all ferried ashore with this rope except for one crewmember who fell and died in the icy water. The rest of the survivors were able to build a fire and even made meals with some canned salmon and supplies carried from the ship. Eventually the group hiked 7 miles across the island in the snow for rescue. An inspiring story when looking at these cliffs the survivors climbed to get ashore in terrible stormy weather.
Historical Photos reproduced courtesy Cliffs the survivors of the Monarch wreck climbed
of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State
5 Finger Bay tug ( Depth 20ft)
This wooden Fishing tug is in a shallow water bay and was apparently scuttled or lost at anchor. Name is unknown. It’s an easy break dive.
This is a deep dive (140ft. plus) and the site is located near the lighthouse on the Rock of Ages reef and lighthouse. Use caution on this one!! It’s deep and cold so make sure you and are your equipment are up to this one and that you have backups. I personally went to 147ft and for the first and only time in my diving career had a regulator freeze (42 degrees on the bottom). I was really glad I had my spare pony bottle on this one and even though I didn’t need to use it, my main tank was down to 600 psi at the safety stop and I was very thankful to have the O2 deco line from the boat to go onto.
This site is a huge steam engine and propeller of this large wooden steamer that ran aground and broke up in 1898. This reef is also the site of the Cumberland and the Cox wrecks both of which are nearby and the reason the lighthouse was constructed here.
Drawings reprinted with Permission of National Park Service
Diver near part of the Chisholm engine
Isle Royale Diving
We didn’t dive on all of the shipwrecks of Isle Royale and it would probably take several trips and even technical dive gear to do that. The clear water, excellent visibility, lack of zebra mussels, fantastic and diverse shipwrecks and absolutely beautiful scenery however make Isle Royale a must go there for any scuba diver who enjoys wreck diving and the history of shipping in the Great Lakes. The histories of these ships and the often heroic stories of their wrecking and rescue is equally interesting and makes for some great reading during the surface intervals between dives. It’s also very clear that area divers and charter operators have done a great job developing, maintaining and preserving this resource for our enjoyment and in cooperation with the National Park Service. Divers need to be mindful that diving in these waters is a privilege and to be respectful of the wrecks, park rules and other users of the resource. The diving ethos, “Take only pictures, leave only bubbles” applies.
Left to Right; Ray Hector, Bryan Nelson, Jeremy Hector, Rob Curry,
Mike Oswald (Standing, first mate),
Ken Fagerman, Ralph Thoren (captain).
Author at the Wheel of the RLT Diver III
RLT Divers Inc. Ralph Thoren Charters
921 E. Blue Earth Ave.
Fairmont, MN 56031
National Park Service at Isle Royle
Isle Royale National Park
800 East Lakeshore Drive
Houghton, MI 49931-1895