In 2015, Lake Michigan Was So Clear Its Shipwrecks Were Visible From the Air

A Coast Guard patrol spotted the wrecks in shallow waters that are only clear after the lake’s ice melts and before summer sediment swirls and algae blooms

Rising Sun
This 133-foot long wooden steamer, the Rising Sun, is in 6 to 12 feet of water just north of Pyramid Point, where she stranded on October 29, 1917. All 32 people on board were saved. U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City

Though the past winter was the hottest on record, it was chilly enough on the East Coast to send seasonal sheets of ice creeping across the Great Lakes. Now that that ice has cleared with spring, Lake Michigan is clear enough that shipwrecks lying on the lake bottom can be seen from the air.

The U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City noted the crystal clear water conditions and the lost ships during a routine patrol. Last week, they posted a handful of pictures to their Facebook page. The images come from the area near Sleeping Bear Point known as the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which is "one of the richest areas in Michigan for shipwreck diving," according to the preserve’s website. The lumber industry put the area on a shipping route. The North and South Manitou Islands, just north of the point, provided a somewhat sheltered area for ships hiding from storms. 

Susan Cosier, writing for On Earth, reports:

Not much is known about most of the wrecks, but they do include one doomed vessel, the James McBride, which was thought to be the first to carry cargo from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Michigan in 1848. Facebook commenters helped fill in some of the blanks, but most the historic details are still, well, watery. 

The Coast Guard Air Station added what information people could dredge up from the depths of the Internet to their descriptions of each of the photos, but of the five ships they posted, three remain unidentified.

For, Bill Chappell reports that spotting wrecks from the air is "fairly common," according to one of the pilots on the patrol, Lieutenant commander Charlie Wilson, "but not in the numbers we saw on that flight." Chappell also notes that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality writes, "An estimated 6,000 vessels were lost on the Great Lakes with approximately 1,500 of these ships located in Michigan waters."

Other wrecks in the Manitou Passage include The Francisco Morazan, an ocean-going freighter driven aground during a snowstorm on November 29, 1960. The Morazan sank right on top of the remains of the Walter L. Frost, a wooden steamer lost on November 4, 1903. Both wrecks are in shallow water just a few hundred yards from shore, the preserve’s website reports.

Like other Great Lakes, Lake Michigan endures algal blooms fueled by agricultural runoff. Warmer temperatures will likely nurture the blooms and obscure the wrecks this summer, making these views particularly rare.

A closer view of the McBride. When the ship ran aground during a storm on October 19, 1857, she was returning from a trip to Chicago to deliver a cargo of wood. U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City
The 121-foot brig James McBride lies in 5 to 15 feet of water near Sleeping Bear Point. The Coast Guard’s Facebook page reports: "Late in 1848, the McBride sailed to the Atlantic Ocean to pick up a cargo of salt at Turk Island. On her return she stopped at Nova Scotia and added codfish to her manifest. She delivered her cargo to Chicago on December 4, 1848. This trip created a sensation because it was believed to be the first cargo carried direct from the Atlantic to a Lake Michigan port." U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City
A wreck in shallow water below cliffs U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City
This photo shows two sunken ships -- one just visible in the lower right, the other clear in the upper left. U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City
A third unidentified wreck U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City

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