Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Shipwreck Alley

From wood to steel, from sail to steam, from early pioneers to established industry, the history of the Great Lakes can be found deep beneath Thunder Bay

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Thunder-Bay-DefianceDefiance emerged from a dense fog in the early morning hours to an unexpected sight: John J. Audubon, one of a fleet of new, fast sailing ships, closing in. Because of its speed and the tight Lake Huron sailing lanes, Audubon couldn’t avoid a collision. The ships ultimately sank within miles of each other, but no lives were lost.


Three men are sitting on the aft deck of RV Storm, a 50-foot research vessel bobbing gently on Lake Huron on a clear, warm July morning. They’ve more or less disappeared under shrouds of black neoprene, masses of corrugated and smooth tubes, and constellations of metal tanks, clips, and fasteners. Dive safety officer Jason Nunn calls out a checklist that sounds arcane even to an experienced scuba diver:


“Press the ADV to ensure proper operation.”


“Confirm computers are set for CCR mode and that you’re on the appropriate mix.”


“Set your PO2 to 0.5.”


The divers—Russ Green, Joe Hoyt, and Tane Casserley—are underwater archaeologists with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They are wearing rebreather systems that scrub the carbon dioxide from their breath and recycle the air, allowing them to dive deeper and stay down longer than divers with traditional open-circuit scuba gear. In a few minutes, they will drop 165 feet through the clear, cold water to the wreck of Pewabic, a 200-foot-long freighter that sank in 1865 after a mysterious collision. Pewabic is one of hundreds of wrecks and suspected wrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the northeast coast of Michigan. Together, these historic ships embody the entire history of modern transportation in the Great Lakes—the story of the opening of the American continent to settlement and industry.


“About 30 seconds to rail,” says Nunn, who is from East Carolina University, cueing the divers to approach the edge of the deck.


“I’ve been waiting all day for this moment,” says Hoyt, visiting Thunder Bay from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in Virginia, before he lumbers over. One after another, the divers step out and disappear.


Twenty-five minutes later, an inflatable bag surfaces a few yards from Storm. This is the signal to Nunn that the divers are all together, and the prompt for him to send out two safety divers—NOAA archaeologist Stephanie Gandulla and East Carolina University’s Mark Keusenkothen. A second bag pops up to signal that everything is okay and the divers are waiting 60 feet below for safety purposes.


“Business as usual,” says Casserley around 20 minutes later as he hauls himself back onto the deck, with no little effort, and begins the laborious process of removing his equipment.



The Wrecks of Thunder Bay