Dusty on a dive

What The Heck Is That? Exploring A Few Great Lakes Shipwrecks

March 8, 2021

March 8, 2021

It’s Cold.  It’s Dark.  You’re An Explorer In This Foreign Place

Dusty Kilfer

Outside of the shipwreck diving community, it’s not a very well-known fact that the Great Lakes hold some of the best-preserved shipwrecks in the world.  Dusty Klifman is a diver who is working hard to change that. The bodies of water, located at the western end of the St. Lawrence Seaway, have been plied for centuries, and the lakebeds contain an unparalleled maritime historical record.  The cold, deep waters of lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario are excellent for preserving both metal and wooden structures that comprise ships from all eras. This sunken history is one that Dusty is determined to explore and share with the general public. 

“Growing up,” says Dusty, “I didn’t really know about shipwrecks. I didn’t know that there were still ships that were missing.  I didn’t realize there were so many in the Great Lakes; I thought that was an ocean thing.  There are six to eight thousand shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and many are still unfound.  I started going out to the islands of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and I started exploring and picking up all these little shipwrecks along the way to visit, photograph, and share with others.  

“I had my own boat, then I got my own sonar.   A lot of [shipwrecks] are seldom visited because of their location. When I go down there I try to capture the essence of that shipwreck and bring it to the people in a few photographs.  I’ve also done some videos with my ROV or with the camera, and people tend to like that, especially if I narrate what they are looking at or the history behind it.”

Dusty has invested heavily in both time for training and certifications, and also in equipment that allows him to locate shipwrecks and then explore them on a dive.  He has his choice of typical scuba gear with tanks, a rebreather, or his Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), depending on the depth.  Because of this, he can reach shipwrecks that are deeper and more remote, and this opens up the number of sites he can potentially visit. 

He says, “It started out I was more interested in rediscovering deeper shipwrecks because people generally don’t get to see them, especially if you’re not a technical diver like I am.  I wanted to get out there and film these wrecks in three, four, five hundred feet of water.  In doing so, there’s just not a lot [of located wrecks] out there. However, the wrecks that are being found these days are deeper and deeper because back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s people were finding the shipwrecks that they could dive on and take stuff off.  They didn’t care about the stuff that was hundreds of feet deep because they couldn’t dive it. 

“The shipwrecks that are left to find are the deeper ones.   That’s where the ROV comes in.  I am able to go much deeper and stay longer than any diver ever could.  

“I want to film these deep ones, but in saying so, I have to actually go out and find them.   There are tons of them that are still missing. It just takes time, the equipment, and the dedication to be out there at 5 AM or 4 AM and scan for 12 to 14 hours.   It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.  I thought that the shipwrecks were scattered like Legos on the floor, but it’s an awfully big lake.  You’re so tiny in comparison. It would take a lifetime to scan just Lake Michigan. 

Great Lakes Shipwrecks Are His Passion

Dusty is quick to point out that while he loves searching for, finding, and visiting the wrecks, he also does this to share the history with the general public.  He has created a Facebook page called Blueyes Below, where he posts his photos, videos, and adventures for everyone to see.  “If it wasn’t for people like me and others that do this, a lot of people wouldn’t get to experience these shipwrecks and the history behind them.  That’s one of my goals – I want to preserve these shipwrecks, as they are, in high-quality photos and videos before they are gone.”

His fascination with shipwrecks started early and grew over time.  Dusty says, “My parents got me scuba lessons for my 13th birthday and so I got certified when I was 13 years old.  That was 23 years ago. The first one I went to was out of Traverse City, [Michigan],  so it’s in the bay.  It’s a very small, shallow, wooden fishing boat called the Charles Frank.   However, everyone knows it as the Elmwood Wreck

“It’s very small; it sits on the dropoff. You can access it from shore and I dove that when I was very young, right after I was certified.  To go under the water and see something that’s not supposed to be there was very cool.  To see this ship, that sits slightly canted off to one side.  The whole back is gone, it burned.  But it was really cool, very unique.  I was hooked!”

The Elmwood Wreck

Great Lakes Shipwrecks Elmwood
Great Lakes Shipwrecks Elmwood

“Then I went into the military and I would dive when I would come home for leave. When I moved to Muskegon, about 8 years ago, that’s when the diving really took off because I am here near Lake Michigan, not far from the lake.  I am a journeyman lineman for an electric company, so I climb the poles, I deal with the downed power lines.  It’s a very risky industry, but it pays well and allows me to do my hobby and passion which is diving, shipwreck hunting, and photography. 

Diving these Great Lakes shipwrecks is an otherworldly experience, Dusty says.  “You’re weightless, you’re floating, you’re flying, essentially. It’s cold, it’s dark.  You can move in all directions and hover.  Generally, if you would see a ship from shore, you would look up at it. In this case, you can see the top of it. You can descend on it, go sideways, whatever!  It’s truly incredible to view a ship from so many different viewpoints. It is just magical and the closest thing to being an astronaut.   

“When I first started diving shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, I didn’t know what to expect.  A lot of these shipwrecks have a mooring line on them so you don’t have to drag an anchor into the wreck, which would damage it.  So I would go out to these that are publicly listed, hook to the buoy, and start going down the line.  You just see this dark.. black… shape.  It’s kind of eerie.  You’re descending into the mouth of the monster almost because you don’t know what you are going to get when you get down there, and it starts to gradually appear in the darkness.  

“As you start to go deeper, 150 or 200 feet or deeper, the amount of equipment you need quadruples.  You have to have redundant systems for everything because you are getting into what is called decompression diving.  If you have an issue you cannot safely come to the surface immediately. You have to take that time and decompress to get that nitrogen out of your system. 

“If you are diving in a team of multiple people, you have a lot of redundant gear, so anything that happens, you can pretty much manage that. There is a lot of safety in that aspect, but you are in a world where you’re not meant to be.  You are a couple of hundred feet below the surface. It’s cold, it’s dark, you’ve got all this equipment on like you’re an astronaut.  You are not meant to be there, you’re an explorer in this foreign place.”

The one thing you can’t expect to find, particularly with well-known shallow wrecks, is artifacts that the sailors would have handled, from ship’s wheels and portholes and equipment to tools and personal effects.  Dusty explains, “ A lot of the known shipwrecks, all that stuff is gone.    Back in the day, that’s why they dove. They dove for these artifacts and treasures.  That’s not all a bad thing, because this is why we have things in museums today.  Otherwise, as these ships break down, things collapse, you will never see them again. The ship will be broken and gone forever.  So we have tangible items to appreciate from these shipwrecks, and history because of these past divers. You can’t take anything from these shipwrecks anymore since the antiquities law in the 1980s.

Dusty’s Favorites

For Dusty, a few of the Great Lakes shipwrecks stand out from the many he has visited.  He says, “The best one I dove in person would have to be the Westmoreland.  That was found by Ross Richardson in 2010 and was rumored to have $100,000 in gold coins on board.  Now, that was $100,000 in 1854.  It’s been down there for, like, 165 years or so. 

“That one was really cool because it was 186 ft. deep.  The auxiliary wheel was still on the back.  These big hogging arches- which support the end of the ship so they don’t sag or ‘hog’ due to the ship’s length – are still in place.  You can swim through the bottom deck.  The bow is just massive.  It’s skinny, but it’s massive.  The anchors are in place.  That was a really cool old wreck to visit. 

The Westmoreland

Great Lakes Shipwrecks Westmoreland Wheel
Westmoreland Stern

“Another one I was on quite recently was the Newell Eddy, which is a really cool schooner that’s almost perfectly intact.  It’s 170 feet deep in Lake Huron.  The masts are still standing.  It looks like a ship sitting at the dock. The only real damage is the back is broken out where the rudder is. You can swim right through it, just a massive ship. 

“A lot of these were cargo ships, so they used to have a cargo of grain or corn, and there are some remnants of that.  You know, a lot of them were salvaged.  They parked a ship above it and sent divers down with basically a suction system to suck the cargo out of the hold.  There’s not a lot inside of it, just a lot of big timbers that make up the vessel.  It’s pretty much wide open.  And then you get up on the deck, the masts are there, the berths where the sailors lived are there, the windlass, the winches, the anchors, the doors. Things like that. It’s like stepping back in time.”

The Newell Eddy

Newell Eddy Cargo Hold
Hatches on the Newell Eddy

Another favorite was one he had to work to locate, and it’s a jewel in the crown for those who search for Great Lakes shipwrecks.  The ship was called the John V. Moran.  Dusty says, “You can’t say I found it. [The John V. Moran]  was located about five or six years ago in Lake Michigan by the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association and the location of it was kept secret.  I went out and I found it, and I filmed it. 

“I was able to look in the windows, in the cabins.  It was incredible to see something so well preserved, so big, just sitting down there in the darkness. There is glass in the windows, every railing is intact. It looks like it could just be parked at the docks.   Nobody was on it at the time. It had gotten stuck in the ice and it sank slowly. It keeps the ships together when they sink slowly.  When they sink fast there is so much air trapped inside, it blows the decks off, it blows the cabins off.    A lot of the shipwrecks you’re only left with the decks and the hold, everything else is gone usually.

The John V. Moran

John V. Moran Open Hatches
John V. Moran Pilot House

Seeing A Historic Shipwreck Is Always A Thrill

It’s the preservation of history, along with the thrill of discovery, that keeps Dusty going.   He recalls, “When I first went to the Manitou Islands, many years ago, I took my sailboat out there. I knew there was a shipwreck there, the Francisco Morazan, but I had no idea that it stuck out of the water!  I came around the corner, and I see this thing sticking out of the water and I go, “What the heck is that?” I got closer and closer and it’s like ‘Oh my God!’  There is a shipwreck, an actual shipwreck, sticking out of the water. There are very few examples of that in the Great Lakes.   I was able to swim inside of it, in the engine room.  It was very cool.  

“I recently took a big road trip from Muskegon all the way up the coast to the Straits of Mackinac and then up to the UP [Upper Peninsula of Michigan]  and I filmed lighthouses all along the lake and also some shallow shipwrecks, ones you can see from the air.  I took my drone and put it up, and we were able to see through the water because it’s so clear right now.  It gives you a different view.  They are so massive [shipwrecks] it lets you back away and see the sheer size and the makeup of them when you see them from the overview like that.

The shipwrecks preserved in the Great Lakes are special, Dusty believes, but they are also under threat.  “Where else could you find shipwrecks from the mid-1800s in such good preservation and actually go inside and tour them?  The invasive mussels have been a problem for quite a few years. I don’t think that they damage it, but the weight of them could facilitate the structures collapsing quicker as the shipwrecks naturally deteriorate. It’s cleared the water up, but now they’re on every single surface. They cover everything.  Even if it was an anchor, sometimes you don’t even know what you are looking at because they are so encrusted.  If you go back, to probably the 80s, that wasn’t like that.  They were untouched, basically.  However, the visibility was so poor that you could only see four to five feet of the shipwreck at the time, maybe 10 feet at the best. That’s the trade-off. 

The mussels have also affected the amount of light that can reach down to the lake bottoms.  Dusty explains that, “Sometimes there is light 300 feet down, other times it is almost pitch black at 200 feet.  It just depends on the day and season, on the wave conditions, and how high in the sky the sun is.  On a nice calm day, the sun will really reach deep.  I am using video lights as well, just to help with the photography or the video.  There are a lot of things when you go inside a wreck, you definitely need to be able to see in the darkness.”

Francisco Morazan Wreck

For Dusty, there are many challenges he looks forward to taking on that make exploring Great Lakes shipwrecks a rewarding adventure.  There are still many ships to find.  He continues to train and upgrade his equipment.  Currently, he is trying to work out how to do a live broadcast from his boat and providing narration as the ROV sends back its video in real-time.  

As much as he enjoys diving, filming, and discovery, he gets just as much out of sharing it with people who can’t go down there with him.  “I want to go out and film these,” he says.  “I want to entertain and I want to educate because there is so much history here to see every day.”  

Francisco Morazan Wreck

There were too many cool images to include!  Check this page out to see more photos of these shipwrecks.

Interview Conducted January 2021 / All photos courtesy of Dusty Klifman

You can find Dusty at Blueyes Below on Facebook and many of his images are for sale HERE

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