Kate Kauffman, from the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, is an avid diver. She's been fascinated with shipwrecks since she saw a 1985 National Geographic Magazine with the Titanic wreck on its cover.
"It's almost like walking on a Civil War battle site. You get that feeling, that kind of shiver, you feel the history seep through you and the people that worked on those vessels, and I think it's very important to teach people who aren't divers how important it is and that's why I'm here today," Ms. Kauffman said.
Recently she's been spending a lot of time indoors trying to get other people excited about the wrecks in Thunder Bay and the stories they tell about Great Lakes shipping. Today she's talking to a group of senior citizens in Alpena, Michigan, and showing them pictures of the watery graveyard under the bay their hometown overlooks.
"And this is me," she laughed, "hanging upside down looking at some of the parts of the side wheel steamer which we had done and archeological study site plan of," Ms. Kauffman said.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries trade and supply boats routinely stopped in Alpena on their way to Sault Saint Marie [Michigan/Ontario, Canada], Green Bay [Wisconsin], and Chicago [Illinois]. They carried iron ore, lumber, grain, and all the things needed in the Midwest's growing cities. But according to historical records at least 115 of these ships sank in Alpena's Thunder Bay between 1845 and 1966.
Forty-two of them are identified including an 1830s double masted schooner, a side-wheel steamer and a modern German freighter. They illustrate the evolution of construction methods and ship design. Some are basically intact and some rest close to the surface. A year and a half ago Congress designated this collection of shipwrecks a National Marine Sanctuary. It's the first one in the Great Lakes region.
Ellen Brody works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the acting manager of the Sanctuary. She said this is only the second sanctuary dedicated to preserving historic artifacts.
"I mean it's in the National Marine Sanctuary Act that NOAA will protect both cultural and natural, but the focus of the program has been natural with Florida Keys, humpback whales in the Hawaiian Island sanctuary," Ms. Brody said.
National Marine Sanctuaries are also tourist attractions and Ms. Brody expects this sanctuary will become a major draw for divers. That's partially because there will be displays about Thunder Bay at other sanctuaries around the U.S.
"An underwater sanctuary appeals to divers, but most of us are not divers, so we believe for this to be a success we need to reach out to the people who will never go underwater."
So far there's not much to see on the surface, but Ellen Brody said in the coming years they'll create a hi-tech visitors center.
"We've been working very closely with the Institute for Exploration which was founded by Dr. Robert Ballard and his image of the sanctuary system is what he calls ring road technology where you actually install a track on the bottom of the sanctuary and have underwater cameras, and people in a visitors center or a class room can operate those cameras and see first hand what's down there," Ms. Brody said.
She said such as system is still far in the future. Meanwhile the sanctuary wants to find out exactly what is sitting on the bottom of Thunder Bay. This summer a remote controlled underwater vehicle will be dispatched to take a look around. And teams of volunteer divers are learning how to help out in the search for undiscovered wrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve.