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Cleaner Lake Erie Beckons Divers

Remains from dozens of shipwrecks, some from the early 1900s, are strewn about and well-preserved in the salt-free water.

November 03, 2002|John Seewer | Associated Press Writer

KELLEYS ISLAND, Ohio — Bright streaks of light cut through Lake Erie's shallow waters and illuminate a hulking skeleton.

Divers float past the green moss and zebra mussel shells that cover the anchor lift and wooden hull of the F.H. Prince, a propeller-driven steamer that caught fire in 1911 just off the coast of Kelleys Island.

"To know that there were actually people on that ship just gives me a feeling of connection to that period in time," said Cheryl Hubans, who is making her second dive in the lake.

"I've looked out on that water many times and had no idea what was out there."

Over the last two decades, pollutants that turned Lake Erie into an environmental mess have decreased dramatically, opening a new underwater world to divers. They come to explore the skeletal remains of dozens of shipwrecks that are strewn throughout the lake. Even those wrecks dating to the early 1900s are well-preserved because there's no salt in the water.

"You're going places not many people go," said Hubans, a retired art teacher. "It's just so peaceful. Nobody talks -- it's just you and the fish."

Although Lake Erie doesn't offer exotic marine life or the bright hues found in popular diving spots in warmer climates, there are hidden caves to discover, shipwrecks to find and countless freshwater fish to watch.

"There are a lot of wrecks to pick from," said Steve Sheridan, who operates dive charters on his 27-foot boat out of Port Clinton. "You get to dive in your backyard. It's better than diving in a quarry."

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, with depths averaging about 60 feet. Its western basin between Toledo and Cleveland is littered with shipwrecks from the violent storms that can whip up in a hurry.

That's where divers can find rusted propellers, anchors, boilers and chains.

Many wrecks -- thought to number anywhere from 1,800 to 4,000 in the lake -- are in easy-to-reach waters.

The shallow waters are perfect for beginning divers or those who want to keep their skills sharp without traveling too far.

The biggest drawback is that it does not take long for storms to stir up the lake's bottom, making visibility near zero and putting planned trips on hold.

"After a storm, we usually have to wait a few days to dive," Sheridan said.

On a recent outing, the weather and visibility are perfect. A predicted storm holds off, and the water is so warm that divers don't need wetsuits, although they wear them.

Sheridan starts his group of four divers at a wreck less than a mile off the mainland. It's a former prison ship called the Success that sunk after a fire July 4, 1946.

Visibility on the dive, though, is poor and the group moves on quickly.

"I think we felt it, but we couldn't see it," said Charlie Gunn, a retired electric company worker from Cleveland who has been diving about 15 years.

He's by far the most experienced diver on board. The others have been diving for little over a year.

Next up is the Prince. Its rusted remains are just a few feet below the surface, giving the divers a glimpse of the ship from the dive boat.

Dozens of minnows and 14-inch bass swim through the ship, hiding in its crevices. There's hardly a ripple in the water.

"It was clearer than I thought it would be," said 15-year-old Jack Kroeger of Minneapolis, who is making his first dive in the lake with his father, Barry.

"It's hard to find things that we can enjoy together," his father said. "This is something we can share."

Interest in diving Lake Erie is increasing, and Ohio is working to establish a shipwreck preserve to encourage diving and tourism. The preserve is to ring Kelleys Island in western Lake Erie and cover 40 square miles.

Hopes are to have it established next summer.

The area includes at least 30 shipwrecks, and project officials want to have some sites marked off for divers to explore. Mooring buoys would be set up around ships to help divers locate the wrecks and boaters avoid them.

The state bans divers from taking anything from the wrecks, but years of diving have left some ships without original artifacts.

The lake was considered dead 20 years ago -- so bad that former late-night TV host Johnny Carson sarcastically called it "the place fish go to die."

But because of anti-pollution efforts that have dramatically cut the amount of wastewater dumped in the lake and the introduction of zebra mussels, which act as filters and absorb sediments, visibility now extends beyond 30 feet on a good day.

There are a handful of charter boats that now offer dive trips.

Sheridan, who makes as many as three trips a week, spent about five years finding spots to dive before offering charters five summers ago.

"There are little spots all over the place," he said. "My little corner of the world."

Around Green Island, there are hidden caves cut into the rocks. Grooves were cut into rock by glaciers and underwater boulders the size of Sheridan's boat near Middle Island, a tiny spot of land that is the southernmost point in Canada.

That's also where the Keepsake lies.

The sailing ship that ran aground in 1911 isn't easily found. Its remains are scattered.

Hubans and Gunn don't know where it is until they see a flat, smooth surface that at first appears to be a glacial groove carved into the lake's bottom.

As Hubans glides alongside through the clear water, she discovers that it is much longer than she thought. Then she and Gunn spot the smooth wood grain and a scattering of bolts about 10 feet below the water's surface.

"That's when we realized it was a shipwreck," she said. "It's exciting. There's so many people who have no idea what's out here."

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