Divers discovering new world in waters, caves of Lake Erie

Sunday, October 6, 2002

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," says 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," says Hubans, a retired art teacher. "It's just so peaceful. Nobody talks -- it's just you and the fish."

While 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.

Shallow dives

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

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes -- its 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 entire lake -- are in easy-to-reach waters.

The shallow waters are perfect for beginning divers or divers 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 says.

On a recent outing, the weather and visibility are perfect. A predicted storm holds off, and the water is so warm a wetsuit isn't needed although the divers 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," says 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.

Shared interests

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," says 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 says. "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. 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.

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