Spotting Shipwrecks in the Crystal Clear Waters of Lake Michigan

May 1st, 2015 | Posted by SavvyBoater in Everything Boating & Fishing

The water of Lake Michigan has been so crystal clear that that a routine Coast Guard aerial survey has revealed a fascinating view of  several shipwrecks.

The wreck of the 121ft James McBride that sunk during a storm October 1857
U.S. CoastGuard Air Station Traverse City

During a routine flyover on April 18th, the Traverse City Coast Guard saw more shipwrecks then they had ever before. Some of the wrecks were easily identified by the crew, but others are unidentified and are still being researched with help from the Facebook fans of the U.S Coast Guard of Traverse City. The Coast Guard notes that it is not unusual to see shipwrecks on their aerial surveys, but that it is highly unusual to see so many and with such a clear view.

Helecopter photo of an unidentified shipwreck in Lake Michigan
U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City

One of the wrecks found was a 121ft ship known as the James McBride. The ship launched in 1848 and traveled from the Atlantic Ocean, Chicago, and even Turk island before being abandoned in 1857 on a journey to Manitou Island during a particularly bad storm. The boat has remained near Sleeping Bear point at a depth of about 5-15 feet ever since.

Another, of an estimated 1,500 ships that lie at the bottom of Lake Michigan
U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City


Another is the skeleton of Rising Sun, a 133ft wooden steamer that sunk in October 1917. The rising sun launched in 1884 under the name the Minnie M and had many different lives and owners over the years. The ship operated most frequently a passenger ship, but it was a run carrying vegetables and lumber to Benton Harbor during an early season snowstorm that would be its last job.


Rising Sun, a 133 ft wooden steamer sunk north of Pyramid Point in 1917
US Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City
Unidentified ship at the bottom of Lake Michigan near Sleeping Bear PointU.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City
Shipwreck area
Area surveyed by the U.S. Coast GuardGoogle Maps

The tropical looking water of Lake Michigan is so uncharacteristically clear because of ideal conditions; mostly ice cold snow melt and low algae levels. While the cold might not provide great swimming conditions, the ice cold water is part of the reason these wrecks have been so well preserved over the past hundred years or so.

The area the Coast Guard surveyed lies at the top 25 miles or so of the 300 mile long lake, which represents a small portion, but the number of wrecks found was quite high. This raises the question, why so many wrecks? The answer is not so simple, but a common thread between the wrecks seems to be work boats sinking in terrible storms.

According to, “during the heyday of Michigan lumbering, this was a booming shipping area. It is also an area where ships have sought safety by attempting to ride out storms in the lee of the Islands.” It is estimated that about 6,000 ships have wrecked in the great lakes, and 1,500 of those have been in Lake Michigan Alone.

Keep updated with the story by following the Traverse City U.S. Coast Guard on Facebook.




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