Great Lakes diving for beginners

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Great Lakes Mermaid
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Great Lakes
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I've had a lot of questions via PM about Great Lakes diving, so I thought I'd do a thread so everyone interested could benefit from the information.

This thread will give a glimpse at the delights of Great Lakes wreck diving. It's fabulous if you're a history buff.

Diving report: Wells Burt wreck, Lake Michigan, off Evanston, IL

I've had an interesting time watching the new Great Lakes divers on the boat.

Get this book - The Great Lakes Diving Guide, by Cris Kohl. 600+ pages of what I refer to as "Wrecks R Us." :D

You don't have to be an aspiring tech diver. There are plenty of wrecks 100ft and shallower.

The southern areas often warm up to the low 70s above the thermocline later in the summer. But other areas can vary. Northern Lake Huron was nearly 70 on an 18ft deep wreck (Monohansett in Thunder Bay off Alpena, MI) in early August this year. The St. Lawrence River seems to be much warmer in the summer. But I had 53F at 39ft on a wreck (Wells Burt) in southern Lake Michigan yesterday.

Consider your personal cold tolerance. I'm a polar bear and have dived to 43F wet, but I'm back to diving dry. I keep my apartment in the low 60s in the Chicago-area winter. But like any outdoor activity, you dress for the "weather." 7mm or drysuit is the rule.

Don't show up to the boat never having done a dive in a 7mm before. Go do a quarry/(small) lake dive or even a pool dive. I don't really care, just get some underwater time in it. If the thick hood is a problem, try one without a bib. I always used my bibless hoods from drysuit diving with my wetsuit. Let some water in, but much less restrictive. Yesterday, two divers sat out both dives because they weren't used to all the neoprene. They were experienced warm water divers. Had beautiful giant strides and were great on the boat, but just not used to cold water gear (had done one Pacific Ocean dive). Have an idea of how much weight you need. Don't overweight yourself because you have no idea how much you need.

Don't use a warm water/travel BC with a 7mm wetsuit or a drysuit. Probably won't have enough lift.

Fin on ladders are on a lot of Great Lakes boats. Center post with rungs open on the sides. You swing your leg out to get fin on next rung. Danged handy in rough seas if you end up back in the water. So if you have a fin on ladder, do not take your fins off.

If you're used to warm-water boats that have DMs to lead the group or private DMs for hire, or boats that hold your hand and set your gear up for you, please realize that you're not going to have anything of that here. Boats are generally small 6 packs. You will get a site briefing. The boats I've been on are generally helpful - help with gloves, putting fins on at the back of the boat, handing a camera, helping you up from the bench. However, if you need additional help (as I do) from bad knees, bad back, etc., just talk to the charter op or captain ahead of time. Be very specific what you need help with and what sort of help. I need 3-4 pulls on my tank valve to get me up the ladder. Every charter op (except one) have been willing to give the sort of help I need. A few have even suggested taking gear off in the water and handing tank up. I've never done that - I think it would be awkward and more of a hassle than getting pulls on tank valve. There is only one boat I've been on where the captain was pissy about providing help. I didn't think to ask about it ahead of time. I learned my lesson. I only needed one pull (this was last year) to get onto the swim platform from the ladder. I told the captain to pull when I said so. He pulled when he wanted to (and I wasn't ready), and I almost fell.

Great Lakes boats will not hold your hand or babysit you. The captain either anchors on the wreck or ties up to a mooring (so anchors don't damage the wreck). He declares "the pool is open" and you're off! :) Don't be macho and decide you won't use the mooring line to descend/ascend. If the captain tells you to use the line, then use it! Or at least stay next to it. I'll agree that a safety stop on a line that's violently jerking up and down from wave action on the surface isn't the most fun I've had!

Depending on the specific boat, there might be crew or only the captain. There might be a DM on the boat, but he might only serve as crew. He might get in the water, but not to lead everyone in a group. He might very well buddy with a diver on the charter by themselves or someone less experienced. I've never heard of private DMs for hire on Great Lakes boats. You're best diving with a more experienced friend. If not, go alone, but make sure the boat knows your situation.

The boats generally don't provide tanks or weights. You have to bring everything yourself, unless you have made previous arrangements for rental gear (such as tanks and weights) to be on the boat. Just because cold(er) water diving is more gear intensive, it doesn't mean you have to bring everything and the kitchen sink with you on the boat! I have a bag with all drysuit stuff, BC, tanks, weight bag, mesh bag with everything else.

Assemble your gear as soon as you are on the boat and have a spot. Getting it done before you're on a rocking boat is a very good idea, especially if you're new, and saves time later.

If you're diving wet, get halfway into your suit before you even get on the boat, if possible. I've done that every time and it makes things much easier.

Depending on location, you may not be able to book seats on a boat. It seems to be pretty common for dive clubs or dive shops to book an entire boat, only putting out announcements of available seats if their trips don't fill up. This seems to be the case for the Straits of Mackinac and Thunder Bay (Alpena). The Chicago and Milwaukee boats will book individual seats. Check with dive shops in the region if they are planning trips and have space.

The Great Lakes diving season begins in April and ends sometime in October, although boats on either side of the season often get blown out due to surface conditions. It can be a nice day, but too much wind makes for a miserable day on the Lakes.

Depending on location, there may not be a lot of fish on the wreck. Doesn't matter to me. I want wrecks, not fish.

As you get more experienced, don't turn your nose up at a wreck just because it's shallow. The thread I linked to at the beginning? That wreck is 40ft deep. Perfectly acceptable for a newer diver. It's an awesome wreck, and a number of much more experienced divers have told me they can't be bothered with it or are even interested because it's so shallow. You can spend more time on a shallower wreck. The best wreck of my recent Thunder Bay trip was 45ft deep.

And don't be afraid to bring your kids on the Lakes. Yesterday there was a father/son buddy pair. Both were diving drysuits and doubles. It was awesome to see. The teenaged son was calm and did very well. I'm told there was a 10 year old girl (also in a drysuit) with her dad on the boat recently, and also did excellent. If a kid can jump off a boat in the tropics, there's no reason they can't do the same on the Great Lakes.

And last, but not least. Do some research on a wreck before you go dive it. Books, websites, local dive shop. I even look for site plans if I can. For Chicago area wrecks, the UASC (Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago) has some available on their website and information about some wrecks. Welcome to Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago
You don’t mention areas with currents issue, or visibility so when/ would you go to shallow wrecks for least current best visibility?
The other issue with drysuit diving is my concern with others overheating before getting in the water, so do the boats ever have shade canopies?
You don’t mention areas with currents issue, or visibility so when/ would you go to shallow wrecks for least current best visibility?
The other issue with drysuit diving is my concern with others overheating before getting in the water, so do the boats ever have shade canopies?

Yes, there are areas with current. It can really depend on the day. Straits of Mackinac can have a lot of current, or none, or some. Just depends on the day.

As for the shallow wrecks, best vis depends on conditions. I've been on charters where the near shore wrecks were in what the captain referred to as "chocolate milk" (bottom really stirred up) so we went to different wrecks than originally scheduled.

My usual boat has a canopy over the benches. Yesterday it was really hot and humid. I did both morning and afternoon charters. Pretty much all the drysuit divers were jumping in the water, holding onto the ladder or the tag line, to get cool. Makes a huge difference. I even do that at the quarry.

This is my regular boat, DRIS' Sun Dog.


And this is what a fin on ladder looks like

Hate the fin on ladder. If there is a mermaid line there no reason not to take your fins off at the base in the water if that is what you prefer. Slip your fins over your arm and climb the ladder The boat will still be rocking when you get on board with your fins on and now you have to either walk with your fins on (stupid idea) or take them off at the top step.
Got anything to add? :)

Trying to sum up "Great Lakes Diving" in a few posts is arguably just as difficult as summing up "Ocean Diving". I think many people who haven't spent time in the region, really can't grasp just how big the Lakes are. In almost every way, they are inland seas. I've known professional mariners who feel that the Lakes are more dangerous than the open ocean. The waves may be smaller, but they're steeper and closer together, making them especially dangerous.There's a reason there's thousands of wrecks here.

Some of the posts here are asking about currents and visibility, and I think that these questions are perfect indicators of that. Currents vary from day to day, and are more the result of weather than they are in the ocean. My home base is Tobermory. I can dive a wreck like Arabia one day and it'll be absolutely still. The next day, there can be a ripping current at the surface, and another one at the bottom... going the opposite way. (Hence your good advice about using the anchor/mooring line.)

Visibility tends to be best early in the season (May/June) and gradually decreases until late August before it starts to improve. Different parts of the lakes will have different vis. The Kingston-Brockville area (so eastern Lake Ontario and St Lawrence) can have 20' in the height of summer due to plankton blooms. On the other hand, in the early spring, vis can be 80'-100'. In Tobermory, the change is less drastic. I suspect that this is partly due to the relative lack of people and agriculture in the area. Vis in early May can be well upwards of 130' or more. My late August, it might drop to 60'- 80', but in many cases, it can remain better than that. Honestly, the largest single factor in determining visibility is the level of skill of the divers on your boat. Our bottom tends to be a light silt and it's easily displaced by a poorly skilled diver.

As a photographer, the largest single advantage I have is the fact that I have my own boat and can dive when the site is otherwise unoccupied...

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