Text and Photography by Vlada Dekina
My first Great Lakes pictures were taken in Lake Erie. The schooner George Finnie had just been discovered (or re-discovered, as is often the case with Great Lakes wrecks) in the spring of 2002 when I got to dive her with my then brand new Sea & Sea camera with a single strobe.
The pictures from that dive came out somewhat decent for a first attempt at shooting a Great Lakes wreck (meaning one could actually see the pieces of wreck as opposed to the storm of backscatter), and I was convinced I would have a great Lake Erie collection in no time. Little did I know, but apparently that early success was beginner’s luck.

Over the next few years, numerous dives in Lake Erie produced no additions to my web site as I have experienced every single camera problem known to an underwater photographer, but one. Diving without a roll of film or a card loaded in the camera? Check. I still remember the sinking feeling as I made that discovery well into the dive when it was too late to go back. I would not even try to describe the emotions after discovering that the lens cap on my Nikonos was still on my lens while hanging on a long deco stop after a great dive. Or, what was a great dive until I noticed the cap. I will not tell how many times that happened either. At least shooting a roll of beautifully exposed pictures that were all precisely out of focus did not spoil the dive right away. Non-working strobes, flooded sync cords, and other lighting issues spoiled a few more dives as ambient light shooting is all but impossible in darker lakes such as Erie and Ontario since there is very little ambient light below 150 ft (45 m).

Given the camera problems on every Lake Erie dive I made between 2002 and 2006, I was beginning to believe that some sort of Lake Erie curse was hanging over me. How else would one explain the fact that most of these problems only happened at Erie, while my collection of wrecks from the other four Great Lakes was growing nicely? Almost ready to give up on Lake Erie, I decided to give it one more try when a buddy and I were invited to shoot a newly re-discovered wreck now known as “Unknown C.”

“Re” in front of “discovered” for a Great Lakes wreck means that the location was discovered and forgotten a few times since that particular wreck’s sinking. Unknown C, or Brig C as she is also called, was supposedly discovered in the 1970’s, then forgotten about, discovered for a second time 10 years ago, forgotten once more, and discovered again in 2006 by Jim Herbert of Osprey Charters.

Rediscovered or not, she was a virgin wreck for me. Not seen in years, there were no pictures of her. Remembering my past issues, the camera got checked more times than a space shuttle before the mission. Everything was working perfectly on the surface. Until I decided to shoot RAW on that dive. Somehow a combination of slower card, older battery, and the very cold water resulted in extremely slow recording times and no preview. I only managed about 15 shots on an hour-long dive. Fifteen was vastly better than none, though. It meant that years after the Finnie shots were taken, I finally had the pictures of another Lake Erie wreck, and a virgin one at that.

I wish I knew more about her, but the identity of Brig C remains unknown. The number of deadeyes on the railing next to the mast was unusually large (eight in a row I believe), giving rise to a speculation that she was a brig as opposed to a more typical schooner type.

Unlike lost, forgotten, and re-discovered Brig C, the 220 ft (67 m) long George Whelan was a new discovery at the very end of the 2005 season. She sank in 1930 in a squall that first caused her to list to one side and then roll completely upside down before sinking. I got to dive her in 2006, and could barely believe it when I experienced absolutely no problems on that dive. Too bad there was not much to shoot on the outside as Whelan was one of those upside down wrecks that are much more interesting on the inside, where I am yet to go with the camera. I did enjoy shooting her huge prop and the rudder, and looking at the silt dunes that accumulated on the lakebed near the stern area. The lifeboat, half buried in silt, was a silent reminder that only seven people of her crew of twenty-two survived the sinking.

With Whelan and Brig C added to my collection in 2006, I was looking forward to 2007 with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Would it be back to business as usual (lots of dives and no pictures), or was my luck about to change? Well, with four and a half wrecks added to the Erie page so far, it would appear that my streak of bad luck had finally ended.

While a vast majority of my previous Erie dives were to wrecks in technical depths, all the wrecks I visited this season were in the100 to 130 ft (30 to 40 m) range as I was also getting up to speed on a new rebreather. Although not as intact and full of artifacts as their deeper sisters, Acme (Propeller), Washington Irving, Indiana, and Dean Richmond all had something to offer.

Acme (Propeller) was a 190 ft (58 m) long package freighter with the twin hogging arches that went alongside the vessel from bow to stern providing structural support. Acme apparently was such a popular name that there is another wreck named Acme in Eastern Lake Erie, hence the (Propeller) addition. Since sinking in a gale in 1867, Acme has been slowly consumed by the lake and silted out to above the deck level so that only the arches and the engine remain above the lake bottom. Those arches were quite a sight rising a dozen feet above the lake floor. Almost nothing, save a few planks of wood, was left of the stern, but the bow was slightly more intact, including the large winch. Cabins blown off during sinking, the engine and boiler were sitting in the open.

Washington Irving was a very small 80 ft (24 m) schooner that sank in 1860. She was leaning to port and covered by silt so much that only the starboard side remained above the lake floor. The bowsprit was intact and the masts were still standing, albeit on an angle. Very nice, but a very tiny wreck, so small that when I swam off the stern it took me a few seconds to realize that I had literally run out of wreck.

I would like to revisit Indiana someday. An unusual type for the Great Lakes, she was a 140 ft (43 m) long three-masted wooden bark. She sank in 1870 in a storm while carrying a cargo of paving stones. Given her heavy cargo, she must have gone down fast and furious. The bow probably absorbed most of the impact of meeting the lake bottom and broke pretty badly, making the task of determining where the “pointy end” was among the tangled mess almost impossible.

Bow damage aside, the rest of the wreck was rather intact with remainders of masts still standing, little bilge pump still in place near one of the masts, the cargo of stones in the holds, and various rigging details and artifacts on top of the railings and on the deck. Unlike the bow, the stern was in one piece, but the rudder was flat on the bottom.

My dive on the 253 ft (77m) long steel steamer John J. Boland was filled with anxiety, for she was one of those wrecks that I spent the whole dive on with the lens cap still on my lens. That discovery was so disturbing, I did not remember the dive itself and was not expecting much.

I knew my expectations were going to be blown away when I descended bellow 100ft (30m) to find a beautiful wreck laying on her starboard side and the visibility so good, I could see almost half of her. For the next half hour I occupied myself by taking pictures of the front superstructure with its very inviting but very narrow doorways; spacious cargo holds with some resident link cod (local fish); stern structures with the boat divots still in place and of course her stunning four-bladed propeller and massive rudder.

My favorite Erie wreck this season was the Dean Richmond. Built in 1864, four years after Washington Irving had sunk, she was a 236 ft (72 m) long two-screw wooden package and passenger steamer. Loaded with zinc ingots, barrels of flour, and other general goods, she sank in a gale in 1893 taking all her crew with her. Rumors that she was carrying copper or gold that had circulated for years after she was lost were put to rest when she was located in 1984, and no valuables found. One of her propellers was salvaged at that time.

She landed on the bottom completely upside down, which normally means a pretty boring dive as one travels from rudder and prop to the bow. Not in this case. While the rudder with the remaining prop and the bow are definitely worth visiting, there is also a huge debris field surrounding this wreck that contains some zinc ingots and large pieces of the ship. The sides have a few openings inviting one to go and play inside. I have to come back to do exactly that.

And I even got to see another virgin Erie shipwreck before this season was over, but the lake did have the last laugh. Having been blown out once before, we did get to the wreck and my camera was working perfectly… except shooting was all but impossible in 3-6 ft (1-2 meter) visibility. It looked like the wreck was another very small, and likely previously salvaged, schooner. The best pictures of her were those from the side-scan sonar.