Great Lakes Explorer Documents Hundreds of Shipwrecks
By: Chris Roxburgh
Photography By: Chris Roxburgh
As a child, I often explored the area on and off the water around my home in Leelanau County and the Manitou Passage. My parents started taking me out on our family boat, a small wooden Chris-Craft, before I was 1 year old. Every weekend we would visit Power Island in Traverse City or take long boat trips farther up north to Charlevoix or Saint Ignace. The water always drew me in, no matter where I was around the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan has been a part of my life from the beginning. I learned to swim in the lake before I was 5 years old and learned how to snorkel and free dive in our cold, fresh waters shortly thereafter. I can remember wanting to see new things underwater with my mask and swimming for hours. Little did I know that my life exploring Lake Michigan would spread to all of the Great Lakes, in remote areas above water and deep below its surface.
Growing up in Leelanau County, I was around some of the busiest and oldest shipping lanes in all the Great Lakes, in the Manitou Passage. Watching the large freighters travel past the town of Leland was something I always enjoyed. The Manitou Passage has many rocky shoals around its shorelines, and with the surrounding islands the vessels have to navigate around, combined with gale winds, these waters have wrecked countless vessels. The weather can turn deadly very fast with freezing temperatures and massive ship-sinking waves. I discovered a wreck seven years ago of a ship called the George Rogers along these same shorelines, and that moment is when my journey into the depths began. By sharing my first underwater GoPro photos of the George Rogers, I created a buzz online locally. Excited to see and document more shipwrecks in the surrounding area, I soon became scuba certified and purchased a boat to start exploring.
The Great Lakes have the best wreck diving in the world because the extremely cold fresh water preserves the wooden and steel vessels like a time capsule. And there is no coral or sea salt to degrade the wood. With over 6,000 shipwrecks to document, I have made this my life’s passion.
On my first three dives, five years ago, I made the local news, with some of the photos being shared nationally. Within a year, I made the front page of the Detroit Free Press and Grand Rapids Free Press for two separate stories, a Lake Michigan plastic pollution story and photos of a car underwater. Over the next couple of years, I continued to photograph shipwrecks and underwater geology, along with getting involved in environmental advocacy regarding plastic pollution in our waters. Within three years of beginning to dive, I published my first shipwreck book, Leelanau Underwater, and it has been a bestseller in Michigan. I continued getting coverage in news articles and magazines as my success grew. In 2020, I was invited to appear on an episode of Cities of the Underworld on the History channel for scuba diving and the Great Lakes Stone Circle. Using my popularity to spread environmental awareness about plastics pollution, I was interviewed by Outside magazine.
I enhanced my technical diving skills with many hours of training and diving year-round, even in the coldest of winters, sometimes cutting my way through ice just to dive. One time I chopped a hole through the ice on Lake Charlevoix to visit a wrecked ship that was used by Al Capone as a speakeasy during Prohibition days. My training site is called The Wall Off Old Mission Peninsula, which is an underwater wall carved from the glaciers that goes down to 600 feet. This year I have been diving many deep historical shipwrecks in Presque Isle, Lake Huron, getting my best photos to date. I breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen on the deeper, more dangerous dives. With this type and level of exploring, there are risks involved and I have had a few close calls, but my advanced training has helped me navigate through those situations. I continue to upgrade my technology, and I also fly a drone for overhead shipwreck searching and photos. My boat is equipped with side scan sonar for searching for shipwrecks. This level of exploring needs multiple skill sets, including learning new technology and water navigation.
When I set out on an adventure, I’m in a “Great Lakes State of Mind”; it’s not just what you see, it’s a feeling you get while out on the Great Lakes exploring. When I’m diving, I disconnect from everything on the surface, just floating underwater and getting a moment of silence and peace. Diving and exploring, for me, are almost therapeutic — the adventure and thrill of it strip away the stress of daily life. Some of the remote areas around the Great Lakes I visit have no cell reception, and that adds another layer of disconnection from the world, even for a short time. When I’m deep underwater exploring shipwrecks, I’m not bothered by the daily stress of life on the surface. This is my zen I create as I immerse myself into each exploration.
After years of sharing my experiences, I began to realize other people who watch my adventures also experience a changed state of mind from imagining that they, too, are there, deep underwater seeing the sights I see. I have been contacted by many people over the years who let me know they live vicariously through me, since some are too elderly or have medical issues and will never see in person these beautiful shipwrecks and remote locations around the Great Lakes. During the pandemic, my Facebook page grew its online community. This was a safe place for people to go and just disconnect from the multiple levels of isolation, fear and stress and just enjoy the shipwreck stories and photos. Hearing stories of sick and elderly people using my page as an escape from isolation and to see sights they may never see in person helped me create some of the best photography and most exciting adventures around the Great Lakes that anyone has ever publicly shared. I was not really alone while adventuring because I would have thousands of people waiting for daily posts and interacting online so they could go places with me without leaving the comfort of home.
Above all, the most important thing from this career is inspiring others to take care of our waters for future generations to enjoy. Explore the Great Lakes along the miles of shoreline while embracing the diversity of the land, islands and lakes. Follow your dreams and always believe in yourself.
ARTIST BIO: Chris Roxburgh is a nationally renowned underwater photographer, environmental advocate and author. Follow along on his adventures on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram @chrisroxburgh. You can find his book, Leelanau Underwater, at Horizon Books or on Amazon.
Read more of our stories in Issue 24 of Lake and Company.