Tysall explained that what he had wanted was to advance the field of underwater exploration and sharpen his own understanding of the technology. And the accomplishment felt neat. “But that wasn’t the point. In fact, we kept it secret. We didn’t want all the publicity. I talked to a member of the survivors’ association beforehand. I wanted to show it could be done, but done respectfully. Even our two support divers didn’t know where they were going until they were in the car,” he said with a laugh.
Tysall’s crew used what’s known as Flintstone technology, which he explained as simply bigger tanks. “Obviously we were well-trained. We scheduled a week of dives. But you know Lake Superior; the weather changed. We squeezed one dive in during the morning. We could have done more, but I wanted things safe. The dive time was about fifteen minutes including descent. We ended up spending about six or so minutes at the bottom. I reached out and put my hand on the rail. It was so tangible. You’re able to feel history.”
Indeed, Great Lakes wrecks are unparalleled for their historical and archaeological significance, largely because of their excellent state of preservation: These cold, clear freshwater seas with a relative scarcity of marine life provide the best possible environment for keeping wrecks intact.
“Minnesota has wonderful wreck diving,” said Shirley Hendrickson of the Scuba, Dive, and Travel store on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. The main store, the size of a large living room, is densely packed with dive equipment of all kinds. A smaller side room displays an array of air tanks and intriguing underwater photos, which contrast with stern warning signs of the sort that might be posted to scare divers away from deadly underwater areas. One quick look around the store is enough to remind the casual patron that diving is serious and potentially lethal. As author Joseph Conrad once said, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”
Shirley, whose son owns the store, doesn’t dive anymore. But she’s still an enthusiast of the sport and its possibilities in our local waters, despite the fact that most customers of Scuba, Dive, and Travel practice the art in warmer climes. “The vast majority of our divers go to warm water. They might only dive in the Caribbean. Then there’s this core minority who get into diving and really want to hone their skills. There are only a couple of shops in town that offer advanced training for deeper water.” But people come from all over the world to do wreck diving in the Great Lakes. The cold, fresh water keeps the wrecks pristine. “A wreck in the Caribbean might be just a few boards, but in the Great Lakes people can see whole ships nearly undisturbed,” said Shirley.
Scuba, Dive, and Travel conducts monthly dives to the Madeira and the Hesper, both on the North Shore. “They’re about one hundred feet down. They’re incredible dives. The whole ships are there,” said Shirley, gesturing toward photos on the wall. “In good-weather months there will be about twenty people. We have dives scheduled until January. Since the water is always about the same temperature—it’s always cold, about thirty-nine degrees—it doesn’t matter what time of year you go. You need a dry suit any time of year.”
In the Great Lakes, even centuries-old wrecks may remain hauntingly intact. Many of these vessels, trapped in time along the muddy lake bottoms, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and their pristine artifacts offer a glimpse into history as well as eerie hints about the last desperate moments of those who went down with the ship. Great Lakes divers also happen upon bodies that have lain undisturbed in their watery graves for decades. “Just recently there was a discovery of a wreck close to the Canadian shore,” said Shirley. “Several bodies were found completely intact, and the Canadian government removed them for burial.”
That’s a pretty tidy ending, but sometimes such discoveries bring controversy, as happened in 1994 when Fred Shannon led a three-day expedition to the wreck of the Fitzgerald. The Michigan entrepreneur hired a miniature sub and made seven dives to the wreck. He intended to produce a video and book. While in the depths, his team photographed a perfectly preserved corpse on the lake bottom just outside the ship’s mangled ruins, and Shannon apparently offered the image of the dead crewman to the media to promote his products. Lawmakers in Michigan and in Canada, which has jurisdiction over the wreck site, acted quickly to outlaw photography of corpses in the Great Lakes.
“I heard about that,” Tysall said curtly. “It’s a shame that the ghoulish element exists. I’ve been in the navy and now I’m with the army. I’ve been in holds in the Pacific that were full of Japanese skulls. These people lost their lives in service, and I have nothing but respect for them. I’ve lost my best friend [in a diving accident]. It took us eight months to find him. Then we had to take him out piece by piece.”