The first plunge into Lake Erie is the strangest. Your instincts tell you to get back to the air to breathe, that you'll get lost in the liquid fog. But there's your diving instructor, peering at you through the cloud of algae and silt, hand-signaling an OK sign to ask how you're doing. You signal you're OK and he swims downward, holding on to your boat's anchor line, expecting you to follow.
A visit Lake Erie's shipwrecks, you need scuba-diving certification. You can take the standard Open Water Diver training course, which takes about six weeks, plus the four extra guided dives you need for Advanced certification, through a dive center and some dive clubs. Basic equipment (wet suit, mask, snorkel, regulator, air tank) costs $1,200 to $1,500, so it's smart to rent for your first few dives, then buy gear once you're sure you like the sport.
Â¸ortheast Ohio has several dive stores; see Yellow Pages under Diving Instruction and Divers' Equipment and Supplies. The New Wave Scuba Center in Port Clinton (419-734-2240; newwavescuba.com) is a center of diving activity for the Lake Erie Islands. Discovery Dive Charters and Tours in Cleveland's Wildwood State Park (216-692-3483; www.discoverydive.com) offers diving expeditions all summer.
Joining a diving club is a good way to befriend experienced divers who are eager to share their knowledge, give you advice about the best diving equipment to buy and tÃ˜ke you along on their boats. The most active in the area are Aqua Amigos (216-432-7156; aquaamigos.com), Aqua Masters (440-899-5096) and the Lake Erie Wreck Divers in Lorain (440-989-1086; lakeeriewreckdivers.com).
TÎ©he book "Erie Wrecks West" by Avon Lake divers Georgann and Michael Wachter, describes of the most impressive shipwrecks near Cleveland. It's a helpful guide for divers and an interesting read for those who'd rather experience shipwrecks vicariously on dry land.
You breathe in and out, proving your instincts wrong. Every few feet, you pinch your nose and blow to relieve the pressure in your ears. Suddenly, the fog parts, and you're on the ship, a 90-year-old, half-burned hull of wood planks, 18 feet below Erie's surface, just off Kelleys Island. You scrape aside the waving algae and zebra-mussel shells to see the wood's grain and stare back at the orange-eyed smallmouth bass swimming past.
If you want to travel back in time and explore the watery part of the world, all in a day trip from Cleveland, consider scuba diving in Lake Erie to visit shipwrecks. Boats from the last 200 years litter the Great Lakes. Fresh-water divers, who don't have coral reefs or exotic fish to search for, have gotten to know the wrecks well, and they'd be happy to introduce you.
Twenty years ago, only the hardiest scuba fanatic plunged into Lake Erie, and wrecks' locations were fiercely kept secrets. Now, improved sonar, GPS locator systems and guidebooks full of coordinates have opened up the lake. Thousands dive it every summer.
"Sport diving started out as a macho thing," says Mike Wachter, who's written two books on Lake Erie shipwrecks with his wife, Georgann. "Today, it's more of a family sport. It's more common that both members of a couple dive. You'll find an entire family diving."
Yes, the lake is cold, but a wet suit or dry suit will keep a diver pretty warm. Yes, the silt-filled water makes for low, murky visibility. But the zebra mussel, the lake's invasive pest, has filtered Erie's water and made it a little clearer. On a good day, divers say, visibility off Cleveland opens up to 20 feet or more, a huge improvement from the 3 to 5 feet of 20 years ago.
Lake Erie may have the densest concentration of shipwrecks of any body of water in the world, since pioneers and immigrants used it as a highway throughout the 1800s and shipping has done the same since. And it's the shallowest Great Lake, so the wrecks near Cleveland and the Lake Erie Islands are especially accessible. Four wrecks sit off Kelleys Island alone, 20 or fewer feet underwater â€” perfect diving for a beginner.
Eight miles off Lorain, you can still see part of the paddle wheels on the side-wheel steamer Morning Star, which sank in 1868 after a collision. The Dundee, a 210-foot schooner, is still mostly intact 104 years after sinking 14 miles north of Rocky River. A 215-foot steamer, the Queen of the West, sits upright 70 feet underwater near Fairport Harbor.
The Admiral, a tug that sank in 1942, also lies near Rocky River â€” but anyone can see a bell and other items salvaged from the wreck at the Great Lakes Historical Society's museum in Vermilion (www.inlandseas.org, 440-967-3467). Its Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center includes a library, a computerized wreck locator and the headquarters of an underwater archaeology team of volunteer divers (which on June 19 and 20 will explore the Craftsman, a barge that sank near Avon Lake).
As divers gain experience, they dive in Canada's shipwreck preserve off Point Pelee and Pelee Island, head east to Erie's deeper, clearer waters off Barcelona, N.Y., and explore wrecks in the other four Great Lakes. Popular wreck areas include Lake Ontario near Kingston, Ontario, and Lake Huron's Georgian Bay near Tobermory, Ontario.
Back on your boat, you're glad to breathe real air again, relieved not to be swimming in Erie's pea soup, not to be afraid of losing sight of the other divers. Another part of you, though, misses weightlessness, the water's bright silence, touching the lake's submerged history. Those sensations will linger in a deep, underwater part of your mind until you dive again.