MANITOWOC (NBC 26) — Dave DeZeeuw has been exploring shipwrecks along the western coast of Lake Michigan for decades.
“I used to be a flight instructor here in Manitowoc back in the 1980s," he said. "We used to see the shipwrecks down in the water. I thought everybody knew about them, but the people that are walking on the beach, they'd walk right by them and have no clue that they were there.”
This summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, designated the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast, a 962-square-mile area from Two Rivers to Port Washington, a National Marine Sanctuary this summer. NOAA will expand on the state's 30-year stewardship of the historic sites, bringing new opportunities for research, resource protection, educational programming, and community engagement. In partnership with local communities, the sanctuary will provide a national stage for promoting heritage tourism and recreation.
“There's a heritage here," said DeZeeuw. "I think this marine sanctuary, now they call this 'heritage recreation.' This is something new that they're trying to get people to come and see, that there is a maritime heritage in this area. There's hundreds of years of shipping and ships that have been in this area.”
An estimated 122 shipwrecks sank along the coast, but there are only 36 ones that are known.
“There's a lot out there yet to be discovered," said Cathy Green, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. "They're just so well preserved. The cold freshwater preserves wrecks here in the Great Lakes like nowhere else in the world. It's like having time capsules on the bottom of the lake. From a museum and archaeological or historical perspective, that's absolutely fantastic."
The process of getting the Shipwreck Coast to be designated a National Marine Sanctuary was a decade-long process, said Green.
“The collection of wrecks that are out there really illustrate shipping here on the Great Lakes over 150-200 years," she said. "It really is like having a catalog of these pieces, these vessels that really helped to build these communities, right at our fingertips.”
If you want to see the wrecks with your own eyes, you don't need an airplane or fancy scuba gear; the wrecks range from ten feet underwater to 400 feet, so there's a lot to see from a kayak or boat. You can even just put a swimsuit on and grab some goggles, like DeZeeuw, if you can brace the cold water.
“It's something that Manitowoc has a history of," said DeZeeuw. "And it's something that we can show and be proud of as citizens here.”