Alpena’s Underwater Museum: Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Alpena’s Underwater Museum: Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

In my exploration of Alpena for our #MittenTrip project, I found that this lake town on the “sunrise coast” has a unique relationship with its history and geography. Natural sinkholes disappear into the earth and gleaming lighthouses rise and stand guard above it. A limestone quarry overflows with 400-million-year-old fossils, while a dense, kayak-friendly wildlife sanctuary sits just inside the city limits.

Of all the landmarks and attractions, the combination of history and geography is most striking in what lies just under the water. Enveloping the coast of Alpena and the surrounding areas of Thunder Bay and Lake Huron, the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary has been accumulating a large number and variety of shipwrecks since the 1800s.

Aerial view of US-23, Alpena and Thunder Bay, facing south. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten - MittenTrip
Aerial view of US-23, Alpena and Thunder Bay, facing south. Photo by Joel Heckaman

There are several reasons — both geographical and historical — for the dense collection of sunken vessels.

Smaller than only Saginaw Bay on Michigan’s east coast, Thunder Bay is a convenient safe port for ships that need protection from Northern Michigan storms – and Alpena is certainly northern, as the 45th parallel crosses just south of the city limits. Safety is not guaranteed, however, as sailors still have to navigate around several small islands in or around the bay.

Alpena has always been much more than a rest stop, though, as other features of its geography have brought plenty of traffic of their own. Originally, Northeast Michigan was ideal for fishing and logging, for which Alpena was one of many northern ports.

Alpena Breakwater Light, also known as Lil' Red, sits at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten - MittenTrip
Alpena Breakwater Light, also known as Lil’ Red, sits at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. Photo by Joel Heckaman

Before long, it was discovered that the area is incredibly ripe with limestone, a key ingredient in cement. Home to one of the world’s largest limestone quarries and one of the world’s largest cement plants, Alpena has had a near-constant flow of freighter traffic—and wrecks—for well over a century.

The Great Lakes’ fresh water and cold temperatures have kept these history lessons – many of them wooden – surprisingly intact, and Alpena offers several different ways to explore and learn more about these ships and their remains.

If you’re hoping to stay warm and dry throughout the entire experience, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center features exhibits, photographs, x-rays, scale-model replicas, and plenty of interesting information about many of the shipwrecks within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Shipwreck exhibit at Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena. Photo by Joel Heckaman
Shipwreck exhibit at Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association-run facility also includes unique displays of recovered items, educational dioramas and, most noticeably, a full-size replica of a wrecked (or mid-wreck) 138-foot schooner. Visitors are able to walk the deck, inspect the hull, explore the crew’s quarters, sit at the captain’s desk, and “experience” the ship’s last moments above water. The exhibit even has a lifeboat, which kids are encouraged to have their picture taken in.

Those of you who wish to see a real shipwreck will prefer the next option: a tour of Thunder Bay in the glass-bottom boat Lady Michigan. Starting behind the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, on Thunder Bay River, the tour begins with a short cruise through downtown Alpena.

Glass-bottom boat Lady Michigan passes over wreckage of the Haltiner Barge that sank in 1929. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten - MittenTrip
Glass-bottom boat Lady Michigan passes over wreckage of the Haltiner Barge that sank in 1929. Photo by Joel Heckaman

The tour continues out into Thunder Bay, where the captain has easily a dozen nearby shipwrecks to choose from, depending on weather, traffic, or just personal preference. Each one will allow for several minutes of gently gliding over the submerged remains, which will seem mere inches from the large downward-facing windows in the bottom of the boat. With some luck, you’ll also get to see an above-water, fully-operational ship as you pass the Lafarge cement plant and dock.

Tugboat Jacklyn M. pushes barge Integrity out of the dock at Lafarge cement plant in Alpena. Photo by Joel Heckaman - Awesome Mitten - MittenTrip
Tugboat Jacklyn M. pushes barge Integrity out of the dock at Lafarge cement plant in Alpena. Photo by Joel Heckaman

If you’re interested in getting even closer to the shipwrecks, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is prime for SCUBA diving. Great Lakes Divers, located just outside the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, provides full-service equipment rentals or sales, as well as introductory courses and certifications.

A NOAA archaeologist swims by the gigantic diesel engine of the steel freighter Nordmeer that lies in 40 feet of water within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Tane Casserley, NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary - Awesome Mitten - MittenTrip
A NOAA archaeologist swims by the gigantic diesel engine of the steel freighter Nordmeer that lies in 40 feet of water within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Tane Casserley, NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Once you’re certified (or if you already are), Great Lakes Divers provides charters to many locations around Alpena and Presque Isle, as well as options for some of the inland lakes. Thunder Bay Dive Charters, operated by Captain Mike of the Middle Island Keeper’s Lodge (which I highly recommended in an earlier MittenTrip article) provides charters in the area as well. If you’re looking to explore a longer stretch of coast, Great Lakes Dive Charters has dive locations from Alpena to Mackinac.

NOAA archaeologists document the damaged stern of the wooden freighter SS Florida. Photo by Tane Casserley/NOAA, Thunder Bay NMS - Awesome Mitten - MittenTrip
NOAA archaeologists document the damaged stern of the wooden freighter SS Florida. Photo by Tane Casserley/NOAA, Thunder Bay NMS

If all of this seems a bit too involved, there is always the opportunity to rent a kayak or canoe. Some of the shipwrecks are even shallow enough to snorkel or swim through. Or, on calm days when the water is extra clear, you may be able to see a full complement of shipwrecks in one trip during an aerial tour with Aviation North.

However you decide to take it all in during a visit to Alpena, your adventure is likely to connect you with its history and geography unlike anywhere else.

What is your favorite hands-on (or flipppers-on) museum in Michigan? Let us know in the comments!

Special thanks to our sponsors for making our #MittenTrip to Alpena possible: Verizon, AYYO WeekendsShorts BrewingGreat Lakes Proud, and High Five Threads.