When I’m breathing underwater, my body is weightless and this vast, blue world is silent. As I float over rippled sand through prismatic rays of liquid sun, each exhale creates bubbles that rise around me, floating to the surface and its bustling world that, from down here, seems so blissfully far away.
These were the thoughts that drifted through my mind during those first moments when, immersed in the depths of Grand Traverse Bay in a dive class taught by Scuba North, I had mastered the equipment that allowed me, a land-dwelling human, to exist for a time in an underwater world. That was when I fell in love with scuba diving. And that is why you should, too. Because believe it or not, we Michiganders live in one of the most fascinating places in the world to scuba dive.
Last week, I met up with Steve Raths, manager of Scuba North, inside the full-service dive shop located on Garfield Avenue in Traverse City.
From the moment I walk in, everything smells of rubber and neoprene, which, in addition to the walls lined with masks, fins, and snorkels as colorful as a coral reef, make me anxious to gear up and get in the water. We chat about recreational diving in the Great Lakes, which Raths tells me has been around as long as ocean water diving, taking off in popularity during the 1960s and growing as an industry ever since.
“So, what makes diving in Michigan unique?” I ask him. “We all know the water is often cold and the ‘sea life’ isn’t much to look at. What’s the big draw?”
“It’s the shipwrecks,” he tells me. “Because our water is fresh, shipwrecks and other underwater relics such as mills and docks can be preserved for hundreds of years, whereas in the ocean they are destroyed very quickly.” He goes on to explain that divers and history enthusiasts come to Michigan from all over the world to experience this window into the past amidst the grandeur of the Great Lakes. Some of the best places to see these majestic underwater treasures, he tells me, are in the Straits of Mackinac, Whitefish Point and Isle Royale (both in the Upper Peninsula), the Manitou Islands, and the Thunder Bay area near Alpena. Traverse City and its surrounding areas also have many shallow-water wrecks that are perfect for beginning-level divers, and there are great opportunities for diving all over the state of Michigan.
Next, I ask Raths what he would tell people who are skeptical about trying diving. After all, there’s a lot of scary-looking equipment involved and it’s often considered an “extreme” sport. “It’s a lot easier than people assume, and it’s very safe,” he tells me. “In fact, in Michigan, dive classes are taught with slightly higher safety standards than many ocean classes due to the unique nature of our fresh water. As long as you understand your equipment, diving is about as dangerous as bowling.”
Scuba North, and many other Michigan dive shops, offer training courses year-round, including a “Basic Scuba Diver” course. This consists of a combination of classroom and pool or lake training, as well as an Open Water dive, which you must complete to become a certified scuba diver, a certification that you can use when diving anywhere in the world.
We all love beaching and boating in Michigan. But haven’t you ever wondered what’s beneath those pounding waves? Scuba diving is yet another way to experience and enjoy the unique beauty of our beloved Great Lakes, and getting certified as a diver is just the first step toward discovering a new and endlessly exciting underwater world.
–Ariana Hendrix, Feature Writer