Students take field trips to learn about Michigan shipwrecks


School kids across Michigan are stepping out of the classroom and onto buses for, what for many, is their favorite time of the year, field trips.

Some that are within driving distance of Alpena are learning about a unique part of Michigan history…shipwrecks.

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena is one of two sanctuaries in the country dedicated to preserving shipwrecks.

Its the only one in freshwater.

This spring, the sanctuary is in the 4th year of a partnership with the Alpena shipwreck tours, which operates glass-bottom boats.

“Now if you look down here you’re going to say ‘Oh gee I can’t see very much’, well welcome to the Thunder Bay river, but once we get out into the lake though things should change…”

That’s Chuck Wieson. He is a volunteer with the Sanctuary.

He spends his days educating students across the state on a unique part of Michigan maritime heritage through classroom boat cruises. He said, “Today we have a group of technically oriented students from Roscommon high school and we are going out into Lake Huron specifically Thunder Bay. The students have brought a remotely operated vehicle with them, and we’re going out to see if we can find a shipwreck and if we can find a shipwreck we’re going to launch the remotely operated vehicle so they can have a chance to look at the wreck from underwater.”

The ship increased speed and headed out into the bay.

Students crowded along the rails to peer down through the glass-bottom of the boat.

The ship’s Captain, Paul Lebrecque, said, “It’s absolutely amazing to see these wrecks up close and personal.” Adding that it’s the fresh, cold water that preserves the wrecks so well.

He said, “In the ocean you cannot see wrecks like these, these old wooden shipwrecks, because the salt will eat away all the fasteners that hold all the boats together. And then there’s worms in the ocean that will actually eat the wood. I mean they can pretty much eat a whole ship in about five years. So as far as remnants of ocean-going vessels, they’re just not there.”

Also on the cruise was David Cummins, an instructor at Alpena Community College. He operated the Remotely Operated Vehicle, or R-O-V, on the cruise.

He said, “Well currently with this ROV, I am exploring the shipwreck the Flint, and just giving a little demonstration of how we can use this technology to explore the waters underneath us.”

Cummins said, “ROV technology has a number of advantages over traditional diving. The ROV is basically an underwater camera that we can navigate around and get good crystal clear high definition pictures of a wreck without actually having to dive down on the wreck and the cold waters, and we can stay down longer than we can with a normal diver, and also hit depths that we can’t do as a normal diver.”

Technology with a unique payoff, as the students gathered around the on-board screen to see the ROV’s feed from below.

Stephanie Gandulla is the media and outreach coordinator at Thunder Bay Sanctuary. She said she never tires of reactions from young students.

“The classroom cruises that we do every season in partnership with the glass-bottom boat Alpena shipwreck tours is such a great opportunity to get high numbers of students out in the water, out on the water and experience these shipwrecks first hand. I mean they really get to reach out and touch history without getting wet.”

Gandulla said the sanctuary was established in 2000 to preserve the hundreds of shipwrecks around Thunder Bay in Lake Huron.

“We were designated to protect a collection of shipwrecks that truly represent a core element of american history. These shipwrecks represent the first major influx of people and resources and industry and economy into the great lakes, into the Midwest from the east coast. And so they tell an important story.”

It’s a story that’s now being told to Michigan’s students of all ages.

“And that is what I think is really valuable for these students to really experience its not the big dates and the big events but this is representative of everyday life the thousands and thousands of people who made their living on the lakes and many of them that survived and then these shipwrecks tell us the stories of all the rest.”

Gandulla said shipwrecks are still being discovered today and thousands remain undiscovered. She said the preservation of these wrecks protects an important part of Michigan history for future generations to enjoy.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary