Friday, March 30, 2012

Researchers try to save the lake sturgeon from extinction

The lake sturgeon has been around since the age of the dinosaurs. They did the one thing dinosaurs couldn’t do: They adapted, and they survived.
But, leave it to mankind push one of nature’s oldest creatures to the verge of extinction.
Count Kathy Johnson among those who are trying to bring the lake sturgeon back from near extinction through research and education of the public.
For more than 30 years, Kathy Johnson, along with her partner, Greg Lashbrook,  have worked with scuba certification classes, on search & rescue operations, for commercial hardhat companies and assisted researchers across the Great Lakes basin. Their work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Departments of Natural Resources and Fishes & Oceans Canada, among other organizations, has established them as Great Lakes marine life experts.
For the last several years, the pair has focused much of its efforts on saving the lake sturgeon, which is currently classified as an endangered species. Their efforts began after they received a call from the Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Harrison Township, MI., to ask if they would like to be involved in the project. The DNR had located where the lake sturgeon were spawning, but they needed someone, i.e. scuba divers, to get into the water and find fertilized eggs.
“We didn’t even know what a sturgeon egg looked like,” Johnson said. “So we said, ‘Great, we’re willing, but what are we looking for?’ ”
That initial study was followed by a grant, which allowed researchers to mount a camera in the water for a month to document spawning activity.

What is now known is that the Algonac area of the St. Clair River has the largest area of free range sturgeon population in the Great Lakes basin. Other areas, such as Black Lake, located in the northeast portion of the Lower Peninsula, are land locked and  the sturgeon there are unable to move freely through the basin.
Sturgeons are most vulnerable in the spring when they spawn in shallow rivers and tributaries and can literally be hand-plucked out of the water and stripped of their caviar. The young sturgeon are then subject to predators for about six months, or the fall season, when they swim away from their nesting grounds. Adult sturgeon can grow to 6-8 feet long, weigh 200 pounds and live for 100 years. After travelling for thousands of miles, they return to the exact location they were born every 3-4 years to spawn.
Lake sturgeon are also a valuable barometer on the health of a watershed because they are what is called a “keystone” species. They are given that title because they are the largest animal in the water column yet they are bottom feeders and feed on the smallest organisms in the water column. Thus, the existence of a healthy keystone species like the lake sturgeon in a particular watershed means the entire watershed is healthy.
Johnson said scuba divers can assist in the recovery of the lake sturgeon by working with researchers who need volunteers trained to dive. Divers and other volunteers can also protect the riverbanks during spawning season to prevent poaching.
In 2011, Kathy and Greg released a new full length documentary titled “Manistee NmĂ©, a Lake Sturgeon Success Story,” about the relationship between the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee, MI and the lake sturgeon. The DVD explores not only the spiritual bond between the people and the sturgeon, but also how researchers were able study the lake sturgeon in the area while also being sensitive to the needs of the Indian tribe.
The video is available, for free, by going to or In addition, here is the website for the St. Clair-Detroit River chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow:
Here is my video interview with Kathy Johnson on efforts to saving the lake sturgeon and how divers can help in the effort.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Shipwreck hunter discusses wrecks he found in 2011, and how technology may close the book on wreck hunting in the Great Lakes

Ross Richardson has spent the last decade searching for and documenting shipwrecks off the coast of west Michigan.His hobby has been made much easier with recent advancements in side-scan sonar technology.
But that technology, Richardson fears, may, 10 years from now, render his hobby obsolete.
The Lake Ann resident discovered three still unidentified wrecks off Sleeping Bear Point, near the Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2011. They were all discovered about one-half mile from each other in 12-20 feet of water fairly close to the shoreline. He believes the wrecks were recently uncovered due to shifting sands in the area that were uncovered during a storm, and he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Sleeping Bear Point is subject to numerous landslides, which probably helped bury the wrecks for years. He believes they all wrecked in the area sometime in the 1850s to the 1890s.

Richardson has not found any cargo at any of the sites, but because the wrecks are in such shallow water, salvagers probably recovered the cargo a long time ago.
Unfortunately, for Richardson and others like him, shipwreck hunting in the Great Lakes may be an era that is coming to an end. According to Ross, the new sonar technology will make it possible to discover all remaining shipwrecks on the bottom of the lakes within the next 10-15 years. He believes there are still “a couple hundred shipwrecks" in deep water  intact that are still not found.
“In another 10-15 years, there’s going to be no other shipwrecks to go out there and look for. They’re all going to be discovered,” he said.
Here is my video interview with Ross Richardson regarding his discoveries and the end of an era in shipwreck hunting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dive shops, dive charters talk about scuba diving in the Great Lakes basin

In addition to the very interesting seminars and speakers, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival is at its core a haven for scuba divers to visit the many booths on display that are manned by scuba diving shops and dive charters from across the state.
In this video clip, I spoke with Michael Lynch, of Bruno’s Dive Shop in Clinton Township, MI and; Gary Venet, owner of Rec & Tec Dive Charters out of Port Sanilac; and Femia Alberts of Sea-Side in St. Clair Shores about the value of the festival, wreck diving in Lake Huron and some of the fun that comes with river diving in southeastern Michigan.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Capt. Donald Erickson remembers the night his crew tried to find survivors from the Edmund Fitzgerald

(Note: Capt. Erickson passed away March 26. He was 84. It's probably fair to say I was the last person to interview him when we met on Feb. 25, 2012. It was my honor to do so. May he rest in peace. Funeral arrangements were handled by Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Taylor, Mich. His remains were cremated and as of March 28, there was no funeral service information.)

The night of November 10, 1975, was a night like no other.
If that date doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps referencing Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits will do the trick.
That was the night that the Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest ship to ever ply the Great Lakes at the time, went down in a ferocious storm north of Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior.
It is well known that when she went down, she it took all 29 souls aboard with her.
What isn’t as well known is the story of the brave sailors who risked their lives to try to find survivors of the Fitz. After the Coast Guard radioed that contact had been lost with the Fitz and she had gone down, a frantic call was sent out to nearby ships to assist in recovery of anyone who had survived the sinking.
Capt. Don Erickson, who helmed the SS William Clay Ford, was docked at Whitefish Point when the call came in. He and his crew agreed to head out into dangerous waters along with the Arthur M. Anderson to look for survivors. When they arrived at the spot that the Fitzgerald went down, about three hours after contact was lost, all the William Clay Ford saw was two ducks, according to Erickson.
While their search came up empty, the captain and crew of the SS William Clay Ford was presented with many awards for their bravery, including a plaque bestowed upon them by the Great Lakes Maritime Insitute. It reads “On the night of November 10–11, 1975, these men voluntarily left a safe harbor to face the dangers of gale force winds and vicious seas, in the blackness of a storm which had already claimed as a victim the steamer Edmund Fitzgerald, to search for possible survivors of that disaster, exemplifying the finest traditions of the maritime profession."
I had always believed that the Fitz went down because it ended up sitting on two rogue waves at the stem and the stern that lifted the center section off the water. With nothing to support the center, it broke it two. Erickson is convinced the Fitz struck a shoal near Caribou Island which produced a hole in the hull that ultimately led to the sinking.
Here is my interview with Capt. Erickson and his memories from that harrowing night.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Scientists study caribou hunters beneath Lake Huron along the prehistoric Alpena-Amberly land bridge

Nine thousand years ago, travelers heading from Michigan to Canada didn’t have the luxury of the Ambassador Bridge or the Blue Water Bridge or the Windsor Tunnel to get them there.
But those travelers didn’t need those man-made passages either, since there was once a land bridge from what is now Alpena to what is now Ontario.
That’s right. Just after the end of the Ice Age, whose glaciers helped form Michigan’s Great Lakes, a land bridge, called the Alpena- Amberley ridge, was a 72-square mile stretch of land connecting the northestern Lower Peninsula with southwest Ontario. On older nautical charts, the area is labeled as the Six Fathom Shoal, and it once divided the Lake Huron basin into two distinct lakes. The prehistoric Lake Stanley is the forerunner to Lake Huron, while Lake Chippewa is the forerunner to Lake Michigan. Prior to the ice melt, those two lakes did not connect at the Straits of Mackinac like they do today.

The Alpena-Amberly Ridge was a rocky land-bridge subject to bitterly cold weather that served as a migration path for both mastadon and caribou.
All of the conditions would have been right for a caribou hunt along the ridge. Early hunters are known to have hunted caribou in present day Michigan during that time. The region was prime caribou habitat with its open tundra and few trees. And those hunters would have pursued the caribou not only as a  food source, but also to use their thick hides as insulation against the harsh cold. Sharing the same land bridge doesn't necessarily mean the caribou became prey for early hunters, but scientists are beginning to uncover clues that could reveal evidence of hunting blinds, caches or pits, and “drive lanes” that would bring the animals close enough that the hunters could attack with them spears.
Since the summer of 2009, Dr. John O'Shea, curator of Great Lakes Archaeology in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, has led a study of the area. His biggest problems? The ridge is now at the bottom of Lake Huron, about 100 feet below the surface and secondly, any potential artifacts are covered with zebra mussels. The good news is that the area remains virtually the way it was. If such an area was on land, it most certainly would have been altered by farmers and ultimately that type of modern development we have today.
Here is my fasinating interview from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival with Dr. O’Shea regarding his research on the Alpena-Amberly land ridge.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Detroit Police Department dive team member describes how he found a Revolutionary War-era cannon in the Detroit River last summer

I didn’t ask Detroit Police Sgt. Dean Rademaker if he is a gambler. But with his luck, he might consider dropping down a few bills in Las Vegas.
Last July, Rademaker, part of the police department’s scuba diving team, found a Revolutionary War-era cannon on the bottom of the Detroit River. It was a training dive to get new divers familiar with the river’s fast currents.
Rademaker, who already was part of the dive team that found another cannon in 1994, wasn’t in the water for long before he discovered another amazing part of our region’s history.
The cannon was found in about 6 inches of silt. It is 5.5 feet long and weighs 1,288 pounds.