Wreck diving in Lake Michigan

By: Claire Bullen

April 17, 2015

Shipwrecks are more than just the province of the Caribbean (and not all of them involve pirates). Chicago may not seem like a must-visit for scuba divers, but you don’t need coral and tropical fish for an impressive underwater foray. In fact, it’s an open secret in the diving world that the Great Lakes are prime turf surf for underwater adventures. Here are some of the best places to try wreck diving in Lake Michigan.

Wreck Diving in Lake Michigan
Take in the Chicago skyline from the water © Thom_Morris/iStock/Thinkstock

Thanks to the cold temperatures and freshwater, the ships that have met their watery fates in these lakes are still remarkably well preserved. As vessels have traversed the Great Lakes for 400-odd years, there’s also been ample time for wrecks to accumulate – experts estimate that there are more than 6,000 across all five lakes today. There’s no better way to explore than to dive right in, and for visitors to Chicago, Lake Michigan is the perfect jumping off point.

Wreck Diving in Lake Michigan
Swim amongst schools of fish in Lake Michigan © Windy City Diving

The third largest of the Great Lakes, the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world, and big enough to have lunar tides, the colossal Lake Michigan often feels more like an ocean. It’s also full of shipwrecks from different eras, with more than 40 in close proximity to the city. You don’t have to be an expert diver to go for a dip, either: while some wrecks are quite deep – and while it isn’t recommended to swim through the wrecks themselves – many are shallow enough to be easily accessible to less experienced swimmers.

Wreck Diving in Lake Michigan
Many of the best dive sites are within easy reach of Chicago © marchello74/iStock/Thinkstock

One of the most popular places for wreck diving in Lake Michigan is The Straits of Mackinac – and it’s also one of the newest. A passenger ferry that was purposefully sunk in 2003, the ship now bears a patina of zebra mussels, but is otherwise in photo-ready condition.


Another local shipwreck with a story to tell is The Wells Burt, an elegant schooner that sunk in 1883 after a ferocious storm ripped apart its masts. Now located off the coast of Evanston, just north of downtown Chicago, the wreck wasn’t rediscovered by modern divers until 1988. These days, the stunning shipwreck remains largely intact, making it one of the most-visited in Lake Michigan.

Wreck Diving in Lake Michigan | Wells Burt Wreck
Check out The Wells Burt wreck on your Lake Michigan dive © Windy City Diving

If you’re seeking out top-notch underwater sightseeing, one more popular stop is the wreck of the (poetically named) Wings of the Wind, a striking, 142-foot schooner that sunk in 1866 while ferrying a delivery of coal. Given that it now rests 40 feet below the water’s surface, it’s shallow enough to be doable for divers of varying levels of experience.


And that’s only scratching the surface when it comes to noteworthy wreck diving in Lake Michigan: everything from the Tacoma, a 1920s-era tugboat, to the grand Rotarian paddle steamer to several early 20th century barges, await your explorations.

Wreck Diving in Lake Michigan
Experts estimate that there are more than 6,000 wrecks across all five Great Lakes © Windy City Diving

For those looking to strap on a pair of flippers and shimmy into a dry suit, several expert charter services regularly bring divers to the very best wrecks in the vicinity, though it’s advised to have some scuba experience beforehand. Windy City Diving is an excellent choice, and its season lasts each year from late April to mid-October; a number of other Chicago-based scuba companies also partner with the provider for dives. Now’s the time to invest in an underwater camera.


Virgin Atlantic make it simple to book your flight to Chicago – don’t forget to pack your flippers.


Would you go wreck diving in Lake Michigan? Which wreck would you most like to see? Let us know in the comments section below.


Written by Claire Bullen

Claire Bullen

Claire is a born globetrotter: before relocating to London, she spent time in New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. When she's not in pursuit of the next exciting meal, she can be found haunting indie bookstores and sketching outdoors. Follow Claire @ClaireMBullen

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