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For sanctuary, COVID-19 pandemic shifts some plans, while providing valuable lessons

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Jeff Gray talks recently about the outdoor activities available in the sanctuary while the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is still closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He stands in Alpena’s Bay View Park next to one of the 140 educational markers set up along the Maritime Heritage Trail for visitors and residents to enjoy.

ALPENA — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, known by many locals as “the shipwreck museum,” hosts 80,000 visitors on average each year.

Now closed for just over a year because of the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic, officials look forward to reopening as soon as the federal government will allow.

But, in the meantime, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Jeff Gray said, residents and visitors have plenty of ways to enjoy the sanctuary outside, such as paddleboarding, kayaking, diving, and boarding the Lady Michigan glass-bottom boat for a tour over the shipwrecks.

Gray reflected on some of the lessons learned during the pandemic, and some of the positive additions that will only enhance the Heritage Center’s offerings going forward.

“It’s been tough for us and our volunteers — and everybody — because so much of what I think we’ve done a good job with over the years is having contact with people, be that through our programs at the visitor center, school groups coming to the visitor center,” he said. “The exhibits are hands-on. It’s been hard not to see those 80,000 people coming through the visitor center, because it’s so much a part of what we do. We’re anxious to get back up and operating.”

In the absence of visitors, NOAA employees have stayed busy getting the museum ready for reopening.

“Over the last year, we’ve been working on some of those projects that you can’t do when you have 80,000 people in there,” Gray explained. “When we open up, people will see some minor updates to the exhibits. We’re expanding the roof deck up there. We’re adding a catering kitchen so we can do more events and do more green events where we are focusing on zero waste.”

NOAA held virtual events throughout the past year, including hosting the Thunder Bay International Film Festival virtually for the first time, allowing people from all over the world to watch the films from their own homes.

“The great thing about these virtual events — there’s two things: One is that anyone can access them pretty easily,” Gray said. “And, then, it’s not that difficult to archive them, so they live in perpetuity, so people can come back to them if they were busy during that timeframe, and watch them … We’ve figured out how to do this now, and share with the world, and that will become a regular part of what we’re doing.”

He noted that the virtual platform for the film festival was very successful, and will likely continue in future years, in addition to the traditional film festival shown on the big screens at the Heritage Center.

Gray said the virtual platform offers a different experience than enjoying the films and lectures in the Heritage Center theater, but does have the benefit of casting a wider net.

“We are part of a national program, and I think it will help spread our message,” he said. “And, for years, we’ve done the opposite, where we’ve broadcast researchers from around the world into our theater … And, so, it can be a two-way street. We can use the technology so Alpena can discover the rest of the world, and use it so the rest of the world can discover Alpena and the sanctuary and what we have to offer.”

Gray counts learning to shift to an online platform among the positive lessons brought on by the pandemic, because it widens the audience the sanctuary can reach, thus bringing more attention and interest to Alpena.

He said more people know how to use virtual programs now that we’ve been in the pandemic for over a year, so it’s become more user-friendly.

“In addition to the virtual stuff we did — the film festival, the lectures, connecting with teachers — we’ve been trying to get as ready as possible so we can start up again as soon as it’s safe,” Gray said.

As for outdoor adventures, residents and visitors can enjoy the sanctuary even from land, thanks to 140 educational markers installed just prior to the pandemic along the Maritime Heritage Trail along the Thunder Bay River and Lake Huron shoreline.

“We now have 140 outdoor interpretive markers stretching across the three counties,” Gray said. “On Fletcher Street and along the (Thunder Bay) River, we have these interpretive signs — that’s where we started it — but, over the last several years, we’ve been working on a massive project.”

The signs can be found in state parks, marinas, city parks, and township parks, he added.

He said the last of the signs went up in early 2020.

“So, just as the pandemic hit, these outdoor markers were out there,” Gray said, adding that it was “perfect timing,” because people could not gather indoors, but they still could learn about the sanctuary outdoors.

“It was a great way to have contact with folks,” he said of the interpretive signs.

Another way to “get into your sanctuary” without getting wet is to hop on the Lady Michigan glass-bottom boat, which will run regular tours starting at the end of May and throughout the summer.

“To me, that’s the best way to experience the shipwrecks, next to jumping in with a tank on your back,” Gray said.

Viewing the shipwrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary from the boat is a memorable experience for all ages, Gray said.

“It’s outside, open air,” he said. “It’s a safe way to experience the sanctuary.”

For those who would rather just dive in, crews soon will install mooring buoys in the sanctuary, marking the shipwrecks. Boats can attach to the buoys so their anchors don’t harm the shipwrecks. Divers then can enjoy the shipwrecks close up, while paddleboarders and kayakers can view many of them from above the water.

“A lot of work goes into the visitor center, but, really, what the visitor center’s purpose is to remind people about the sanctuary, and what’s out in our community — the beaches, the shores, the shipwrecks, and what you can do in, around and under Lake Huron,” Gray said.

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