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Researchers to return to Lake Huron as COVID-19 ebbs

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Stephanie Gandulla, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary research and media coordinator, stands outside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building on Fletcher Street in April.

ALPENA — When the coronavirus pandemic began last spring, research planned in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was canceled.

This summer, however, scientists have received permission from both the state and federal government to renew research and expand upon many of the mapping and exploration projects that have taken place in the past.

Stephanie Gandulla, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary research and media coordinator, said researcher John O’Shea will return to survey and map the bottom of the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, an ancient land bridge across what is now Lake Huron, while scientists with the Ocean Exploration Trust and the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping will return to map the bottom of Lake Huron.

Researchers also plan to explore the Middle Island Sinkhole.

Gandulla said Marine Sanctuary scientists would lead the mapping of the Alpena-Amberley Ridge and O’Shea will scuba dive and explore the ridge once scientists have completed the mapping.

The ridge is “one of the few places on the planet that is a prehistoric hunting area, that, since it’s underwater, has been preserved,” she said, noting the same cold, freshwater environment that preserves dozens of shipwrecks in the sanctuary also preserves other artifacts.

Scientists with the Ocean Exploration Trust and the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping will also return to Lake Huron this summer to pick up where they left off pre-pandemic.

The university scientists will once again bring the autonomous surface vessel BEN — or Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator — to map the lake bottom.

Gandulla said the group mapped 28 square miles of lake bottom off of the coast of Rogers City last summer. She said the group likely will continue mapping around that area, closer to the shoreline.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to monitor the sanctuary’s shipwrecks amid fluctuating water levels in Lake Huron. While officials recorded high lake levels last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reported Lake Huron levels have fallen about 13 inches since this time last year.

State Maritime Archeologist Wayne Lusardi said changes in water levels impact shipwrecks, particularly those in shallow water.

“The Joseph Fay at 40 Mile Point is a perfect example of that,” he said. “The main wreckage — the bottom part of the ship — is intact in about 20 feet of water offshore and was relatively unaffected. But one of the sides of the Fay has been on the beach for more than 100 years and, as the lake levels came up, they sort of engulfed that wreck and literally shoved it down the beach and higher up into the dunes and into the treeline.”

He said the side sits in the worst possible place for a shipwreck.

“Unfortunately, it’s way too big for us to really help it out into the water,” he said. “It’s 140 feet long or so, and, so, the best course of action is just to document the wreck site over and over again. If pieces are falling off of it or disarticulating, then we take action on that, whether we recover them or return them to the site.”

Two winters ago, that part of the Fay was in it’s roughest shape, Lusardi said. However, now that the water is receding, sand has started to cover and protect the wreck again.

Lusardi often gets calls when wood washes ashore at Bay View Park. Most of the time, callers found slab wood or docking. Sometimes, pieces of shipwreck do wash ashore.

“The water levels definitely contribute to that changing dynamic of the shoreline, and, consequently, you never know what you’re going to find on the beach,” he said.

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