Thunder Bay, off the shores of Alpena, Michigan, is one of the most treacherous stretches of water in the Great Lakes. Murky fog banks, rocky shoals and fierce storms earned the area the name “Shipwreck Alley.” Today, more than 200 shipwrecks rest within Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The area is part of a larger system dedicated to protecting special underwater places in the United States, including deep-water canyons off the coast of California, humpback whale breeding grounds along the shores of Massachusetts and some of the most diverse coral populations in the South Pacific.
Thunder Bay, however, was designated to preserve a nationally significant group of historic shipwrecks well-kept by Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water. This collection represents over a century of commerce in the heart of the continent. It includes old wooden schooners that date to the early 19th century and modern, massive steel freighters.
Together, the remains tell the story of a time when these ships ruled the lakes, linking America’s heartland to the East Coast and the world. Individually, they tell a tale about the sailors who made their living taking risks in some of the world’s most treacherous waters. Visitors are encouraged to connect with these stories—and the shipwrecks—firsthand.
At the sanctuary’s visitor center, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in downtown Alpena, groups can explore 10,000 square feet of immersive exhibits, feel the power of a Lake Huron storm, walk the deck of a Great Lakes schooner or “swim” over a shipwreck in playful dive tubes. Other features include a shipwreck artifact gallery, a theater, a roof garden, a gift store and a NOAA Science on a Sphere theater, one of only three in the state of Michigan. Visitors often take their adventure to the next level and hop on the glass-bottom tour boat, Lady Michigan, to see actual shipwrecks up close.
Access to the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Trail lies just outside the doors of the visitor center, where guests can embark on a journey along boardwalks, riverfront parks and historical docks. The trail winds its way along 225 miles of sanctuary shoreline and, with engaging interpretative signage, connects visitors with Lake Huron’s fascinating maritime past and enhances any Great Lakes experience.
Stephanie Gandulla is acting research coordinator at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. For more information, go to thunderbay.noaa.gov.
Top photo: Lady Michigan, a glass-bottom boat, takes passengers out on Lake Huron to see shipwrecks.
Photos by NOAA, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary