Before it was illegal to dive to the infamous ship, two men pulled off the deepest shipwreck scuba dive in Great Lakes history. Here’s the inside story.
This story was featured in the November 2007 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe to life Up North.
If asked about Great Lakes shipwrecks today, most people could probably name just one—the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Without a doubt, it is the most famous.
Attacked by gale-force winds and 30-foot waves on November 10, 1975, the 729-foot Fitzgerald—one of the biggest ships in the Great Lakes—plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior taking with it a full load of 26,116 tons of iron ore and all 29 crewmen.
The disaster was blazed in headlines across the world. Since the tragic sinking, a score of books have been written about the ship. Researchers have studied it. To this day, more than 30 years later, newspaper articles periodically pop up about The Big Fitz.
When it was first launched in the summer of 1958, The Detroit News described the Fitzgerald as “the biggest object ever dropped into fresh water in recorded history.”
And, of course, many still can recite lyrics from Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which stayed on the pop charts for weeks in 1976.
The Lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.
Given all that, one might guess that we know just about all there is to know about the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Yet one astounding story has remained largely untold.
In a record-setting expedition, two young men—one a Florida dive instructor; the other a Russian ex-pat—secretly came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1995 and made the first and only scuba dive down on the Edmund Fitzgerald. It was a feat of rare danger. The two went down an astonishing 530 feet in 36-degree water and touched the rail with a gloved hand. At that moment, they set the record for the deepest wreck dive ever in the Great Lakes and one of the deepest in the world. Other divers had gone to greater depths. But none descended to a wreck or to any destination at all for that matter.
No one had ever actually touched the Fitzgerald with a human hand since she sank. Small submarines had gone down for a look. Remotely driven cameras have shot videos. A man outfitted in a pressurized, aluminum Newt suit—looking somewhat like the Michelin Man—had touched the ship with mechanically operated steel pincers.
But never a human hand.
And furthermore, theirs was a dive—due to sheer danger, political complexity and most recently Canadian law—that will, in all likelihood, never be repeated.
The idea for the expedition was hatched in Florida where the two young divers met for the first time in 1994 at a spring-fed cave-diving site near Ocala. Mike Zlatopolsky, better known as Mike Zee, had driven down from Chicago for some cave diving.
The 36-year-old grew up in Russia where he learned to swim at age 3 and by his 20’s was diving in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Indian Ocean. Later, with his home base in Chicago, he started a small dive charter business guiding wreck dives in Lake Superior off Whitefish Point.
Wreck divers around the Great Lakes were vaguely aware of him. They would say, “Oh I know about Mike Zee. He’s the one who drives that Hummer.”
Indeed, Zlatopolsky to this day drives the monster SUV, painted a sinister black. And just to show he means business, he installed an exhaust pipe that extended up above the roof. Why? So he can drive it underwater.
Zee, whom few know by any other name, of course knew about the Edmund Fitzgerald. And he wanted to dive it. Bad. He was a self-confessed danger junkie. “I don’t dive anything under 200 feet,” he said. And this dive would certainly hit the danger quotient.
Over time he had tried to lure other divers to join him for a Fitzgerald adventure, but all had begged off. But then in Florida, he met Terrence Tysall, who was an instructor at Forty Fathom Grotto. And they got to talking.
As luck would have it, Zlatopolsky had, by chance, met one of the few people who could pull off this venture and, at the same time, keep him alive.
Tysall was good at what he did. And he knew it. Fast-talking, funny and charming, he had turned himself into one of the best technical divers in the country. His confidence was based on long and careful training and lots of experience.
Tysall said he got started swimming late, at age 6, but by age 8 he was diving. By 28, when he hooked up with Zlatopolsky, he had a resume that veterans twice his age could envy.
He had penetrated deep caves in Florida and Mexico; dropped down into the 400-foot deep Blue Hole off Belize; dove 25 times on the Andrea Doria, the so-called “Everest of Wreck Dives;” trained the military divers who went down on the Civil War iron-clad war ship the Monitor, of Monitor and Merrimack fame. On top of that, he had trained to be a Navy Seal and only failed to graduate because of a knee injury that resulted in five operations.
So he knew his stuff. He had done it all, or most of it. He had been deep; been dangerous and knew the tricky business of exotic gas mixtures the way a Heisman Trophy quarterback knows his playbook.
For the next year, the two trained separately. And they planned out the details of this highly technical dive. Tysall did practice dives, going deeper and deeper in the Atlantic. At one point, he went down more than 400 feet.
“I am a big fan of training,” Tysall said. “The idea is to get the depth out of the picture right away,” meaning that once he was no longer distracted by the sheer depth, he could concentrate on other matters.
Zlatopolsky did dives down to 300 feet and made ice dives over the winter to prepare for the cold bottom temperatures of Lake Superior.
They set Dive Day for the end of the summer of 1995. “We kept it a secret,” Tysall said, “because you never know when things might fall apart.”
In the preceding summer, family members of the Fitzgerald’s crew were incensed to learn that photos had been taken of dead people on the sunken ship and were likely to be published. But Tysall said that was not the reason their team stayed quiet. He said he was unaware of it.
It would not be until 2006, more than 11 years later, that Canada passed a law specifically restricting access to the Fitzgerald.
From the very beginning, the Edmund Fitzgerald was no ordinary ship. When it was first launched in the summer of 1958, The Detroit News described the Fitzgerald as “the biggest object ever dropped into fresh water in recorded history.”
A crowd of 15,000 cheering people showed up for the official launch on June 7. And out on the Detroit River, tug boats tooted in its honor, and 250 pleasure boaters shouted and waved.
The Fitzgerald, costing $8 million, stretched out to 729 feet in length (just short enough to slide into Sault Ste. Marie’s 730-foot-long locks, but just barely), 75 feet wide and 39 feet deep.
At that size, The Detroit News said, the ore boat was “three-fourths as long as the United States liner (and) longer than the Penobscot Building is high.” At one time, the Penobscot Building was the tallest in the world until it was dropped to second after the building of the Empire State Building.
The ship’s payload was 26,000 tons of iron ore—bigger than anything in the Great Lakes. But that did not mean the Fitzgerald was slow. For a ship its size, the Fitz could cruise at a remarkable 16 mph.
In fact, the Fitzgerald set several speed records. It regularly buzzed from Lake Superior down to Toledo in only five days, a speed that was quick enough for her to be dubbed “The Toledo Express.” So the young duo would be diving on what was not only a modern tragedy, but also an important piece of Great Lakes history. But despite the significance of their proposed dive, this was no highly financed expedition with endless amounts of time, money and resources.
Tysall came north from Florida in an aging Toyota pickup along with two backup divers—Ken Furman and Mauro Porcelli. The compact truck was so small that only two people could sit in front. The third had to lie in back and try to sleep among the accumulation of dive tanks.
Rotating drivers, the three drove straight through in 27 hours, to finally stop at Paradise, Michigan, which is just down the road from Whitefish Point. At Paradise, they met Zlatopolsky and his business partner, Randy Sullivan, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who was a diver and, more important for this venture, captain of their dive boat, called First One. It was called First One because it was the first dive boat that Sullivan had ever owned.
Sullivan had already scouted out the location, dropped a mooring line and hooked onto a railing on the Fitzgerald’s bow. The line was marked with a buoy.
The Fitzgerald lies on the bottom in two pieces. The bow section sits upright, driven into the bottom. The stern section landed upside down.
Although later writings said that Sullivan had gotten a government permit for the dive, he allowed as how that was wrong. At that time, he said, no law or regulation had been set regarding the Fitzgerald, which lies in Canadian waters. So no permission was needed. In fact it would not be until 2006, more than 11 years later, that Canada passed a law specifically restricting access to the Fitzgerald, as well as two historic ships in Lake Ontario.
On their first full day together the team did tune-up dives, bubbling down on a 178-foot wooden-screw steamer, the John M. Osborn, that went down after a collision in 1884. Tysall, who had dived exclusively on sunken ships in the ocean, was amazed how Lake Superior’s cold, clear water had maintained the Osborn is such pristine condition. The ship was down 180 feet—nothing even approaching the depth they were contemplating. But the team, including the two support divers, was able to practice in detail what would be a carefully timed, carefully choreographed dive.
The next day, Lake Superior turned nasty. Ten-foot waves and 30-knot winds were too much for the 32-foot, fiberglass First One dive boat. So the team did a dry-land dry run in their motel parking lot. As Tysall said, he’s big on training. And that was good, because while he could not have known it at the time, their dive would not be trouble free. “I knew that 29 people had died on the Fitzgerald,” Tysall said. “I did not want us to be numbers 30 and 31.”
On their third day, September 1, Lake Superior offered up a gift. Blue skies. Sunshine. And waves that topped out at about six inches. Perfect. But this dive would still be dicey.
Tysall and Zlatopolsky would be breathing from tanks with several different gas mixtures. And Tysall knew he carried the weight of responsibility because, “I was going down with a guy who had not made a lot of deep dives.”
First they sent down an oil-rig camera that was attached to a 750-foot Kevlar cable. Its light showed where they were going on the ship. And the cable would be their dive line.
The two divers were similarly outfitted with gear and tanks that weighed close to 300 pounds. Each had two large tanks on his back. Zlatopolsky had two 120-cubic-foot cylinders; Tysall with two 104-cubic-foot cylinders. These would carry the mixture they needed for the bottom, a tri-mix of 9.6 percent oxygen, 62 percent helium and the remainder nitrogen.
This mixture would allow them to breathe and dramatically reduce the effects of nitrogen narcosis, which in deep waters has an impact similar to a hard night’s drinking of extra dry martinis (see “designer air” below).
In the divers’ third tank, strapped pyramid style on the two larger bottom tanks, was a 120-cubic-foot cylinder of compressed air. In addition, off the left hip each diver carried a 45-cubic-foot cylinder with so-called transitional mix. This gas mixture was designed to help them return to the surface. This also was a tri-mix, but in different proportions—16 percent oxygen, 35 percent helium and the rest nitrogen. On the right side, Tysall brought along a backup 80-cubic-foot cylinder of compressed air—just in case one of three main cylinders failed.
He had backups to the backups.
And finally, in a pocket, each carried a small cylinder of argon. They would use this gas to inflate their dry suits, preventing “suit squeeze” from the extreme pressure in very deep water. Argon also provides much warmer insulation than air.
With their legs wobbling under the weight, the two stepped off the swim platform at the back of the boat into Lake Superior’s frigid waters. As they went down the camera cable, they were positioned face mask to face mask. A number of bad things can happen to divers in deep water. This face-to-face technique was important so each could watch the other for signs of something called high pressure nervous syndrome (HPNS). When divers go down quickly to great depths, HPNS symptoms can crop up. They include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, tremors, muscle spasms and stomach cramps.
It was not HPNS, but trouble did hit them sooner than expected. They had planned to descend 250 feet—less than half way—using compressed air and then switch to the tri-mix for the bottom. But at 180 feet, Zlatopolsky’s regulator began belching air in a free flow.
Now to nondivers, the term “free flow” might engender some very pretty images—free-flowing water or perhaps a pretty girl in the wind with free-flowing hair. For divers, it’s a terrifying experience. It means the regulator has frozen in the open position, and the gas inside the tank—the very stuff they are breathing—is escaping in an uncontrolled, heart-stopping stream of bubbles.
In this case, Tysall was able to quickly shut down the Russian’s belching regulator and Zlatopolsky switched earlier than planned to a tank with the bottom mix. The exchange, said Tysall, took 15 seconds. As it turned out, Tysall was able to reactivate the failed regulator later by turning it on and off several times.
At 250 feet, Tysall switched to the tri-mix bottom mixture on schedule. By that point, any glow of light from the sunlit surface was almost gone. At 300 feet, it was pitch black. Their visible world narrowed substantially—closed in by the sides of their masks, the water and the reach of their dive lights. At 490 feet, the two got their first sight of the Fitzgerald, a faint glimmering in Tysall’s dive light and the glow of the light from the camera hooked onto the rail.
The broken half ship lay in an underwater darkness like none Zlatopolsky had ever experienced. “It was like no other wreck and no other place on the planet,” he said. “It was like being in a black hole. The dive lights reach out and just disappear, eaten by the darkness.”
Their plan had been to descend to the Fitzgerald in three to five minutes. But they had gone slower, arriving in about seven minutes. They could see where the ship’s bow had driven into the clay bottom, surrounding the craft with large clay chunks, “the size of chairs.”
As they came to the rail, Tysall remembered it as an emotionally powerful moment. “For the first time in almost 20 years, living hands were touching the Edmund Fitzgerald,” he said. “I knew that people had died in this wreck. And that was what affected me most. In that moment, I wanted to send a message to those who had died.
“Hey, nobody has forgotten you.”
They had lingered at the bow of the Fitzgerald for no more than six minutes. But now it was time to leave. To avoid getting the bends, which can leave a diver paralyzed or even dead, they would take a very long time decompressing as they rose to the surface. And because they were using helium in their dive mixes, they would have to further extend the time necessary to rid the nitrogen from their bodies.
Time was short. The longer they stayed down, the longer the decompression process. “Every extra minute on the wreck,” Tysall said, “would be an additional 45 minutes of decompression.”
At this point, a comparison might be made between this sort of extreme diving and mountain climbing expeditions in the Himalayas. Both this sort of dive and the mountain expeditions take months, even years of planning and preparation. Then there is the actual business of getting to the top—or in this case, to the bottom. In minds of the uninitiated, the job seems to be done. After all, haven’t they reached their goal?
But the job isn’t done. Now both the climber and the deep diver need to get back. And this can be the most difficult and dangerous part. For example, more people had died on the descent from the top of Everest than in making the assault to the top.
Added together, their time for descent and on the Fitzgerald was less than 13 minutes. Their return to the surface would take three hours and 15 minutes—rising, then stopping and holding their position for a time, then rising again to the next stop—all the time letting nitrogen escape from their bodies.
They rose to 310 feet and at that point switched to their transitional mix gas, which they carried on their left sides. They then rose slowly at a rate of 30 feet per minute to 210 feet where they switched to compressed air. Next, at 180 feet, they were met by Ken Furman—one of the support divers who swam down to them from the dive boat. He brought down tanks with yet a different gas mixture, Nitrox. This one had 40 percent oxygen and 60 percent nitrogen. The increase in oxygen helps purge the dangerous nitrogen from the system.
But bad luck was not all behind them.
At 80 feet, Zlatopolsky’s regulator froze. Furman, who had been floating on the surface with yet another bottle of Nitrox, saw the problem and quickly descended and speedily switched tanks.
But the problems still were not over.
Just as Furman was returning to the surface, Tysall’s regulator froze and began to free flow. Bubbles were spewing out everywhere. He temporarily solved the problem by first closing the tank’s valve and then opening it periodically to inhale the escaping Nitrox.
Regulators that free flow are not an unusual problem when the divers are in very cold water. The mechanisms literally freeze up. Once again, Furman came down with a new tank and regulator. They had planned well enough to have four extra tanks on board.
At 20 feet, Tysall and Zlatopolsky were no longer dependent on the tanks on their backs. There, they came to a pair of hoses with regulators that had been hung off the dive boat. These hoses were attached to onboard tanks with 100 percent oxygen.
They stayed at this level for 25 minutes, occasionally rising to the surface to take “air breaks.”
When the pair finally returned to the surface, Furman and Porcelli helped them take off their big tanks while they were still in the water, trying to make sure that the divers exerted themselves very little. Exertion can aggravate the effects of nitrogen remaining in a diver’s body.
At that point, they just lay on the surface for another half hour breathing pure, nitrogen-cleansing oxygen. And then it was back on deck and time for high fives.
“I felt so good,” said Zlatopolsky, “totally invigorated.”
Back on shore, the dive group trooped over to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and had their pictures taken standing in front of the Fitzgerald’s bell, which had been raised and put in the museum two months before on July 4.
Later, word did leak out about the dramatic dive. Both Tysall and Zlatopolsky got calls from family members of Fitzgerald crewmen. The two said they told the callers that they meant no disrespect and that nothing was disturbed.
Tysall also received a call from the sensationalist TV magazine Hard Copy to do the story, but he declined.
Discussing the dive 10 years after the event, Tysall commented, “For me, diving the Fitzgerald was a logistical challenge, same as descending into the Blue Hole. But hey, don’t get me wrong, I’ll stamp my name in the history book any time.”
If you have a mind for recalling numbers, you might remember that the amount of oxygen in air is 21 percent. The amount in the divers’ bottom mix was much lower, only 9.6 percent. On its face, this may not seem logical. After all, isn’t oxygen the very stuff of life?
Well, yes. But in moderation. And when scuba tanks are under pressure at depth they can deliver too much oxygen, so much it can be toxic. The result is called nervous system toxicity or hyperoxia. In even a short period of time, it can cause convulsions and basically knock a diver unconscious—and then, of course, he drowns.
After some unfortunate experimenting with breathing pure oxygen, the famed diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau and other early divers discovered that, while different divers reacted differently, a reasonable safety threshold to avoid oxygen toxicity with pure oxygen was about 20 feet. These same toxic effects also occur when breathing compressed air, only at great depths.
The problem basically is the tremendous water pressure on the body and the gas itself. On the surface when we are normally breathing air (21 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen), we actually only use about 4 percent of that mix, all of it oxygen. The rest we exhale. At 33 feet where the pressure is doubled, we take in twice as much gas because it is denser. Studies have found that when breathing compressed air, the same oxygen toxicity will hit at 218 feet below the surface that hits with pure oxygen at 20 feet.
Using tri-mix helps solve that problem. The amount of oxygen is reduced. Helium is added, which is easier to breathe and for regulators to manage. And helium has no narcotic effect, thus reducing the effects of nitrogen narcosis.
This story is excerpted from Shipwreck Hunter: Deep, Dark and Deadly in the Great Lakes, Gerald Volgenau’s lively read about people who pushed the boundaries of wreck diving in the freshwater seas. Recommended for anybody who enjoys tales of real world adventure. Available in bookstores and on the web.