Shipwreck sanctuary proposed for Lakeshore

Lake Michigan shoreline in Manitowoc

MANITOWOC COUNTY -  The waters of Lake Michigan contain hundreds of shipwrecks, including dozens near Northeast Wisconsin.

Now, a local effort is underway to preserve the wrecks, and the stories that go with them. The goal is to have a portion of the Lakeshore recognized as a marine sanctuary. The area includes 33 known shipwrecks from Two Rivers to Port Washington.

Greg Such says he's been diving on Lake Michigan shipwrecks for years.

"The Vernon is a packet freighter, in about 200 feet of water. The Rouse Simmons, the 'Christmas tree ship,' is one that everyone wants to go see, and it's in about 155 feet of water," said Greg Such, Shipwreckadventures, LLC.

A local effort is underway to protect The Rouse Simmons and other shipwrecks. The communities of Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers are asking the federal government for marine sanctuary status. The federal government has 14 sanctuaries and recently opened up the application process.

Wisconsin Maritime Museum CEO Rolf Johnson says the shipwrecks are significant historically, and culturally. He says not everyone can dive on the ships, so education is vital.

"Most of the marine sanctuaries have either a visitor's center, or they partner with a museum like ours to do public exhibits, public education programs, workshops and events," said Johnson.

A maritime sanctuary could mean big business to the Lakeshore. The Manitowoc Area Visitor and Convention Bureau estimates $10 million a year in visitor spending.

"Like dive shops, and recreational equipment. Fuel and services and things like that," said Jason Ring, Manitowoc Area Visitor and Convention Bureau President.

The application is expected to be complete this fall. Gov. Scott Walker has to approve the document before it goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There is no exact deadline for approval. Local leaders say it could take three years.

Meanwhile, Such says he's ready to share this underwater sanctuary.

"You get to explore bits of the past, that you might not be able to see anywhere else," said Such.