Shipwrecks & Shipwreck Diving in Door County
A World Beneath the Surface
Shipwreck diving may not be the first activity you think of when you think "Door County," but it's easily one of the coolest. Today, there are around 240 known shipwrecks in the waters of Door County alone (Bermuda Triangle who?), and adventurers can explore about 25 of them in a number of ways, including shipwreck diving, clear-bottom kayak tours, boat rides, and local maritime museums.
Unearth Relics of Maritime History
The waters of Lake Michigan that surround Door County's peninsula and islands are part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the 370-mile system of lakes, rivers, straits, canals, bays, and waterways that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Seaway begins at Lake Superior's western-most point in Duluth, Minnesota and runs across all five lakes—including a southeastern detour to Lake Michigan, Green Bay, and Door County—travels the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of St. Lawrence (in Canadian territory), and finally lets out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Countless boats, schooners, and ships have traversed this critically important route as they transported wares to and from businesses around the region. This waterway is also how many Door County shipbuilders would deliver their products to customers in Chicago, Michigan, and beyond.
Over the centuries, thousands of vessels sank—usually thanks to high winds, thunder storms, on-ship fires, and engine/part failures, but sometimes due to chicanery of pirates and bootleggers.
Further Reading: Wisconsin Shipwrecks
Shipwreck Diving in Lake Michigan
Many shipwrecks and their remnants can be seen from the water's surface just by looking from a kayak, canoe, or boat, but many more can be seen and explored with proper diving equipment. Zebra mussels encase some of the wrecks, but the invasive species—despite its many faults and detriments to our freshwater lakes—is a filter feeder, meaning it eats algae and other water-clouding species, vastly improving underwater visibility.
A handful of shipwrecks are in less than 60 feet of water, so you'll only need basic snorkeling equipment and a love of the unknown to see them. But there are also many more wrecks that are in 100+ feet of water, which means you'll need specialized equipment and training to investigate.
If you're an experienced diver with the proper gear, the waters of Door County present an incredible opportunity for exploring shipwrecks, but if you're not as experienced or you're not a fan of being submerged underwater, you can explore the wrecks at local museums or by kayak, boat, or scenic cruise.
Further Reading: Journal-Sentinel's "Gateway to Sunken Wrecks"
Cross Death's Door Strait if You Dare
Death's Door Strait (AKA Ports des Morts, AKA "Door of the Dead") is infamous for its narrow, rough, and unpredictably windy waters that are now littered with shipwrecks; once the Sturgeon Bay Ship canal was built in the late 1800s, many ship captains began avoiding the strait to save time, money, and, of course, their vessels.
Today, you can cross Death's Door, but you're probably best off doing so by boat or ferry—the waters remain choppy and unpredictable, and attempting to cross on a kayak or another lightweight sea vessel could spell trouble. You can also admire the strait from the safety of Washington Island or the shorelines of the peninsula's tip.
Further Reading: History of Death's Door
If you're crafting a DC trip with maritime fixings, make sure you hit up at least one lighthouse. Door County boasts 11 lighthouses in total, and they can be found up and down the peninsula as well as on nearby islands.
Islands are as much a part of Door County's maritime history as shipbuilding and waterways. A handful of the region's 35 named islands are accessible by boat and make excellent complements to a shipwreck excursion.
Pair your diving adventure with a trip to state or county park—we've got five Wisconsin state parks and 19 Door County parks up here, along with countless municipal parks and greenspaces.