Leelanau Underwater (photo by Chris Roxburgh)

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MANITOU PASSAGE, MI – When Chris Roxburgh sinks below the surface of a Great Lake, all the conversations and mental clutter of the day just slip away. Depth brings quiet. Sunlight is traded for filtered shades of blue and green. He focuses his mind on his scuba gear, the technical points of his dive – and the hulking wrecks that he knows will soon appear beneath him.

For the last seven years, this Traverse City electrical contractor has turned his twin hobbies of photography and shipwreck diving into a way for all of us to glimpse the often-hidden underwater graveyard of ships that sit on the bottom of our lakes.

His photo-packed book, “Leelanau Underwater,” is now in its third printing. It illuminates what lies beneath Michigan’s famous Manitou Passage, the shipping corridor that stretches between the Manitou islands and the mainland coast along Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Storms, rocky shoals and a narrow channel ripe for collisions have sent an uncounted number of ships to the bottom here in the last few hundred years. Now an underwater preserve, there are 33 recreational dive sites within its boundaries.

But Roxburgh, who works with shipwreck hunters, is privy to the undisclosed locations of a few of the more secretive wrecks. Photos of some of these are shared in his book.

“It’s just a whole different place,” Roxburgh said of diving in the Great Lakes. “It’s very zen. It’s very relaxing. You just kind of detach.”

Leelanau Underwater (photo by Chris Roxburgh)

A paddleboarding find turns into a dive quest

Always an outdoorsy guy, Roxburgh was already hooked on photography when he went on a winter paddleboarding adventure with friends off the shore of Northport about seven years ago. It was there he spied a shallow-water wreck that would later be identified as the George Rogers. It had not been seen in years, and it caused a stir among some local wreck enthusiasts.

“It was a long-forgotten shipwreck,” Roxburgh said of the find, which was located by some huge boulders. “Different people had been looking for it …. Nobody could locate it because it was so close to shore.”

After spotting it, he made plans to go back to the site the next weekend. This time, he wore a thin wetsuit, took a GoPro, and hung out in the 34-degree water getting photos and video. He shared the images on social media – and loved the big response it generated.

“That shipwreck, it sparked my interest,” said Roxburgh, 43, owner of First Class Wiring. He then became certified as a scuba diver, and later as a technical diver capable of exploring shipwrecks that sit in deeper waters. While he remains fascinated by the waters off Leelanau County and the Manitou Passage, he’s also found amazing things to photograph in his home waters of Grand Traverse Bay, as well as Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

Another book – this one about the wrecks in the Straits of Mackinac – is in the works.

Leelanau Underwater (photo by Chris Roxburgh)

Popularity – and plastic

In the last several years, Roxburgh has become one of the most well-known dive photographers in the Great Lakes. It’s no surprise, given what he’s been able to get up-close images of. Some of the 90 photos in his book show him skimming the edges of the Westmoreland, a very well-preserved 1850s wreck tied to stories of a big whiskey cargo and gold coins bound for Mackinac Island’s Army garrison. It sits in an undisclosed location, but Roxburgh’s tight connections with shipwreck hunters mean he knows spots others do not.

He also does winter dives, when going under a thick layer of ice makes for an even more magical experience.

He’s appeared in several news and magazine articles, been featured on a History Channel show, and has done speaking engagements across the region. He’s enthusiastic about his underwater exploring and loves sharing details of his dives.

But even more than that, he seems to love the connections he makes with lake lovers. It helps him spread his message about the importance of cleaning up the Great Lakes, and all the environmental damage that plastics are doing to our freshwater environment.

“I use the popularity of the underwater photography to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes,” he said.

Often on social media, Roxburgh will show off plastic trash that he finds littering the shoreline or the bottom of a bay. He’ll share photos of trash he’s picked up during his dives and encourages others to do the same, even if it’s just collecting a few pieces of trash as they stroll along a beach.

“Leave no trace,” he said. “I grew up doing it before it was a popular thing to do.”

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Leelanau Underwater (photo by Chris Roxburgh)


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