Underwater photographer captures forgotten stories beneath Great Lakes


By Marie Orttenburger

Most know the story of the ship on Lake Superior whose fate turned when the gales of November came early.

But fewer know the story of the SS Daniel J. Morrell, a 603-foot-long freighter ripped in half by Lake Huron’s nearly 25-foot-high November waves. The ship’s bow sank immediately, but its stern motored another five miles before being engulfed by the lake. The wreck killed 28 and left one survivor.

That’s exactly the kind of story that draws underwater photographer Becky Kagan Schott into the depths of Lake Huron with her camera.

“It’s just such a powerful story, and my goal as an underwater photographer is to capture images that will tell the story in that same powerful way,” Schott said.

Schott specializes in underwater photography in extreme environments. Her work has taken her all over the world–in caves in the Caribbean and under ice in the Arctic.

“I’ve been all over the world, and the Great Lakes are my favorite place to dive,” she said. That’s because Schott is fascinated by the well-preserved shipwrecks beneath their surfaces.

She recently published a video with footage of the Daniel J. Morrell and other ships in Lake Huron.

The footage is haunting imagery of ships seemingly frozen in time. One shot of the Daniel J. Morrell shows the ship’s lifeboats on the lake’s floor. Schott’s team also explored the ship’s interior. The video shows the ship’s telegraph and a workbench with tools still hanging above it–an image Schott finds particularly haunting.

“Somebody worked here. This is where somebody did their job. Seeing those human artifacts kind of reminds you that a tragedy did happen here,” Schott said.

Photographing the Daniel J. Morrell isn’t easy. Getting footage of both halves takes several dives. Each one takes her team of three divers– Schott with a camera, one diver who helps with lighting, and one who specializes in safety–210 feet beneath the surface into freezing cold waters. In June, temperatures below 40 feet were between 37-38 degrees Fahrenheit, Schott said. Because of the extreme environment, her team only has 25-30 minutes to gather all the footage.

“It’s very run and gun,” Schott said.

Schott has been diving the Great Lakes for seven years, and her goal is to photograph shipwrecks in all five of them and publish them in a book. She’s got four down–Lake Ontario is the only one she hasn’t shot, and ironically, it’s the one she lives closest to in Pennsylvania.

“Lake Superior and Lake Huron are my favorite lakes to dive in,” Schott said. “Lake Huron is my absolute favorite, just because of the variety of shipwrecks there. Everything from sailing ships like schooners to giant steel freighters.”

Schott recognizes that not every shipwreck is historically notable by everyone’s standards. Few have been or will ever be memorialized in song.

“A lot of these ships were just working ships carrying grain or coal or railroad tracks. They weren’t war ships,” she said. “But they helped build railroads and things here in the United States.”

And for the many port towns they traveled between, that holds significance.

“These are small towns,” Schott said, mentioning Port Austin and Harbor Beach in Michigan. “These shipwrecks were a big part of their history.”

Find more of Schott’s work at Liquid Productions.

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