February 23, 2024

Up North Aquaman Explores Great Lakes Shipwrecks

Chris Roxburgh takes on deep-lake dives to give the rest of us a glimpse at what’s beneath the waves
By Craig Manning | March 25, 2023

Chris Roxburgh is northern Michigan’s Aquaman.

While you might not immediately recognize his name, you’ve probably seen Roxburgh’s photography, spotted his book on the shelves of a local bookstore, seen him on TV, heard him on the radio, or read his quotes in a newspaper article. In the past five years, Roxburgh has built a reputation locally and around the state for finding and photographing some of the most mind-blowing underwater sites throughout the Great Lakes, from shipwrecks to long-submerged automobiles.

But how did this nautical explorer become one of Michigan’s go-to underwater authorities, what are his most treasured accomplishments, and what’s still on his diving bucket list? Northern Express sat down with Roxburgh to get the answers to these questions and more.

The Origin Story

“I grew up in Leelanau County, so I’ve been swimming in Lake Michigan since I was five years old,” Roxburgh says. “But it wasn’t until five or six years ago that I really learned about how many shipwrecks we have around here. And then I knew I wanted to start diving.”

The spark of inspiration came one winter day when Roxburgh was out paddleboarding off the shores of Northport with a friend. Suddenly, without even trying to, the two found themselves gliding over a shipwreck. The shallow-water wreck, later identified as the George Rogers, had sunk in 1914, but had for years eluded local shipwreck enthusiasts because it was closer to shore than anyone anticipated.

A week later, Roxburgh went back to the site with a wetsuit and a GoPro. He wasn’t certified at the time as a scuba diver, but he still spent enough time in the 34-degree water to capture the first photographs and video ever taken of the long-forgotten tugboat. When he posted those assets on Facebook, they got a huge response from the local community. Between the thrill of finding the wreck and the dopamine rush of the social media engagement—not to mention the beguiling excitement of the dive itself—Roxburgh knew instantly that he’d just found a new passion.

“That first wreck inspired me to get certified for scuba diving and started the path to where I am today,” Roxburgh says. “And I found I was a natural at it. I was diving 200-foot deep wrecks within two years, which is not very common for people to do. Most new divers take years to get deeper.”

The Hero’s Journey

Since that first dive, Roxburgh has become a bona-fide underwater expert, with dozens of dives under his belt and a whole lot of photographic and video evidence to tell the tale. In fact, it’s Roxburgh’s knack for capturing the look and feel of underwater wonders that has proven to be his biggest superpower—perhaps more so even than his natural talent for diving.

“My first three dives [as a certified scuba diver], I made the news,” he recalls. First, shots he captured of an underwater sinkhole in West Grand Traverse Bay landed him a series of guest spots on local TV and news talk radio shows throughout northern Michigan. Everyone wanted to hear his story.

On his second dive, Roxburgh hit upon what would linger as one of his greatest claims to fame: Photographing a submerged, zebra-mussel-covered 1979 Ford Pinto in the waters of Old Mission Bay, off Haserot Beach. That discovery, quickly dubbed the “mussel car” as it went viral on social media, caught the attention of MLive, Detroit Free Press, Autoweek, and other major publications throughout Michigan and beyond.

Roxburgh’s third dive was a freediving session out near Power Island, where he “came across the Great Lakes Stone Circle.” That landmark is essentially an underwater Stonehenge—a series of stones organized in a circle some 40 feet beneath the surface and thought to be at least 10 millennia old. One of the stones even has a carving of what appears to be mastodon, the elephant-like species that went extinct approximately 10,000 years ago. The site was first discovered in 2007 by Mark Holley, a professor at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), but Holley didn’t disclose the location. Roxburgh “re-found” the landmark and got another feature in the Detroit Free Press for his trouble, plus a chance to be involved in a History Channel show.

Coverage for Roxburgh, his adventures, and his photography have continued to reach far beyond northern Michigan in the years since. In 2021, Roxburgh was spotlighted in an article published by Outside magazine, focused on the role that he and other scuba divers play in locating and cleaning up submerged plastics and other trash. And in January, he appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in a story about the Keuka, a lumber barge turned “floating speakeasy” that sank in Lake Charlevoix in August 1932.

In 2020, Roxburgh also published a book of his photographs, titled Leelanau Underwater: Exploring Shipwrecks in Leelanau County and the Manitou Passage.

When asked to name his favorite dives, Roxburgh quickly rattles off three, all in the waters of Lake Huron off the shores of Presque Isle. Each of those dives explored a major shipwreck—the SS Florida, the Cornelia B. Windiate, and the Kyle Spangler, respectively—and all three took Roxburgh 200 feet or deeper beneath the surface.

“Those wrecks are just really unique and beautiful,” Roxburgh says. “The SS Florida, for instance, was the second largest wooden freighter ever built in her time, measuring 270 feet long, and then she was in a collision in 1897 with the George B. Roby, which was the largest wooden freighter. So, we can imagine how big of an accident that would have been; just these huge, huge freighters smashing into each other. And then I also love diving old schooners like the Kyle Spangler, which still has both masts standing with the crosstrees in place.”

The Next Adventure

For a diver like Roxburgh, the story is never over. Instead, there’s just the next dive, and the one after that. Fittingly, he’s got a checklist on his computer where he keeps track of wrecks and other sites he still wants to dive, a fair few of which he’s planning to hit this year.

A big item on the to-do list is a return trip to Presque Isle, where Roxburgh plans to dive the wreck of the SS Ohio. That 200-foot wooden freighter sank in over 200 feet of water after a collision in September of 1894, but wasn’t found until 2017.

Also on the agenda for the year are dives of the steamer Uganda, which sank in the Straits of Mackinac in 1913; and the USCGC Mesquite, a steel United States Coast Guard vessel that served in the Pacific during World War II before being assigned to the Great Lakes and ultimately ran aground and sunk in Lake Superior in 1989, not far from the Keweenaw Peninsula.

But naming a few bucket list dives isn’t easy for someone like Roxburgh, who would probably dive every shipwreck in the Great Lakes if he could just find the time.

“There are a lot of wrecks on the list,” Roxburgh says with a laugh. “I’ll probably dive 40 shipwrecks this year.”

 Photo of the SS Florida by Chris Roxburgh.

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