Chicago's Cris Kohl, who has spent three decades exploring underwater destinations around the globe, insists that the Great Lakes provide the world's best shipwreck diving. The lakes' fresh, cold water does a good job of preserving more than 6,000 shipwrecks, and the lion's share reside at the bottom of Lake Michigan. They range from the Lady Elgin—which went down in 1860 en route to Milwaukee after a rally for Stephen Douglas in Chicago—to The Straits of Mackinac, a car and passenger ferry intentionally sunk in 2003 to create a man-made diving site and artificial reef.
Begin your underwater explorations by picking up Kohl's Great Lakes Diving Guide, just out in an expanded second edition (Seawolf Communications; $19.95). Kohl identifies more than 40 different Chicago-area shipwrecks, as well as the remnants of a 7,500-year-old underwater forest; for each dive, he provides historical background, ratings (for degree of difficulty), directions (with GPS coordinates), and useful tips.
If you would prefer to travel with an experienced guide, sign up for a tour with Captain Mike Tapper at N'Pursuit Adventure Charters. Based at the East Chicago Marina (just across the border in northwest Indiana), Tapper and his crew can lead certified divers to nine different wrecks, including the David Dows, a five-masted schooner that went down in 1889, and the 240-foot-long Material Service barge, which sank in 1936 just half a mile from Calumet Harbor. Divers must provide their own gear; rates range from $95 to $115 depending on the length of the tour (219-942-5767 or npursuitcharters.com).
Embarking from Chicago's Burnham Harbor, Windy City Diving specializes in tours of The Straits of Mackinac, but can carry certified divers to more than a dozen local wrecks, such as the Wells Burt, a three-masted schooner that went down in 1883, or the Tacoma, a tug that sank in 1929 (its propeller makes for good underwater photos). Again, divers must provide their own gear; rates range from $70 to $150 (630-209-2445 or windycitydiving.net).
Looking to become a certified diver? Visit the Web site of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors to learn about classes in the Chicago area (padi.com).
Photograph: N'Pursuit Adventure Charters