Diver's view of Great Lakes: shipwrecks and evil mussels

Jan 4, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2017 1:15 pm

Helen Domske is the senior coastal education specialist for New York Sea Grant and associate director of the University at Buffalo's Great Lakes Program. She's also an avid scuba diver, so we asked her about diving in the Great Lakes.

How did you get your start in scuba diving?

My interest in scuba diving started when I worked at the Aquarium of Niagara and I had the opportunity to dive to collect specimens for the displays.  My scuba diving continued when I focused my work on the Great Lakes, as a means to better understand what was happening below the surface of the water.

Have you come across invasive species while scuba diving?

My diving in the Great Lakes began before the introduction of zebra and quagga mussels in the late 1980s.  Throughout the years, I have seen invasive mussel populations grow to the point of covering much of the hard substrate, like rocks and logs, on the bottom of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.  There are some locations in Lake Erie where there may be thousands of invasive mussels in an area no bigger than a tabletop!

I have seen many shipwrecks in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario that once were clear of attached mussels and now are covered by these invasive species.  Archeologists have determined that the substance that the invasive mussels use to attach to hard surfaces, like wooden planks or iron fittings, can damage the structure of these valuable shipwrecks. 

I have also seen invasive sea lamprey attached to native fish like lake trout as they swim about underwater.  It is quite bothersome knowing that the native fish is often unable to free itself from the sea lamprey’s sucking mouth and it will eventually lose enough blood and body fluids to this parasitic invader resulting in its death.

What’s the number one thing people can do to help stop or slow the spread of invasive species?

People should thoroughly dry or properly clean their boats and boat trailers before moving them from one body of water to another.  This is true for motorized boats, as well as watercraft like kayaks and canoes.

Where’s the best place for Great Lakes scuba diving?

I enjoy diving in the Great Lakes, especially in the summer when the water is warm and fish life is active.  Scuba diving is very popular in Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, so there are many locations that are very interesting to snorkel or scuba dive in. 

Local dive shops often have supervised dives to some of the more interesting locations that might include shipwrecks or unique underwater scenery.  Safety should be a top priority for scuba divers and it is recommended that they use a floating marking device (diver below) to warn boats of their presence under the water.

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