A fast-breeding alien shellfish species is smothering hundreds of years of dramatic shipwreck history in Lake Erie, in the US, but are making the water clearer for exploring divers
Image: David VanZandt / Cleveland Underwater Explorers)
Wrecked ships lying deep under the stormy waters of one of the world’s largest lakes are being invaded by colonies of weird-looking creatures.
Hundreds of historic stricken vessels in the muddy mass graveyard at the bottom of the turbulent Lake Erie in north-east US are becoming encrusted by layers of zebra and quagga mussels.
Before the alien species invasion began in the 1980s, the wooden ships were so well preserved in the lake’s cold, fresh water that wreck divers said they looked exactly as they would have when they first sank hundreds of years ago.
But the fast-breeding molluscs are smothering the hulls, decks and spilled cargo from the vessels that floundered or crashed in the strong winds and waves that are a hazard of Erie’s shallow waters.
Alan Holmes/NASA’s Ocean Color Web)
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No one knows exactly how many shipwrecks the lake is hiding, but experts reckon between 500 and 2,000, with 277 identified by divers so far.
Underwater explorer Kevin Magee, an engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center told Earth Observatory : “We think Lake Erie has a greater density of shipwrecks than virtually anywhere else in the world—even the Bermuda triangle.”
The ghostly stripy shellfish, native to both Russia and Ukraine, are upsetting the eco-systems of all the Great Lakes on the US and Canadian border, which supply more than 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, but they are making the wrecks more visible.
Kevin said: “They’re filter feeders, so they’ve actually increased the clarity of the water. In many areas, the water is now so clear that we now can get bright, ambient light 200ft below the surface.
“The downside is that instead of seeing bare wood, original paint, or anything else we’re trying to look at, we just see surfaces covered by lumps of mussels.”
There are wrecks all over the lake, which averages 60ft deep, but more have been pinpointed on the western basin around Toledo, the Erie Islands and Cleveland, as documented by the Ohio Sea Grant Project.
In this section the water is only around 24ft deep, making strong currents more likely, and there are lots of hidden rocks and islands where ships can run aground.
David VanZandt / Cleveland Underwater Explorers)
One of the best known wrecks discovered at the bottom of Erie is the brig Sultan, a wooden cargo ship that was carrying heavy grind stones to Buffalo when it capsized in 1864 after scraping a sandbar and being battered by heavy waves.
The oldest wreck is believed to be the Lake Serpent, which disappeared near Kelleys Island, about 10 miles offshore, in 1829 after picking up a load of limestone.