For the past several years, David Klinger has been putting the “people” back into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The NCTC writer-editor, a veteran of 34 years with the agency, has been ferreting out some of the untold stories of the wildlife agency in a running feature called, “The Fish and Wildlife Service You Don’t Know,” that appears in Fish and Wildlife News and other publications. “They’re a cross between in-house chatter and ‘urban legend’ – all true, most largely unremarked and unacknowledged, every one of them fascinating,” says Klinger.
This is the first in a series of short features about little-known aspects of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, previously printed in Fish and Wildlife Service News.
In the underwater search for the subject of the 1976 pop tune of the same name -- the Great Lakes ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service played a minor, though memorable role, 14 years after the mammoth ship plunged to the bottom of Lake Superior.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald in the St. Mary's River in May, 1975. Photo: NOAA
As all who remember the haunting song by Canadian balladeer Gordon Lightfoot can recite, the Fitzgerald and its crew of 29 perished on November 10, 1975, near Whitefish Point, Michigan, while en route to Ohio, loaded with 26,000 tons of taconite in the midst of one of the worst November gales to hit the Great Lakes.
By 1989, the wreck initially located but its loss still unexplained, the Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel Grayling, a 75-foot steel fisheries boat homeported in Cheboygan, Michigan, was pressed into service as the floating platform for a Michigan Sea Grant investigation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Geographic Society, and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, among others, participated in the dive.
“Television and newspaper reporters flocked to the scene, eager for new information on the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwreck,” author Michael Schumacher relates in his 2005 book, Mighty Fitz – The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
“The suspense aboard the Grayling heightened as the ROV (remote-operated vehicle, an underwater robot) moved about the pilothouse, edging up to the smashed-out windows and peering inside. The pilothouse structure had been extensively damaged, and items inside had shifted and scattered when the Fitz plowed into the lake floor.
The pilot house of the sunken Edmund Fitzgerald, in an image taken from later exploration of the wreck. Photo: Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum/News-Tribune files
Visibility in the water was excellent, and the images sent back to the Grayling revealed a grotesquely damaged ship virtually unchanged since the time of its sinking.”
Adds the Geological Survey’s Bob Nester, who first suggested the Grayling as the launching vessel for the investigation, “It was an intensely emotional experience when the first images revealed the ship’s mast, looming up from the bottom. And, as the camera focused in on the deck, the now-famous ship’s bell appeared as clear as if you were standing only feet away.”
Chronicler Schumacher credits the expedition with producing “five hours of the best footage yet of the wreckage,” yet inconclusive results in pinpointing the cause of the catastrophe. “The footage added more frustration to those seeking answers about the ship’s demise.”
The Grayling continues its service as a Great Lakes research vessel, now for the U.S. Geological Service’s Great Lakes Science Center (formerly managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.