June 13, 2013

Expedition hopes to find La Salle's long-lost ship

Divers will search in Lake Michigan this weekend for the Griffin, a ship that disappeared in 1679 with a crew of six and a cargo of furs.

The Associated Press

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Steve Libert, president of Great Lakes Exploration Group, stands near the Traverse City, Mich., marina on Lake Michigan. On Saturday, Libert will lead a diving expedition to northern Lake Michigan to try to determine whether timbers he found while diving in 2001 are what remain of 17th-century French explorer La Salle's legendary ship Griffin.

The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

In this October 2012 image from video, timbers protrude from the bottom of Lake Michigan.They were discovered by Steve Libert, head of Great Lakes Exploration Group, in 2001.

The Associated Press / David J. Ruck

His big break came in October 2001. While scuba diving near tiny Poverty Island in murky Michigan waters, he smacked into a timber sticking nearly 11 feet out of the lake bed. It looked like part of a ship, with a tapered end and fastening pegs. Carbon testing of small samples indicated it could date to the Griffin time period but wasn't conclusive.

Libert says the water depth is less than 100 feet in the area but won't divulge the precise location, saying other divers could loot or damage the wreckage.

Sonar surveys over the next decade suggested objects were buried in nearby sediments. But determining whether this was actually a shipwreck would require excavations.

A legal dispute slowed things. State officials said all shipwrecks in Michigan's Great Lakes waters were government property. France later submitted a claim.

An agreement reached three years ago acknowledged France's ownership but gave Libert's Great Lakes Exploration Group permission to continue inspecting the site. Michigan's Department of Natural Resources granted permits this month for digging a few shallow pits to reveal clues.

Cannons with Louis XIV's insignia would be dead giveaways. But even without such conclusive evidence, the team hopes to find ornamental beads, knives, cooking pots or similar items that French vessels of that period likely would have carried, said archaeologist Misty Jackson, one of several scientists and technicians joining the mission.

If Libert's team identifies the Griffin during his self-financed expedition, he'll negotiate with the two governments over what to do next. He'd like the wreckage to be put on public display. But that would require careful planning to prevent the wood from corroding after being preserved in chilly water for more than 330 years, said Sandra Clarke, director of the Michigan Historical Center.

The agreement calls for Great Lakes Exploration Group to have exclusive rights to photos, video footage, field notes and other intellectual property from the mission for a limited period. They could use the material for books, movies and other moneymaking ventures.

Some remain skeptical that Libert has discovered the Griffin or that it remains intact. Ronald Mason, a professor emeritus in anthropology at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said previous claims came up empty.

"I just cannot see a wooden framed sailing vessel keeping together for a prolonged period of time, given the increasing and decreasing pressures and movement of currents in fairly shallow water," he said. "I wish them good luck. I wouldn't want to bet money on their chances."

Libert said he's done his homework and believes he'll be proved right.

"It's a little scary after all these years," he acknowledged. "I've dreamed about this being the Griffin so much. After all the research, time, money we've spent ... it'd be the greatest disappointment if this is not it. But even if it isn't, we've opened up doors for educational opportunities, we've encouraged underwater tourism. And I'll find the Griffin one day."

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