Shipwrecks, Birds, and More OH MY; Whitefish Point Has It All
Photo by Alessandro La Becca on Unsplash
Youtube: Michael MacDonald
Perhaps one of the most underrated parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would be Whitefish Point. This small section of beach is famous for its many shipwrecks; though they are also home to the Great Lakes Region bird observatory. Having visited this little ‘town’ on the tip of the U.P. during the height of migration season, camping was very cold, but this part of the Upper Peninsula is known as Paradise for a reason.
Fun Fact: Looking at Whitefish Point from above, it makes sense that there would be a bird observatory here. Not only because this is a check point for birds while traveling South, but because the actual land even resembles a falcon's head.
Lake Superior is the most beautiful, and deceiving, Great Lake of Michigan. As the deepest Great Lake and the most North, Lake Superior has earned its reputation as a ship graveyard. To date, there are an estimated 550 shipwrecks in Lake Superior, of these 550, at least 240 known ships lay along the shoreline of Whitefish Point. The reason this specific part of the U.P. makes the waters of Lake Superior so dangerous for ships is because the rugged 80-mile shoreline doesn’t provide any natural harbors that are essential in protecting ships from storms. This, unfortunately, is unavoidable as this is the only way to deliver copper and other goods between the top of the U.P. and Detroit; and considering technology has only truly progressed throughout the last 30 years, explains why so many wrecks occurred.
One of the buildings, the Shipwreck Museum, at Whitefish Point houses these legends with a collection of artifacts from various wrecks. The most notable artifact is the bell of the famous SS Edmond Fitzgerald which split into two when it crashed in 1975. This wreck is considered to be the largest ship to have sunk at Whitefish Point, killing 29 crew members, and she remains 530 feet deep at the bottom of Superior today. Many experienced divers can even get permission to dive some of these numerous wrecks.
Considering Michigan has the most lighthouses out of any other U.S. state with 129 throughout the Great Lakes, it is no surprise that Whitefish Point has one of its own. Though, what makes this lighthouse interesting is the fact that it functions as a museum and keepers' quarters today. Built in 1849, this is not only the oldest operating lighthouse in all of Michigan’s U.P., but after 150 years this lighthouse still functions as the U.S. Coast Guard Aid to Navigation. Since it is still in operation, visitors aren’t allowed to go to the top of the lighthouse, but can look up from the base to see how the light works, you can also tour the 1861 remodeled keepers' cabin.
While the best way to get informed about the Bird Observatory and how it works would be to visit their website (they have so many interesting things!). I will touch on their Owl Banding process and the best spots for bird viewing.
There are two spots dedicated to the Bird Observatory at Whitefish Point. The Owl’s Roost building is displayed as a gift shop for the public, but at the back of the building is where researchers study visiting owls. Through a process called Owl Banding, researchers safely catch different breeds of owls in mist nets at night. They then work on gathering information on the bird's weight, tail and wing measurements, they then wrap a small aluminum band on their ankle which helps determine the birds age, sex, and overall health and body condition. All of this information is collected safely, then sent to the National Bird Banding Lab in Maryland which helps wildlife researchers and biologists to understand more about Owl patterns, movements, and demographics. This research is especially helpful at tracking the population of each bird, to make sure mating seasons aren’t being affected by human conditions, environmental, etc. To date, the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory has tracked nine different Owl species, which is a very impressive and diverse collection of owls for one region.
TIP: If you don’t mind waking up at dawn, you can visit the researchers and see how the Owl Banding process works, that year's data collection, what uncommon species have made a visit, etc.
The second-best location for spotting various species of birds is on the Hawk Deck. This deck not only gives you a clear view of the beach, Lake Superior, and Canada in the distance; but nestled between high trees, this is the perfect perch for spotting incoming birds. Typical birds seen here are species of owls, eagles, hawks, northern finches, and falcons. This research center has been accurately collecting data on these migrating species for over 20 years.
I strongly recommend checking out Whitefish Points website because there are many more interesting shipwrecks throughout the last 150+ years. When visiting, you also have to take advantage of the beautiful beach that wraps this point of Michigan. Swimming is permitted, but be conscious of the fact that Lake Superior is always freezing, so a bodysuit would be more comfortable. Though, due to the temperature and the knowledge that Whitefish Point is the biggest Shipwreck Graveyard in the U.P., it means swimming in dead-body infested water. Now, you most likely won’t see or accidentally touch any of these bodies because Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes, but it is still a very eerie thought to have.
Fun Fact: Did you know seagulls aren’t an actual type of bird? Rather, that is a name people have given these little beach gremlins. They are actually one of the various species of gulls; which have over 30 different subspecies.