In 1979, scuba diver Don Herman pulled his first vehicle out of frozen Lake Winnebago.
“A Chevy Opal went in and nobody wanted to go get it so we just jumped in without anything on, hooked on with a cable and pulled it out with a come along we bought,” Herman said. “That’s how it all got started.”
Nearly 40 years later, he’s made a business out of it.
Tropical waters may be the most common destination for scuba diving, but the Great Lakes are becoming a hotspot for a growing number of divers like Herman. There may not be coral reefs, but there are shipwrecks, sunken cars and more. These three divers have turned exploring the secrets of the Great Lakes into viable businesses.
The Ice Man
Herman and his team find themselves the busiest during the cold Oshkosh, Wisconsin, winter months. When just about anything falls through the ice, their company, SUNK? Dive and Ice Service, is there to make sure it resurfaces.
They pull everything out of the ice. From cars, snowmobiles and ice shanties, to semis and dump trucks, the team can recover items that weigh up to 30,000 pounds.
Since starting the company, Herman has been a diver for the business, recording roughly 600 ice dives in his career. Herman says that with his experience in the business, even after he should have long settled into a cushy desk job, he has to dive.
“When you run the business, you want to dive yourself, you want to hook where you want to hook and it’s best off,” he said.
The job keeps Herman on his toes and constantly tests his limits. Low visibility, deep water depths and freezing temperatures make every dive challenging. Herman found himself jumping in the water for a dive at 15 degrees below zero. At the same time, visibility was almost zero, and he had to find his way through touch. Sure, it’s no coral reef, but that’s the life of a Great Lakes diver.
Believe it or not, there are some people who do these frigid dives recreationally. The Great Lakes Diving Center is one of many recreational diving centers across the Midwest, though the diving center is the only one located on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Matthew Savatski is a managing member of the center and a lifelong diver. He started diving at the age of 13 and never stopped. His impressive resume includes cave and cavern diving in Switzerland, hanging out with a manta ray in the Southern Caribbean and diving in the South Pacific. Despite these experiences, his favorite place to dive remains the Great Lakes. The reason? Shipwrecks.
“The cold freshwater helps preserve these wrecks extremely well,” Savataski said. “There are many of them that are still perfectly intact from the day that they went down.”
Savatski is lucky to have his shop in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which is near one of two Lake Michigan sanctuaries. The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary is managed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The sanctuary is 962 square miles and includes 36 known shipwreck sites, all of which are to remain untouched.
“They have sanctuaries all over the country,” Savatski said. “They look at them from a cultural or natural aspect to protect them, especially culturally significant areas.”
The other sanctuary is on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan near Dusty Klifman, a friend of Savatski and a shipwreck hunter and diver himself.
Jack of All Trades
Like Savatski, Dusty Klifman also began diving at the age of 13. He grew up in a rural part of Michigan – far from a diving paradise.
“I grew up in the country in a farm town, a very small area. I didn’t know that people like me could be a diver, a shipwreck hunter and an explorer,” Klifman said. “Where I grew up, we were farmers and truck drivers and machinists, not explorers.”
Luckily, his parents supported his newfound passion. They even gave him his first diving certification class as a birthday present. Just as important, they fostered his love for photography. His first camera was his dad’s hand-me-down four-megapixel digital camera.
“I was so interested in showing people the world that they don’t normally see. So macro photography is really where it started,” Klifman said. “But then when I became a scuba diver, I was able to bring that underwater world to the surface for my parents, who may never see it otherwise.”
Klifman has more than a few dives under his belt and has seen plenty of shipwrecks. For him, it’s like exploring a sunken museum.
“When you visit these sites, many of them are pretty undisturbed,” he said. “There are quite a few artifacts that you just wouldn’t see elsewhere.”
Today, Klifman is one of the most well-known Great Lake Divers and photographers. He’s active on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Though Facebook is where he shines, claiming 15,000 followers.
It’s also what caught the attention of National Geographic’s popular show Uncharted, hosted by Gordon Ramsay. Klifman took Ramsay diving and spearfishing for the show.
“He was very interested in what I was doing,” Klifman said. “Once he found out I paid for it all, he said, ‘Somebody else needs to finance this.’ I said, ‘You’re right, Mr. Ramsay.’”
Diving, as amazing of a hobby as it is, can be expensive. To do what Klifman does, he has to drop thousands of dollars on gear and training. Klifman also needs a boat, sonar, diving gear and certification.
“My life revolves around this, and I don’t make money doing it,” Klifman said. “Essentially, I spend money to entertain people and educate them. Very bad business model, but that’s my passion.”
Klifman plans to make his own discovery soon, with or without the cash. Previously, he has found a couple of small things but nothing that could be claimed as a shipwreck.
“This is the year I’m gonna be able to make some discoveries. I’m sure of it,” he said.