Explorers of the deep dark world

The members of the Deep Six Dive Group often descend to the shipwrecks on the floor of Lake Michigan, but on March 18 they will join other scuba divers for the cleanup dive they’ve organized in the Port Washington marina

Harbormaster Dennis Cherny (second from left) with the Deep Six divers at the marina. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington’s Mike Jajtner and the Town of Belgium’s Jim Bach often get a chance to see history up close and personal in a venue few have ever entered.

The veteran members of the Deep Six Dive Group in Port Washington have made many a memorable dives to shipwrecks in Lake Michigan, always finding something new.

“For me, it’s seeing something that has been down there for over 150 years and actually touching that and what good condition it is in,” Jajtner said. “You’re seeing things perhaps 99% of the population doesn’t see unless they watch videos done by divers.”

Bach said he has dived to see the Niagara near Belgium as many as 70 times, but “Every time I dive it I get a different feeling. It’s interesting.”

It’s not only interesting to the divers. Sometimes those who may never enter water in their lives benefit from what divers find.

Jajtner remembers diving in the 1980s on the Toledo, which sunk due to a storm in 1856 in 20 feet of water near Port, killing about 40 people. Back then, artifacts were still being removed from shipwrecks.

“I have found two axe heads on that shipwreck that are now part of the Port Washington Historical Society’s collection,” he said.

These days, divers only take photos and videos.

“We want to leave the shipwrecks the way we found them. It’s like hiking in a natural forest. You take photos and leave it how it is,” Jajtner said.

It was the local interest in diving that led Bach to start Deep Six Dive Group in 2008. The group has no dues and doesn’t require members to be certified divers. The 90 members on its mailing list mostly hail from Southeast Wisconsin, with some in Minnesota who participate in a few dives.

Bach, a past president of the group, said it filled a niche.

“We’re sitting right on top of some of the best diving you’ll ever do in the world here in Lake Michigan,” he said.

The variety of findings, he said, covers 150 years of “ships that go down the way they were.”

Jajtner, president of the group, said Lake Michigan’s cold water helped preserve the ships, and the increase in zebra mussels has made for clearer water.

“You can see an entire wreck instead of two, three feet at a time,” he said.

One of Bach’s highlights is a video he took of the schooner Walter B. Allen, which sank in a bad gale and snowstorm in 165 feet of water in 1880.

“In part of the video I come down toward the stern of the ship — you can see the entire ship — it is 137 feet long and you can see out past it,” he said. “ It’s just like a little like watching Jacques Coustou in the 1990s.”

One of Jajtner’s highlights was a similar experience last year checking out the Northerner, which went down in 1868 due to a leak.

“We dropped down to 50 feet below the surface — the wreck is at 130 feet — we could see the entire wreck at that point. It was crystal clear water. It really gave you an appreciation for seeing the wreck,” he said.

On a dive seven years ago to the Mahoning, 3.5 miles south of Port, Jajtner and another diver made a discovery. They captured some odd organisms in a long-neck bottle and gave them to the Department of Natural Resources, which identified them as red shrimp, an invasive species only known to be on the Michigan side of the water.

“They were surprised they were on this side of the lake. That was an interesting factoid,” Jajtner said.

With every dive, it’s safety first for Bach and Jajtner. They always start planning with computers and dive tables.

“You actually plan three dives. You plan what you want to do, what happens if you accidentally have to stay a couple of extra minutes, and if you get down there and have an equipment issue and you have to come up right away,” Bach said.

They dive with two computers in case one malfunctions, always dive with a buddy and make sure they have working watches to check the time.

On the deep dives — they’ve both been as far down as 160 feet —Bach said he takes double tanks on his back with two regulators and carries decompression gas to allow him to surface quickly.

For dives deeper than 60 feet, the two make sure they get rid of the nitrogen that  accumulates in their tissues to avoid nitrogen narcosis. Fifteen feet from the surface, they do a “safety stop” and breath through their air tanks for five minutes.

“If we don’t off gas, nitrogen will expand and it hits you in the joints and becomes painful. It can lead to serious injury and death,” Jajtner said.

“We don’t take chances. We watch our computers. We watch our watches.”

And they watch the weather as best they can. The two — both also members of the Port Washington Fire Department Dive Team — haven’t experienced any diving emergencies yet, but they have seen weather conditions alter quickly.

Bach, who has more than 1,000 dives under his belt, remembers once seeing a line of clouds come over Harrington Beach State Park during a dive. One-foot waves switched to as high as six feet. The temperature changed and fog rolled in.

“Lake Michigan can change its mind in a heartbeat,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we spend the money and we put navigation software on our boat.”

Bach said he always remembers his certification instructor’s rules for diving back in 1978.

“The first rule of diving, whatever happens, don’t panic,” he said. “The second rule is never forget rule No. 1. If I can breath I can manage it. If I can’t breath then that’s why you have a buddy, and your buddy can help you out.”

Jajtner and a buddy have been working on a personal milestone. He and Roland Chaloupka of Port Washington have dived in Lake Michigan each month for the past 84. Their goal is to get to 100. Winter dives have sometimes been in the marina when the harbor’s mouth is iced up.

“Our January dives have been cold,” Jajtner said.

Beyond seeing history and wildlife, diving is a hobby that puts Jajtner and Bach into another element, much like others’ interests in woodworking, making music or running.

“For me, diving is a passport into a different world altogether. You get under water and you’re weightless. It’s an escape,” Bach said.

“It’s the silent world underwater,” Jajtner said, “with the exception you hear yourself breath in and breath out. My cell phone doesn’t work down there so I don’t get any phone calls. It’s very peaceful, very relaxing - 

The pair’s wives have different takes on diving. Maureen Jajtner has been diving since before she married Mike, while ViAnn Bach doesn’t swim and requires her husband’s plan and location, and a phone call when he’s done.

The Deep Six Dive Group is holding an inaugural marina cleanup dive in Port at 11 a.m. Sunday, March 18.

Prizes will be awarded for the most unique piece, biggest piece and largest quantity of “treasure,” Jajtner said. It is open to any certified diver.

Food will be available, and raffles will be held.

“We think it would be a nice thing to bring people in to Port Washington, and it helps with the harbor,” Jajtner said.

For anyone who may be interested in diving, Jajtner recommends being comfortable in the water and to explore scuba diving through a shop, some of which start with area pools.

For more information on the group, visit www.deepsixscuba.com or the club’s Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/95350979397.





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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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