Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Big lake shipwreck mystery


Grand Haven Tribune
By Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki
January 09, 2005

DETROIT — The mystery of the sailing ship Griffon has tantalized adventurers and historians ever since the vessel, loaded with furs, disappeared in 1679 on its maiden voyage in northern Lake Michigan.

It's the oldest and most elusive of Great Lakes shipwrecks. And Steven Libert, an amateur underwater explorer who says he has been hunting the Griffon most of his adult life, thinks he may have found the wreckage.

But for about a year, he has been locked in a legal battle with the State of Michigan over salvage rights to what's left of a ship he discovered while diving in 2001 near Poverty Island. The sides have forged a delicate truce, however, that apparently will enable Libert to continue work next spring toward unlocking the mystery of his find.

If it really is the Griffon, it may be the grand prize of his shipwrecks.

But it's not a prize that will bring him riches. The Griffon wasn't carrying treasure, and its cargo of furs is long gone. It s value is historic and, for Libert, intrinsic rather than monetary.

"It's the hunt for it, knowing that obviously you do something better than someone else. It's competition," said Libert, 51.

The air in his scuba tank was running low, and Libert was about 100 feet below the surface of the dark Lake Michigan waters on his last dive of the 2001 season. Visibility was about 3 inches when he swam into a long pole sticking out of the lake bottom.

"I didn't even know what it was," Libert said. "My face mask ran right into it. I don't know how to explain the feeling. Talk about shock."

He sent up a marker and his crew used global positioning devices to note the location. But when he went back to the surface to refill his tank, the air compressor failed and then a storm moved in. Libert had to wait until the following spring to dive again and take another look.

"That was the hardest thing, waiting all that time, wondering: `Is this the mast of a ship? Is it anything like that?'" Libert said.

When he made it back, Libert wiped off the zebra mussels and took some infrared video of his find.

Could it be the legendary Griffon? Libert wasn't sure. But his discovery intrigued Scott Demel, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, which is interested in excavating and possibly displaying the wreck, if it proves to be the Griffon.

"I think everyone would agree it's the Holy Grail of the Great Lakes," Demel said.

Libert took Demel to the site later in 2002 to take samples of the pole for carbon dating.

But carbon dating isn't an exact science because fluctuations in temperature and climate can affect the test results, Demel said.

"It can't pinpoint exactly how old the wood is, but it certainly gives us windows to work from," he said.

The results of the carbon dating give Libert's discovery a 33 percent probability of dating to 1679. Those aren't great odds, but it's one part of the puzzle, Demel said.

The court battle has stopped Libert from getting back to the site. He says it's too early to tell whether his find is the Griffon, a French vessel that explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle sent out on its fatal trip with a crew of about five. But Libert points to other evidence, such as ax marks on the wood indicating it was hand hewn. He said it's possible he found the Griffon's bowsprit and the rest of the ship is loosely buried behind it.

Uncovering the truth has been tricky for Libert, whose real job – the one that pays the bills – is intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense.

He has formed the company Great Lakes Exploration Group LLC to salvage the ship. And he's trying to use a combination of his own money and whatever investors and grants he can attract to fund the venture.

The Field Museum is helping Libert write a grant to fund more research.

"We're not wealthy, but believe it or not, I pull money from other sources – everything in order to be able to do this," Libert said.

But he can't explain the exact nature of his lust for shipwreck exploration.

"If you could answer that, you'd be helping me out, and my wife also," he said.

So far his biggest cost has involved a lawsuit against the state.

Michigan claims all shipwrecks within its waters. But Libert says he should be able to maintain salvage rights to his discovery, and he doesn't give up easily.

The Griffon sailed under the French flag, and Libert persuaded the French government about a year ago to make a claim and give him the rights to salvage the ship.

Melissia Christianson, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Attorney General's Office, said there is still no agreement on salvage rights.

"We are currently exploring with the other side whether or not we can find cooperations," she said.

Though the rights to the wreckage are likely to be decided in federal court, it appears as if the two sides may have put aside their differences long enough to decide whether the shipwreck is indeed the Griffon.

"Right now it can't be distinguished from a simple timber," Christianson said. "There's no evidence to believe that it is the Griffon."

Though Christianson is skeptical, Libert is hopeful.

"People are finding it hard to believe because it's been lost for so long," he said.

Libert has been looking for the Griffon for 28 years, researching in libraries and seeking out any other source that might lead to a clue to its whereabouts. Names were different in La Salle's day and the Griffon's name can be found different ways – le Griffon, Griffin and Griffon.

Along the way, Libert said he has searched for other wrecks, including the Carl D. Bradley, which sank in Lake Michigan in 1958, and the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones' ship, which sank in the North Sea while battling the British in 1779.

"I think individuals have a role to play in exploration, not just big companies or government-supported ventures, but individuals," Libert said. "It's just a drive that I think a lot of individuals have, not just myself."

That attitude prompted him to start diving along the Griffon's likely path.

Someone once told Libert that searching for the Griffon was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"I said no, it's more like looking for a needle in a hay field," Libert said.

Said Demel: "It's the last frontier on the planet, to look at territory that's under water."

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