Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Local diver honored for documenting shipwrecks

By Shandra Martinez
March 11, 2006

PARK TOWNSHIP -- Many people might not think of Lake Michigan's cold, dark waters as a scuba-diving haven.

But Valerie Olson van Heest has spent much of the past two decades in their depths documenting and preserving shipwrecks.

"It has given me a lifetime of exciting adventure, and I've met some of the most amazing people dedicated to this avocation," van Heest said.

This month, the 45-year-old Park Township woman will be among six women being inducted into the international Women Divers Hall of Fame.

She admits being floored by the honor that puts her in a sorority with "Sea Hunt" star Zale Parry, Eugenie "Shark Lady" Clark, veteran shipwreck diver Evelyn Dudas and safety expert Andrea Zaferes.

Van Heest has built a reputation as a leading Lake Michigan underwater archivist, said Cris Kohl, a maritime historian and author of 10 books about Great Lakes history.

"She has really specialized in the area, and I would put her up with anybody," Kohl said of van Heest.

Van Heest's drawings of shipwrecks and other maritime research have been featured in books, articles and documentaries.

"To me what makes her a real star is how she shares all her information, research and drawings with the public and other researchers," said Joan Forsberg, a diver and Kohl's wife.

Van Heest is only the third woman from the Midwest to be inducted into the hall, said Joyce Hayward, a 2001 inductee from Ohio, who nominated van Heest.

The hall was created to recognize and honor women who have succeeded in a traditionally male sport while raising public awareness of their exceptional contributions in many fields, Hayward said.

Working as a volunteer, she has helped grow three nonprofit organizations in Michigan and Illinois dedicated to charting Lake Michigan waters for shipwrecks.

She co-founded the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago; headed the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve Committee, which established the state's 10th underwater preserve; and co-founded the Holland-based Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates.

Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates is dedicated to researching, searching, documenting and producing educational programs on Michigan shipwrecks.

The daughter of a Navy diver, van Heest grew up in the Chicago area.

She began scuba diving at 16 because her employer, a scuba-diver manufacturer, made it a requirement.

With Lake Michigan a mile from her doorstep, she tried out her new skill there. She swam out to her first shipwreck, the sunken George Morley schooner buried 1,000 feet from shore in 20 feet of water near Evanston, Ill.

A decade later, she began working with a diving group associated with Chicago Maritime Museum to document shipwrecks and maritime history in Lake Michigan.

"I jumped at the chance because I found like-minded people who wanted to use their sport for a great purpose," van Heest said.

She relocated to Holland in 1995 after marrying Jack van Heest, a scuba diver she met at a conference. The parents of two, they have also teamed up as part of Michigan Shipwreck Associates' ongoing efforts.

Her induction into Women Divers Hall of Fame in ceremonies March 25 in Secaucus, N.J., during the 30th annual Beneath the Sea exposition will be accompanied by some work at the conference. She will present a Michigan Shipwreck Associates' documentary on last June's discovery of the S.S. Michigan, a 204-foot, iron-hulled ship destroyed by ice in 1885 and found upright in more than 270 feet of Lake Michigan water west of Holland.


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