July/August 2013


The Dangerous Side of Currents – Learning about Great Lakes Currents

In a darkened room full of natural resource professionals, pictures of splendid summer scenes were used to start off presentations. The pictures showed people playing at the beach, swimmers’ heads bobbing delightfully in shimmery blue-green waters — a spectrum of summer enjoyment along a Great Lakes beach.

Then came images of rescue personnel and floating lifesaving rings. Diagrams and data that showed currents hiding beneath seemingly normal swimming conditions: low waves and relative calm. Graphs showed the numbers of rescues each year in the Great Lakes — and deaths due to drownings. Several people relayed tales of near misses after getting caught in a current, including the panic, the struggling and finally the resignation.

It was a parallel to what can happen at the beach: things start off lovely — the sun is shining, fun is being had — and for most people the day at the beach is just that. But for some, it can quickly change.

Learning Currents

Thus began a series of three workshops about dangerous currents in the Great Lakes. Michigan Sea Grant organized the events as part of an outreach project on dangerous current awareness in the region. The objective was to provide information to natural resource, state and national park personnel and first responders — people who could potentially reach and teach many others about the dangers of Great Lakes currents. The workshops were held near Muskegon, Traverse City and St. Ignace, coastal areas that have all been scenes of dangerous current rescues and drownings.

“When we started doing this many years ago, it was like a new frontier,” said Ron Kinnunen, Upper Peninsula extension educator for Michigan Sea Grant. “Some people denied that these currents existed in the Great Lakes — some still deny it — but we have come so far in our understanding of these things. That’s what today is all about.”

Data collection, research on currents including where and when they form, survival stories, statistics and what is being done to reach out to the public and beachgoers were all part of the information presented during each of the workshops.


Dave Benjamin, a Great Lakes surfer, spoke about the time he didn’t think he was going to make it out of the water. It was the day after Christmas 2010. He was surfing on Lake Michigan with some friends when he got into trouble. The leash to his surfboard was severed, and he was out in the water, getting hit by wave after wave and being dragged by a current back to open water. Water had breached his wetsuit. He was losing energy.

“I have been swimming in Lake Michigan all of my life,” said Benjamin. “All of that experience went out the window when panic set in. I came to a point where I was writing myself off. I came to the resolution that I’m not going home today.”

While Benjamin’s story may not resonate at first — he was surfing in December, after all — it has all of the elements of a summer drowning, including exhaustion and panic after getting caught up in the current. He was reviewing his life, he said, when an article about drowning came back to him. It was then he did what saved his life: nothing. He stopped struggling against the current, flipped over and began to float on his back, which gave him time to catch his breath and think. He was eventually able to make it back to shore, alternatingly resting and swimming.

Dissecting the Patterns

Keith Cooley with the National Weather Service presented findings from an analysis of channel currents along the Lake Superior shoreline at Picnic Rocks in Marquette, where 15 people have drowned as a result of currents since 1963. Channel currents in this area move parallel to the shore and are caused by the squeezing of water between the shore and an island, in this case Picnic Rocks. Some of the results, thus far, indicate that channel currents occur when the winds are blowing from the north, northwest and south. Waves with a northerly or southerly component tend to cause hazardous current speeds, especially when wave heights are two to five (or 2-5) feet.

Guy Meadows, a researcher and leader of the Michigan Technological University Water Institute, also presented data that provides insight into dangerous Great Lakes currents. Meadows has been collecting what is referred to as “perishable data” for many years — data that can only be captured shortly before, during or after a weather event, before it disappears. To do this, he has developed his own instruments to track different data points such as wave velocity, current strength and direction, and partners this information with data collected from buoys and weather stations. The main goal of the research is to get accurate data on which conditions produce dangerous currents in the swim zone close to shore.

He talked about two different current situations: chronic and acute.

The chronic currents are those that tend to show up repeatedly in the same areas. Meadows showed aerial shots of popular beaches from around the state that have known dangerous current activity. He used satellite images of the beaches from the last 10 years or so, mapping out where rip channels — areas where dangerous currents often develop — appear near the shore, in swim areas .

Meadows also demonstrated that there are areas where currents develop and fade quickly or move around the nearshore in a less predictable manner. The data Meadows and his team have been collecting may be able to provide insights into the factors that determine where and how currents develop on the Great Lakes, and how to manage swim areas to minimize risk.

He said the results so far are interesting and could be used on a basic level, but more research must be completed for waterfront managers to be able to use the information to make decisions and set policy.


The Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program – Michigan Department of Environmental Quality provided financial assistance for these workshops through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Commerce. The Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program partners with local governments, non-profit organizations and universities to promote wise management and prudent use of cultural and natural resources within our coastal boundary.

To stay safe, be sure to check the National Weather Service forecast before going to the beach, and visit www.dangerouscurrents.org for more information on how to keep your summer a safe one.


Other News

Coast Guard DSC_0142
Boating accidents decrease across Michigan and the U.S.

By Josh Gunn, Clean Marina Program Extension Educator

Michigan is following a national trend — boating accidents and fatalities have been on the decline. The U.S. Coast Guard’s 2012 Accident Statistics Report, released earlier this summer, shows that for the past three years, boating accidents in Michigan have decreased, particularly from 2011 to 2012.

The number breakdown:

  • 2010 — 132 accidents; 27 deaths
  • 2011 — 129 accidents; 26 deaths
  • 2012 — 103 accidents; 16 deaths

For the entire U.S., boating-related fatalities decreased 14.1 percent. What is the drop attributed to? See: Full Article


Have You Seen That Fish? Species Lifelists Offer GoalsFishes of the Grand

By Dan O’Keefe, Southwest Michigan Extension Educator

Did you know that 147 species of fish can be found in Michigan waters? Michigan lakes and rivers are home to an impressive number of fish species that most people never seek out or encounter.

However, keeping a lifelist is one way to explore and enjoy the variety of fish in local waters. What’s a lifelist? Birders may be familiar with the concept — a lifelist is a list of species an observer has seen or is trying to fulfill. Some species are easy to spot, while others can be quite rare.

The official list of Michigan fish includes representatives from 28 families, ranging from a freshwater cod that lives in cold, deep Great Lakes waters, to the tiny and colorful redside dace that resides in a handful of southeast Michigan streams. How do you spot fish? See: Full article

Also call out:

  • Great Lakes Species Website
  • Fish Habitat
  • Fisheries Lessons


seasick IMG_1578-adjustedOvercoming Seasickness While Boating on the Great Lakes

By Ron Kinnunen, Michigan Sea Grant Upper Peninsula Extension Educator

You’re enjoying a nice boat trip around the Great Lakes when you start to feel a little lightheaded, and your stomach starts to turn. It’s seasickness, a reaction to rolling or choppy waves while on a boat. The good news is most people can adapt and overcome seasickness.

As a person is exposed to the conditions found on a boat, a certain adaptation occurs. The brain, once confused by the sensory signals being on a rolling boat can cause, begins to determine that the confused sensory signals are normal and the symptoms of seasickness slowly disappear. To help relieve the symptoms, it is best to move around on the boat to become accustomed to the motion, while at the same time focusing on the horizon.

While it may seem like lying down would help you feel more secure or centered, it can actually make it worse because it allows your body to continue to feel the motion without any perception of the horizon. For example, rigging up fishing equipment is a task that requires close visual focus, but can also enhance seasickness. While doing this or any close-focused tasks on the boat, it is best to look up often to focus on the horizon.

See: Full Article


New Tech Tools to Keep You Safe at the Beach and in the Water

Is the heat getting to you, and you’re ready to explore a new swimming hole? Or maybe you’re looking for a beach near your vacation rental, but you forgot to check before leaving home? A new mobile app for Android operating systems called myBeachCast helps locate a local beach. The app also provides up-to-date weather forecasts and any active hazard alerts for your chosen beach. The information can also be accessed through the myBeachCast website.

Heading out on the boat? The WindAlert app provides information for boaters, including weather forecasts and current wave conditions. The app allows access to information from more than 50,000 weather stations from your smartphone. Visit www.windalert.com to download the free app. Other features include forecasts, radar, nautical charts, wave heights, surface temperatures and more.


St. Johns Marsh, Lake St. Clair, AlgonacWater Trails Highlighted on New Website

One of the best ways to experience the Great Lakes and connecting waterways is to get out in a kayak or canoe. Picture it: a gentle breeze blowing, a paddle slicing through the clear water and a wonderful feeling of weightlessness as you glide over the surface of a Great Lake. The Michigan Great Lakes Water Trails website makes it easier than ever to hit the water — anywhere in the state. See: News Release



Dabblers-and-Divers-poster-400Dabblers and Divers

Figuring out the identity of any animal can be an engaging challenge. One clue on its own won’t likely provide all of the evidence you need. Yet, adding up observations creates a mosaic of information that can reveal what species you’ve spotted. This poster helps you find clues on identifying the duck as a dabbler or diver. See: Bookstore



TLOTL-Cover-low-resolutionThe Life of the Lakes: A Guide to the Great Lakes Fishery

Did you know commercial fishing on the Great Lakes was born out of necessity to support the fur trade? Or that water quality in the lakes began to decline in the 1800s? What kind of threat do invasive carp pose to the fisheries today? Learn all about these issues and more with the new edition of The Life of the Lakes. See: Bookstore



Fins-Tails-Scales-Fish-ID-posterFins, Tails and Scales Poster

There are more than 160 species of fish that inhabit the waters of the Great Lakes region. While many look similar in shape and size, each belongs to a family that exhibits particular characteristics. These distinguishing features, combined with information on geographic range and behavior, help us observe and identify specific species. See: Bookstore



smallmouth-bass_COMBOGuide to Great Lakes Fishes

The Great Lakes are home to an impressive variety of fishes. The Guide to Great Lakes Fishes describes 62 of the region’s most commonly found species, from giants like the Lake Sturgeon to minnows and shiners. Beautiful color illustrations accompany color photographs and line drawings to highlight distinguishing characteristics of each fish. Each profile includes quick facts about distribution, diet, behavior and conservation status. Informative essays on the natural history, adaptations, and characteristics of Great Lakes fishes are also covered, as well as detailed diagrams of the aquatic habitats and food chains within the Lakes. This is a must-have guide for every angler, fishery or wildlife professional, and conservationist. And it’s waterproof! See: Bookstore