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Do Bodies Float in Lake Superior?

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Lake Superior has three quadrillion gallons of cold water, and bodies in Lake Superior don't float.

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In early March 2021, as the first signs of spring began to touch the Northern Hemisphere and melt the ice rimes from its lakes, a popular Facebook post claiming that bodies in Lake Superior don’t float was very popular:

Well… Here’s today’s fun fact

Posted by Holly McCrery on Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Across a deceptively tranquil lake scene, text read:

This is Lake Superior. It has three quadrillion gallons of COLD water. Water that is so cold, a dead body will never float to the surface, because the water is never warm enough to grow the bacteria needed to cause a body to float. Morbid, but true.

Lake Superior is the size of South Carolina, OK??

On March 6 2021, a similar post appeared on Reddit’s r/todayilearned:

TIL that Lake Superior is so cold that bacteria needed to cause a submerged dead body to float and surface is unable to grow. Due to this, many bodies from shipwrecks, such as the Edmund Fitzgerald, have never been recovered. from todayilearned

On Reddit, the original poster (OP) linked to a February 2018 blog post, which concluded with a reference to the Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and adding:

An old saying, “Lake Superior doesn’t give up her dead.” is both folklore and fact. The cold water of Lake Superior does not allow bacteria to grow like it would in warmer water. The bacteria that usually causes the body to bloat and float is kept at bay in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Because the temperature of the water is so cold, bodies can be preserved for many years in the deep depths of Lake Superior where water lingers around 34F or 1.1C. I can’t imagine the secrets and stories that Lake Superior has yet to reveal – or may never reveal. Even though the deep depths of the lake contain sad and tragic stories, the surface of the water and surrounding land offers incredible scenery and opportunities for the young and old (and furry).

Overall, the Facebook post included three claims, two relatively straightforward and the third, less so:

  • Lake Superior contains three quadrillion gallons of water;
  • Lake Superior is the size of South Carolina;
  • Lake Superior is so cold that growth of bacteria is inhibited, and bodies in Lake Superior do not float or surface.

Lake Superior Contains Three Quadrillion Gallons of Water

We were easily able to confirm that this claim is indeed true. Lake Superior contains roughly three quadrillion gallons of water (or, per our quick-and-dirty online converter math, approximately 11,356,235,352,000,000 liters.)

Lake Superior Is the Same Size as the Entire State of South Carolina?

Yes and no.

According to LakeSuperior.com:

It’s the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area – 31,700 square miles (82,100 square kilometres), or roughly the size of Maine – and holds 10 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. (By volume, it’s the third largest, behind Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in eastern Africa.) Lake Superior’s 3 quadrillion gallons are enough to cover both North and South America under a foot of water.

At 31,700 square miles, Lake Superior is slightly smaller than South Carolina (but “roughly the size of Maine”), but not by much — South Carolina is about 32,020 square miles.

Do Bodies Float in Lake Superior?

Although the first two facts were fairly easy to quantify, the third claim — that bodies in Lake Superior don’t float — was a bit harder to pin down.

As established by the meme, Lake Superior is an extremely large body of water, which means conditions are rarely uniform across the lake; conditions also vary by season.

Fascination with Lake Superior’s submerged vessels and crew has long persisted, and it was uncommon for any discussions around the topic to not involve several comments about “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” A December 2019 thread on Reddit’s r/submechanophobia (fear of partly or fully submerged man-made objects) repeatedly visited the idea that Lake Superior is so cold that bodies “don’t float”:

S.S Kamloops sunken in Lake Superior with holds a preserved corpse, nicknamed "Old Whitey". Divers report seeing Whitey follow them or stare at them while they explore the shipwreck. Photo: Doug Bell from submechanophobia

One commenter stated referenced an article posted in the thread comments explaining how bodies are “preserved” in Lake Superior, but the blog post linked in fact only described one very famous partly-preserved corpse in the wreckage of the SS Kamloops.

The linked content did not indicate that bodies in Lake Superior “don’t float” or surface; one portion referenced corpses which had washed up elsewhere on the shoreline. The body in this case was fully submerged in a specific vessel, and it remained partly intact due to specific circumstances:

It turns out that the frigid waters of Lake Superior had not just refrigerated farm equipment and foodstuffs, it had perfectly preserved one of the 13 crewmen who never made it ashore. His body stiff and his skin white as snow, the nameless member of the Kamloops crew had floated inside the ship for fifty years, alone until the divers began to occasionally filter in. Some had taken to calling him “Old Whitey”, but those who’d heard the stories of ghostly encounters knew the truth: this was Grandpa’s body.

Content about Lake Superior and bodies that never surfaced almost always referenced the remains known as “Grandpa” or “Old Whitey,” as was the case in a May 1996 Baltimore Sun item:

Hard-core experts aboard Royale Diver may now take the plunge to the island’s most eerie treasures.

Among them is Kamloops, a package freighter that sank in 1927, which lies about 240 feet below the surface at its deepest.

Inside Kamloops, underwater adventurers see one of the eeriest sights in all of wreck diving. A body with flesh preserved by a sort of ice-water mummification lies in the ship’s engine room.

Here, in dark and perpetually frigid depths, is one of the dead that Lake Superior never gave up.

In March 2019, a separate r/todayilearned post was titled: “TIL bacteria will feed on a decaying body underwater and create gas, which causes the body to float to the surface. However, Lake Superior’s cold temperatures inhibit bacterial growth and the bodies tend to sink and never resurfaced”:

TIL bacteria will feed on a decaying body underwater and create gas, which causes the body to float to the surface. However, Lake Superior’s cold temperatures inhibit bacterial growth and the bodies tend to sink and never resurfaced. from todayilearned

However, that post linked to a blog post, and the blog post didn’t say what the title said it did:

LAKE SUPERIOR BODIES
There an 350 shipwrecks in Lake Superior and an estimated 10,000 people have died in the icy waters, but as legend says, Lake Superior never gives up her dead.

Underwater bacteria feed on human remains and create gas which causes bodies to float back to the surface. The average temperature of Lake Superior is about 36°F, cold enough to inhibit bacterial growth and prevent bodies from rising.

In the case of the Edmund Fitzgerald bodies, they all went down with the ship and never came back up.

During a 1994 expedition to the wreck, divers finally found the body of a crewmember for the first time. Video footage shows the remains outside the wreck, near the bow, “fully clothed, wearing an orange life jacket, and lying face down in the sediment.”

They left the remains undisturbed.

It was easy to infer after reading the title that the post claimed Lake Superior was cold enough to inhibit all growth of bacteria to prevent all bodies from rising, but its broader context made clear that this was part of the context that had to do specifically with the high-profile sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald — conditions that involved a sudden and severe storm and the vessel sinking to the lake’s bottom.

In January 2020, Caitlin Doughty published a long video about the Edmund Fitzgerald (“The Lake That Never Gives Up Her Dead”), addressing fascinating nuance about the line between a final resting place and a site for exploration. Doughty spoke to living relatives of the men who perished on that ill-fated voyage, and discussed features of the site preventing divers from visiting it.

Doughty linked to a Minnesota Sea Grant newsletter article about Lake Superior’s frigid waters, and that (archived) item framed the notion that Lake Superior “never gives up her dead” as “folklore,” at least in part:

Folklore and fact merge in the saying “Lake Superior never gives up her dead.” Bodies tend to remain sunken because Lake Superior’s frigid water slows bacterial action. (Bacteria operating in warmer waters generate enough gas to make dead bodies float after a few days.)

“Lake Superior doesn’t give up her dead because of bacteria and cold water, and she doesn’t give up pollutants for the same reasons,” said Matt Simcik, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. “However, here’s the twist. Even though they work slowly, bacteria make up such a large portion of the metabolic activity in Lake Superior that they play a great role in moving energy and toxins into the food web. When a toxin is locked up in the food web, it can’t sink into the sediments, evaporate into the air, or flow out with the water.”

“Folklore” was a common theme in pieces about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and its outsized presence in the legends around Lake Superior. A 2015 column examining the wreck’s effects on “North American seafaring folklore” was headlined, “Unforgiving Lake Superior never gives up her dead,” and its author wrote:

The Great Lakes freighter known as the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank 40 years ago [as of November 2015], launching one of the greatest maritime mysteries of all time and inspiring the greatest shipping song of the modern age. Today, the whole English-speaking world knows the single element of the Edmund Fitzgerald saga that has won universal agreement, which is that the lake never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

This disaster at the distended thumb of Lake Superior permitted the phrase “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to replace “The Wreck of the Hesperus” in North American seafaring folklore. Indeed, the displacement of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Gordon Lightfoot, and the disappearance from the American canon of Longfellow’s 1842 Hesperus poem (“Colder and louder blew the wind/A gale from the Northeast/The snow fell hissing in the brine/And the billows frothed like yeast,” lines once memorized by American schoolchildren), are only two indications of the immense cultural power possessed by the destruction, in Canadian waters 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Mich., of a lake bulk freighter with 29 souls aboard.

[…]

Today the speculation revolves around whether the Edmund Fitzgerald, once one of the largest freighters to ply the Great Lakes, collided with an underwater mountain range, or whether the boat was compromised by debris, or whether the hatches, or the hatch covers, were damaged. The hatch theory was put forward by the Coast Guard, rejected by a National Transportation Safety Board investigation and revived by the NTSB. The debate rolls on, like the waves on Lake Superior on a particularly tumultuous day. Whatever the answer, weather played an important role.

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources page, “Lake Superior Safety Information,” provided some more context to the idea that once submerged, bodies in Lake Superior don’t float or surface:

Hypothermia (exposure) is an ever-present danger on Lake Superior. It is a lowering of the body’s core temperature caused by immersion in cold water (less than 70 degrees F.) or, out of the water, by a combination of wet, cold and windy weather. If your inner core temperature drops more than 20 degrees F., death will soon follow.

Except for shallow bays and beaches, the water temperature in the lake seldom reaches 55 degrees F, (13 C) even during the hottest summer weather. Should you fall in, even at this temperature, your survival time without a life jacket would, on the average, be less than two hours.

Although that information was presented for the living (and was important in terms of safety and Lake Superior), it also alluded to “shallow bays and beaches” which were overall warmer than the depths of the lake. So much of the idea that bodies in Lake Superior don’t float appeared tied to the poetic descriptions by Lightfoot, and general advancement of folklore about the lake’s conditions. However, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom — a bottom that was very, very far from the surface:

Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets with Captain Ernest M. McSorley in command, she embarked on her ill-fated voyage from Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, on the afternoon of November 9, 1975. En route to a steel mill near Detroit, Edmund Fitzgerald joined a second taconite freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson. By the next day, the two ships were caught in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet (11 m) high. Shortly after 7:10 p.m., Edmund Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian (Ontario) waters 530 feet (88 fathoms; 160 m) deep, about 17 miles (15 nautical miles; 27 kilometers) from Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario—a distance Edmund Fitzgerald could have covered in just over an hour at her top speed.

When Lightfoot and countless others specifically referenced the Edmund Fitzgerald‘s sinking and the inability to recover the bodies of the crew, the incident involved a depth of 530 feet — equivalent to 50 stories of a building. Like the Kamloops and its well-preserved “Old Whitey,” the preserved bodies of Lake Superior typically were attached to vessels at the lake’s bottom.

Divers in 2019 located a different shipwreck — the SS Hudson, which sank in 1901 — at a depth of 825 feet below the surface. In a 2019 article, MPR reported that not only did the ship sink to that depth, but some bodies were recovered:

On Sept. 19 [1901], the [Duluth News Tribune] reported that given the lack of wreckage, the report that a ship foundered was “probably a mistake.”

But the next day, news reports made clear there was no mistake: A fishing boat found floating wreckage including two masts, one painted black and the other yellow — matching the Hudson. Over the coming days, more wreckage turned up — including the bodies of some of the crew, some wearing life preservers bearing the name “S.S. Hudson.”

Reports at the time indicated there were 25 crew members aboard, though there was some uncertainty about the exact number; all perished when the Hudson sank.

After the wreck, there was speculation that the Hudson’s cargo of grain shifted during the storm, and that many of the crew had gone into the hold to try to address the problem — and were then trapped when the ship capsized. [University of Minnesota Duluth professor Julius Wolff wrote in his book Lake Superior Shipwrecks] that the theory was supported by the fact that only a few bodies washed ashore.

Again, that excerpt provided some context for the notion bodies don’t float in Lake Superior, or that the “lake never gives up her dead.” Some bodies of the crew of the ill-fated SS Hudson, all of whom perished, “washed ashore” in the days after the ship sank (settling at a depth of 825 feet). Researchers eventually determined that an unknown number of crew were in the Hudson‘s hold when she sank; presumably, crew in the hold remained in the wreck while others washed ashore in the days after the sinking.

MPR referenced another lost and found vessel, the S.R. Kirby, which originally vanished in 1916. That passage illustrated the difficulty in reaching wrecks (and recovering bodies) from the bottom of Lake Superior:

The IDS building, tallest building in downtown Minneapolis, is 792 feet tall. So what we’re trying to do is dangle this camera on this wreck in 825 feet of water — so we have more depth to get to,” [shipwreck explorer Jerry] Eliason said. “And it’s like doing it with a helicopter in a strong wind because of the Keweenaw current; there’s there’s a persistent current that flows from southwest to northeast along the Keweenaw Peninsula. … It’s not as easy as one would like it to be.”

The Hudson and Kirby are likely tied for the second-deepest wrecks yet located in the Great Lakes. Eliason and Smith were also involved in the discovery of the deepest — the Scotiadoc, found in about 850 to 870 feet of water near Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 2013.

As noted earlier, Doughty’s examination of the site where the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew came to rest was a far more sensitive matter than older wrecks like the Kamloops and the Hudson. A 2008 article about a 1995 expedition to the Edmund Fitzgerald (roughly 20 years after it sank) addressed eventual protection of the vessel and why dives to it were controversial, and it began:

Before it was illegal to dive to the infamous ship, two men pulled off the deepest shipwreck scuba dive in Great Lakes history. Here’s the inside story.

That article described a 1995 dive to the site of the Edmund Fitzgerald, as well as concerns around disrupting what was effectively a final resting place for the 29 men on the vessel when it sank:

[Divers Mike Zlatopolsky and Terrence Tysall] set Dive Day for the end of the summer of 1995.

“We kept it a secret,” Tysall said, “because you never know when things might fall apart.”

In the preceding summer [1994], family members of the Fitzgerald’s crew were incensed to learn that photos had been taken of dead people on the sunken ship and were likely to be published. But Tysall said that was not the reason their team stayed quiet. He said he was unaware of it.

It would not be until 2006, more than 11 years later, that Canada passed a law specifically restricting access to the Fitzgerald.

But this is hardly a problem limited to Lake Superior, nor even to the Great Lakes. A February 2006 report in the Tahoe Daily Tribune (“Lake’s depths hold many dead bodies: Officials report most corpses don’t surface if lost in Lake Tahoe”) concerned the discovery of “an unidentified woman’s body” in Lake Tahoe, which sits at the border of California and Nevada. The article included comment from local law enforcement and mortuaries about bodies in Lake Tahoe:

Sgt. Pete Van Arnum recalled hearing tales of Mafia members dumping bodies in Lake Tahoe back in the 1950s.

“That may or may not be true, but we can’t be sure because we can’t go down that far,” said Van Arnum, a member of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department and former coroner.

What, or whom, Lake Tahoe holds in its average depth of 1,000 feet is a mystery, except for those who have lost family or friends in drownings, boating accidents or other fatal mishaps. But the conditions within the second-deepest lake in the United States keeps the mystery unanswerable.

[…]

The discovery of the body in shallow waters near Glenbrook perplexed some officials with knowledge on how the lake keeps its victims.

“Usually a person who goes into the lake, they don’t come back up,” said Mike McFarlane of McFarlane Mortuary.

“I just never, never have seen anyone floating,” he added. “They usually go down and that’s it.”

“We’ve had a number of cases over the years where drowning victims, or apparent drowning victims, never surfaced again,” said El Dorado county sheriff’s Lt. Les Lovell. “They’re just gone.”

Dr. Anton Sohn, then-chairman of the pathology department at the University of Nevada in Reno, discussed the features of Lake Tahoe as it related to the recovery of people who died on or in that body of water:

Death brings decomposition where bacteria consumes bodily flesh at some pace. During that process gases such as methane, nitrogen and oxygen are produced but the type of gases formed depend on the type of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, Sohn said.

The gases would allow a body to rise “like a balloon. The body buoys up to the top,” Sohn said.

Since the lake has frigid temperatures bodies don’t decompose, thus gases don’t form, prompting them to stay submerged.

Lake Tahoe has a constant temperature of 39 degrees between the depths of 600 to 700 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s surface temperature varies with the type of season. In months such as August and September the surface temperature runs between 65 to 70 degrees. During this time of year the surface temperature as cold as 40 degrees and as warm as 50 degrees.

Van Arnum, the former El Dorado coroner, referenced a fatal accident in 1980 and the eventual use of a camera to locate the victim’s body weeks after their death. Van Arnum said the man’s remains were “perfectly preserved” by the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe.

Finally, a September 2020 Manistee News Advocate article, “Recovering drowning victims in Lake Michigan can be a difficult task,” wasn’t specifically about Lake Superior, but it did address the myriad considerations involved in recovering the dead. The item noted that one of the “most famous examples of the lakes keeping their dead is the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” but then described a difficult recovery effort in May 2019 involving a small plane and another involving kayakers who died in Lake Michigan:

The plane was eventually found at the bottom of the lake on May 23, 2019, but the bodies of its occupants, Emanuel Manos, 53, of Monroe, and Randal Dippold, 65, of Perry, Michigan, were not found with the plane. On May 29, 2019, Manos’ body was found in 523 feet of water … In 2016, Tyler Spink, 21, of Kalkaska, and his friend were kayaking in Platte Bay when the weather turned rough. Both kayakers capsized and the pair swam toward shore. Unfortunately, Spink did not make it. His body was eventually found by Bruce’s Legacy in July 2018, 22 months after he had gone under.

Cold water and slow decomposition were not the sole reason recovery was complicated — recovery missions were described as involving precise calculations and variable conditions:

Chris Oosee, a lieutenant with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office, said without eyewitnesses, it can be hard to pinpoint where somebody’s last location was before slipping under the waves.

“It is difficult to determine the last known location in Lake Michigan unless there is an eyewitness,” Oosee said. “It is such a vast area of water. Generally, we might be able to find debris on the surface, or some evidence on shore. Then we can calculate wind speed, time and the currents in the water.”

Oosee said the varying depth of the lakes, as well as the how deep the lake can actually get, also hampers recovery efforts.

Oosee added that even in shallow water “where the last location of the missing person is known,” recovery wasn’t always easy for several reasons. Citing a September 2020 recovery effort involving shallow water, Oosee cited visibility and general debris as a factor complicating the search for bodies:

“It was so rough in area; the sonar worked well, but the visibility was less than a foot in the water,” Oosee said. “We were trying to eliminate every point of interest we saw on the sonar, but it was difficult, because the currents moved the ROV, and it was hard to get a good surface pattern to do a thorough search.”

Michigan State Police Sgt. Richard Capling said that things don’t always stay put when they go under, and there are many objects in the lake that can look like something to investigate.

Currents, a large surface area, extant debris, and depths were all cited as hindrances to the recovery of bodies even in shallow waters, and even when the last known location of an individual is known.

Summary

A viral post claimed that Lake Superior “has three quadrillion gallons of COLD water,” which was “so cold, a dead body will never float to the surface, because the water is never warm enough to grow the bacteria needed to cause a body to float.” The meme was largely accurate in terms of the size of Lake Superior, and it wasn’t entirely inaccurate to say the lake was known for bodies which do not resurface after shipwrecks. Like another deep and cold lake, Lake Tahoe, it is true that the bodies of crew members involved in sinking ships frequently (but not always) remained in the vessel at the bottom of the lake; it was further true Lake Superior was unusually cold and bodies were sometimes preserved. However, a number of other factors hampered the recovery of the lake’s dead, and Lake Superior was not a frigid vortex retaining all who drowned in or on it — historically, crew members from other vessels washed ashore.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” advanced the idea that bodies don’t float on Lake Superior, but that vessel came to rest 530 feet under the surface and was incredibly difficult to access. The lake, as we said, sometimes gives up her dead — but not without a fight.

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