Lake George’s Underwater Explorers Recount Exploits Before Bidding Adieu
Thirty years after he began searching for prehistoric beasts in Loch Ness and Lake Champlain and, more successfully, for historic shipwrecks in Lake George, Bateaux Below founder Joe Zarzynski is retiring.
So, too, is his co-founder Bob Benway. Together, they’ve made more than 2,000 exploratory scuba dives in Lake George and inventoried roughly 200 shipwrecks. Not as young as they once were, they’ve decided it’s time to hang up the wet suits and put away the oxygen tanks.
The future of Bateaux Below, which was created in 1987 with historian Russ Bellico as a volunteer group to study Lake George’s historic shipwrecks, is now open to question.
So, whether planned or not, the release of a book by Zarzynski and Benway recounting their adventures in underwater archeology is timely.
“Lake George Shipwrecks and Sunken History,” published by the History Press, is based on columns the two men wrote for the Lake George Mirror from 2004 through 2010.
The columns, which covered every phase of Lake George’s submerged history, from 18th century shipwrecks to steamboats of the gilded age and the speedboats of the 20th century, were intended to keep the Lake George Mirror’s readers abreast of the activities of Bateaux Below. Now, those stories can be appreciated by an even wider audience.
“Bob and I had talked about publishing a book, and because of the broad appeal of the topic, the publisher accepted it almost immediately,” said Zarzynski. “Within its first few months, it’s become one of the company’s fastest selling books ever.”
Zarzynski, a native of Endicott, New York, who began teaching in Saratoga in the early 1970s, became an underwater archeologist almost by accident. Browsing through the stacks of Skidmore College’s library, he found a book about Loch Ness.
“I was a new teacher with ten weeks to myself; I went to Scotland and worked as a member of a support team. The recovery of a rare World War II British bomber from Loch Ness, as well as the discovery of the Titanic and of a Spanish treasure shipwreck, spurred my interest in underwater archeology,” said Zarzynski.
In 1987, Zarzynski met Russell Bellico, and the two hosted a 3-day underwater archaeology workshop on Lake George. That was the beginning of Bateaux Below.
In 1990, Bateaux Below discovered the Land Tortoise, the only intact, pre-Revolutionary warship in North America.
“Bob deserves the credit for that discovery,” recalled Zarzynski. “We had the use of a Klein 595 side scan sonar for a few days and as we were heading back to Lake George Village, Bob saw the image. It was 107 feet down, in the middle of the lake.”
The group had no access to the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to complete a comprehensive study of the shipwreck. Nevertheless, they secured a state permit and the services of an underwater archeologist, Dr. Kathy Abass, who volunteered her time.
For the next three years, they studied the wreck and researched its history. The 52-foot-long radeau was deliberately scuttled by the British in 1758 to be retrieved the following year. But instead it remained at the bottom of the lake, where it remains today, preserved by the cold water. In 1998, the group successfully persuaded the US government to recognize the shipwreck as a national historic landmark. It’s one of only six shipwrecks in American waters to have earned that designation.
In 1993, Bateaux Below joined with state and local agencies to open and maintain New York’s first shipwreck park for divers.
Called Lake George’s “Submerged Heritage Preserves,” the park consists of the Land Tortoise, the 1906 launch Forward and “The Sunken Fleet of 1758,” a flotilla of British warships scuttled in Lake George’s south basin in 1758 as a defense against French raiders.
Since its inception, Bateaux Below has acted as a friends group for the parks, inspecting the wrecks, making certain that no artifacts have been removed and checking for invasive species. (It was Zarzynski and Benway who discovered the first Zebra mussels in Lake George, when clearing garbage from the lake in 1999.)
According to Zarzynski, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation is unable to maintain the parks on its own, but he says he’s confident another group will adopt Bateaux Below’s role as volunteer park rangers.
“I am working now with the DEC to insure that there will be a nice transition for the group that will undertake monitoring of the lake’s shipwreck preserves,” said Zarzynski.
Groups organized by local dive shops may be good candidates for stewards, Zarzynski said.
“The dive shops have a vested interest in maintaining the preserves. I’m confident they would embrace the preservationist ethic,” he said.
While others may carry on the work of Bateaux Below, the group’s own achievements have been chronicled in two documentaries: The Lost Radeau: North America’s Oldest Intact Warship and Wooden Bones: The Sunken Fleet of 1758, and now in Zarzynski’s and Benway’s book, “Lake George Shipwrecks and Sunken History.”
The book is available at Trees in Bolton Landing and online at historypress.net