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New PBS documentary explores the legacy of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes

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On the bottom of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes lie the wrecks of over 700 ships. Each one tells a story about the state’s maritime history, the mariners that worked on them, the industries and communities they served, and the dangers of the unforgiving lakes. PBS Wisconsin’s newest documentary “Shipwrecks!” tells a story of exploration and takes viewers below the surface to an underwater museum of marvel.

Shipwrecks! premieres 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30 on PBS Wisconsin.

Archival film, images, and interviews with maritime historians and Great Lakes divers and shipwreck hunters illustrate the pioneering efforts of Wisconsinites to develop new diving technologies to explore and understand shipwrecks. Viewers learn about the early “finders’ keepers” mentality toward shipwrecks which encouraged treasure hunters to plunder and even destroy them and the eventual efforts to establish state and federal laws to preserve and protect wrecks. Contemporary shipwreck hunters who continue to search the Great Lakes today are also profiled.

“Each shipwreck reveals a moment of time in a way that’s hard to find on dry land,” said Shipwrecks! producer David Hestad. “It’s a time capsule of the day it went down and tells a lot of stories.”

Complementing the “Shipwrecks!” documentary is a suite of free resources, including interactive virtual reality experiences and an educational online video game and interactive.

Using data collected by the Wisconsin Historical Society, PBS Wisconsin has also developed a comprehensive virtual reality (VR) experience, featuring the “SS Wisconsin.” The VR experience is threefold – first, users can simulate the experience of being on the packet and passenger steamer before it sank; then, users can simulate the experience of scuba diving through the wreck as it is today – in an immersive 360-degree video, or an accompanying interactive tour of the shipwreck.

History, legend, and maritime archeology align in The Legend of the Lost Emerald, the educational video game being released in 2022. The game will give students in 4th-6th grade the opportunity to use the tools, practices, and skills associated with maritime archaeology to locate and dive for shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Learners will start with a mystery and use critical thinking and historical inquiry skills to uncover the real treasure—the stories behind the legendary shipwrecks.

The game is the result of a partnership between PBS Wisconsin Education, University of Wisconsin Madison’s Field Day Lab, Wisconsin educators, Wisconsin Sea Grant, Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Funding for “Shipwrecks!” is provided by the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, the Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation, Dr. Henry Anderson and Shirley Levine, Robert J. Lenz, A. Paul Jones Charitable Trust, the City of Sheboygan, Elizabeth Parker, in memory of George S. Parker II, Sharon and Tim Thousand, the Ruth St. John and John Dunham West Foundation, Ron and Colleen Weyers, the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the John. J. Frautschi Family Foundation, Trust Point, Ellsworth and Carla Peterson Charitable Foundation, the Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programs, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

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