Legends of Diving Articles


Valerie Olson Van Heest
Shipwreck Explorer & Historian of the Great Lakes

Valerie Olson Van Heest

Valerie was introduced to the world of diving by her father, the famous Bob Olson, who worked with his good friend Sam Davison, helping to initially develop the demand regulator that would lead to the founding of Dacor Corporation. Olson was one of the first Navy UDT specialists during WWII to open pathways for US troops to penetrate enemy holds in the South Pacific. It was her father's close friendship with Dacor founder, Sam Davidson Jr, that would get her involved in diving.
Valerie gets
certified at 16
When Valerie was just 16, Sam came over to the house and outfitted her in all the dive gear she needed. She was introduced into the manufacturing of dive gear and became an employee of DACOR. In 1976 she received her certification at Lake Racine, Wisconsin with the rest of the DACOR employees. She knew Sam's philosophy: "everyone who worked at DACOR had to be a diver."

She and her fellow employees went diving every weekend and she progressed on to the various levels of certification. One weekend the group dived on the George Morley, a shipwreck off the shores of Evanston on Lake Michigan, and Valerie became hooked on shipwrecks and maritime history.

When she graduated from high school she went on to college to study architecture, earning a degree in interior architecture. While still in college, Valerie worked for Tom Coin at Scuba Systems in Skokie, Illinois selling scuba gear. Valerie discovered a new talent at the age of 26 while she was working and attending college.
Valerie documents
the David Dows

Valerie documents
the Wells Burt
Extremely busy, she hadn't been diving in a while when she met some people from the Chicago Maritime Museum who were diving the David Dows, the largest schooner wreck on the Great Lakes. She employed her architectural skills and drew the ship for the organization. To this day, Valerie still utilizes this talent to accurately illustrate the appearance of shipwrecks for historical and educational purposes. Valerie went on to further develop her skills in underwater archeology and to pursue her investigative work to discover what exactly caused the demise of these various ships, and co-founded the Underwater Archeology Society of Chicago. She and society members documented over thirty shipwrecks off the shores of Chicago, the most significant being the Lady Elgin, the worst disaster in the history of the Great Lakes. She worked with officials from the State of Illinois documenting the wreckage which was spread over a mile long area. Valerie spends about 80 percent of her time researching shipwrecks. She points out that before 1850 the records of ships operating on the Great Lakes were very poor. This situation requires
"The Wreck of the
H. C. Akeley"
much more work and research on the part of Valerie and other shipwreck divers. An added concern is the unknown effects that the pervasive zebra mussel will have on these aging wrecks, making time of the essence. In 1998, Van Heest helped form the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve, the 10th such preserve in Michigan, in sport diving range of 130 feet or shallower. However, with depths on the east side of Lake Michigan much deeper than the Chicago side, she soon realized that most shipwrecks not yet found would be in deep water, which led her into another area of diving: technical diving. Her desire was to be able to properly explore and document shipwrecks 150 feet and below. Van Heest and her teammates have been able to work successfully at the deeper depths by using Trimix. In addition to these tools, the use of dry suits enabled the divers to stay warm long enough to properly document these deep wrecks. Valerie founded the non-profit Michigan
Valerie prepares
to dive
Shipwreck Research Associates in 2001 to search for and document deep water wrecks. In her team's first decade of work, working with shipwreck hunters David Trotter and internationally acclaimed author Clive Cussler, they discovered 14 shipwrecks in depths ranging from 175 - 300 feet. This has opened up, what she calls, a tech diving Mecca off the shores of Southwest Michigan. Valerie notes that each shipwreck is a story; some of rescues and some of death and she tries to preserve these stories in the books she writes. Valerie discovered the world of writing when she was asked to pen an article for a magazine. It was received very favorably and this encouraged her to pursue that avenue more fully. Van Heest has become just as recognized and respected for her writing as she has for her diving and exploring. She is the author of three books, two that won Michigan State History Awards: "Icebound, The Adventure of Young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan", and "Buckets and Belts, Evolution of the Great Lakes Self-Unloader," co written with William Lafferty. Her latest book, "Lost on the Lady Elgin," was released in 2010. Since 2001, Valerie has appeared as a regular guest speaker in various venues,
Valerie presenting
her desire being to educate and inform, as well as entertain her audience. She has explored and documented shipwrecks for over 20 years and her efforts led to an award from the Historical Society of Michigan for Excellence in Preserving and Promoting Michigan's Maritime Heritage. She writes articles, produces documentary films, designs museum exhibits, and has appeared on an episode of the History Channel, Exploring a Chicago Shipwreck. Valerie serves as director for the nonprofit Michigan Shipwreck Associates and spearheads the team's search for ships lost off Michigan's shores. Her husband, Jack Van Heest, is also an avid diver and a partner in her endeavors. Together they are raising their two lovely daughters, avid swimmers like their parents. It is no surprise that Valerie Van Heest was inducted into the Women Diver's Hall of Fame in 2006. She truly is a living legend of diving and continues to actively contribute to all aspects of the diving world, sharing her passion for the sport with generations both young and old.

To schedule a program or peruse her books, visit her at www.valerievanheest.com


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