September 22, 2012


Initial Target: South Haven, MI
Departure: Springfield, IL 1:45 pm September 21
Arrival: Springfield, IL 2:15 pm September 23
Intercepts: South Haven, MI Holland, MI
Tornadoes: 3
Hail: None
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Waterspouts
Miles: 797


Waterspout setup on eastern shore of southern Lake Michigan. Targeted Grand Haven, MI for overnight activity, moving down to South Haven, MI in the morning. Missed large spout but caught one more overhead that made landfall before moving to Tunnel Park north of Holland, MI and observing two distant spouts and a gorgeous sunset.

Crew and Equipment:

Solo Chase.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS, Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Additional photography courtesy: Jennifer Brindley Ubl




After busting four days earlier going after waterspouts on Lake Michigan, conditions were once again favorable for spout development so I decided to give it another go. I left Friday afternoon, screwing around with some shelf cloud time lapsing from cold front storms while en route to my waterspout target. The cold air in the wake of the front would destabilize the air above the warm lake waters, setting the stage for a waterspout setup. I made it up to Holland just before midnight.
A line of storms erupted near Grand Haven, MI just off shore so I decided to head to the marina for a night intercept. Lightning was fairly frequent and I had fantasies of catching something like the famous Lake Okeechobee waterspout picture. I snagged a couple shots of a ragged updraft base and some CG's striking the lake, but no spouts. The beach parking lot was filled with cars coming to watch the storm like it was a drive-in movie.

I camped in my van a few miles to the east on a gravel road and then met Jennifer Brindley Ubl and Jonathan Williamson an hour after dawn in Grand Haven. Cells weren't doing much in the immediate area so we decided to grab breakfast at a local cafe. It was our biggest mistake of the day. We noticed cells back building off the lakeshore down by South Haven so headed down there for the intercept. Arriving at the marina where I had spent the entire day four days earlier, skies were photogenic with decent updraft towers but no spouts. The locals, however, were talking about waterspouts. I suspected that something had happened, and sure enough, a lady stopped by and showed me pictures she got from her phone of a gorgeous, fully condensed stovepipe shaped waterspout. We had missed it by mere minutes while we were driving down to South Haven from Grand Haven. We could see the storm over the trees, but the trees prevented any sort of view over the lake. I was crushed. We had come all this way and busted a few other times this year already, just to miss the perfect spout intercept. I sat in my van dejected while Jon and Jenn shot the waves crashing into the pier by the lighthouse.

A shower moved overhead and it started to rain. I leaned over the dash and looked up through the windshield of the van. A white finger was poking down from the rather junky looking updraft base. My heart skipped a beat. There was a waterspout forming right overhead! I trained the camera on it through the dome, but the raindrops striking the acrylic would mar the shot, and my camera was sporting its ultrawide lens. The spout was close, but it still looked far away at that focal length. I jumped out of the van and was able to snag a few seconds of it on video with my camcorder:

Jenn was able to photograph the water spray "debris cloud" making it a definite waterspout and not just a funnel. We heard a report from the National Weather Service later that the spout had made landfall and crossed I-94 was a debris cloud, so they were logging it in their records as a regular tornado. It was my first Michigan tornado. Although not as photogenic as the spout we had missed, it was super close and exciting and it turned the day right around for me. More cells were forming over the lake and further to the north, so we decided to head to Tunnel Park just north of Holland, MI. Bob Hartig called me and said he got a land falling waterspout from that location earlier in the day. It looked like it was going to be an outbreak day! Tunnel Park has a gorgeous overlook from atop a tall dune and we watching a few passing showers in the distance until they thinned out and the skies cleared into a beautiful sunny day. After our successful tornado intercept we decided we celebrate in traditional chaser fashion and grab an early steak dinner. We drove a few miles east to the Crazy Horse Steakhouse and each had a big steak and beer. After that it was back to tunnel park. The waterspout indices looked to remain high and new convection was forecast to fire by later afternoon/evening. We dozed in our vehicles until cells started to pop out over the lake.
We ran up to the top of the observation platform and setup our tripods for stills and video. The showers were miles away but through the streaking rain bands we started making out funnel clouds.
Contrast was so low initially that I had trouble discerning the funnels with the naked eye. "Eagle Eyes" Williamson was able to pick them out no problem and get me pointing my camera in the right direction. The whiplike tail of the spout descended toward the lake surface as it moved into some rain curtains.
The spout fully condensed into a snaky rope, and then another funnel formed to its left. This funnel was out of the rain curtains and strongly backlit by the low sun. I could make it out easily from our position.
The second funnel was nicely contrasted but didn't fully condense. It kicked up up some spray a couple times, easier to make out with the backlighting, so we counted our third waterspout (and tornado) for the day.
As the sun set, showers moved in from the northwest. We hoped to get another close waterspout show and the lighting was getting to be gorgeous. Looking northwest with a wide angle view:
One updraft base moved past glowing with a nice orange color. If a spout had descended there it would have been spectacularly lit and colored. We weren't that lucky, however.
The shower moved overhead and we ducked underneath the stair boardwalk that lead down to the beach to get out of the rain. The setting sun cast the rain and clouds in gorgeous pink shades. I hoped for my coveted "pink tube" but the storms looked like they were done putting down waterspouts for the day. When the colors and light faded we decided to grab some dinner up in Grand Haven at the Tip-A-Few Tavern. We split a motel room for the night and then said our farewells in the morning. Jenn and Jon took their car on a ferry across the lake back to Milwaukee and I took my time driving back, scouting potential spout spotting locations as I headed south.

We started this chase in despair after missing a gorgeous waterspout, but ultimately redeemed ourselves with several more and one at close range that made landfall. We counted three spouts, which I also count as tornadoes since they meet the defining criteria, and with the additional photogenic Lake Michigan skies, it was a fantastic chase day. We'll be out again next Fall waiting for warm lake waters and cold midlevel temperatures to bring us our next spout catches.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Arrive early at your marina target at the first sign of convective development when intercepting waterspouts.

  • Marinas and lake shore parks make for great waterspout spotting locations.