Wreck Diving in the Atlantic

Shortly after arriving home from Mexico this past January, Karen was invited to attend her brother’s retirement ceremony as he was leaving the US Air Force after 20 years service. Since he was stationed in South Carolina this was going to be an expensive trip for us so soon after our last vacation. We decided Karen should go alone. She searched the internet and found a flight that was too reasonable to pass up so we decided our son James and I would go too. I of course would bring my dive gear. As with all of Karen’s family’s functions this was going to be a full blown wing-ding so my plan was to duck out while the party was in full swing and no one would notice me gone for a couple of days. I was undecided where my destination was going to be. My options were Florida caves (since I just got cave certified in Mexico), wrecks off the North Carolina coast, or I could stay close to home base and dive the Cooper River, which is a muddy river bottom laden with fossils including teeth from a prehistoric shark called a Megalodon, for which the Cooper River is world famous.

After consulting with www.scubaboard.com I made my decision. I decided the wrecks were just the ticket since I had never dove in the Atlantic before and the chance to see some actual WWII shipwrecks was too tempting to pass on. I located Olympus Diving in Morehead City NC which is near an area known as the graveyard of the Atlantic so James and I headed north from Charleston to North Carolina. Olympus’ owner, George Purifoy is credited with discovering their most famous dive site, the wreck of the U-352 a German U-boat sunk at the outer banks in 1942 and discovered by Capt George in 1974.

The dive centre has a nice dorm style building nearby where we set up base on arrival in Morehead City. There were several other divers there, mostly Canadian. It seems North Carolina is popular destination for divers from Eastern Canada. We awoke early the following morning and boarded the Olympus which is a 65 foot aluminum hull vessel capable of 24 knots. Our destination was to take us two hours to reach over pounding waves even at that speed . The seas were heavy during the whole trip but we had arrived just at the start of the dive season and so were happy with what we got. We arrived at our first destination which was a ship sunk as an artificial reef in 1988 called the Aeolus. It was a 409 ft US navy tanker and lies in 100fsw. Hurricanes have broken the wreck up quite badly and it now rests in 3 parts with only one section sitting upright. It was teeming with marine life including coral and colourful fishes. It was not until our next dive that I was to get a glimpse of the fish I was really hoping to see.

After a relaxing surface interval in the nice warm sun we tied in to the second dive of the day, the wreck of the U-352. As mentioned this wreck is a star attraction for the Olympus. The waters off shore of North Carolina are fed by the powerful Gulf Stream currents which push warm tropical water north along US shores until it is deflected out to mid Atlantic by the land mass at Cape Cod. The water is clear and blue just like diving in the Caribbean and I was quite comfortable in a 3mm shorty wetsuit but I have to admit I felt a chill when I descended down the line to the wreck of this boat where many German sailors had met their fate. Shortly after arriving at the stern of this almost intact U-boat I caught a glimpse of something rather large swimming away from the wreck. Although I only saw it for a brief moment I knew right away what it was because other than wrecks this flat sandy sea bed is also home to the sand tiger shark. These ferocious looking creatures have a mouth bristling with teeth but are not known to harm divers. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but keep one eye out toward the sand while enjoying the sights on the wreck. We made it back to port and had a wonderful fish and chip dinner overlooking the water before heading back to the dorm to swap dive stories and tell lies about our exploits before turning in early to rest up for day two.

At daybreak the next day we headed out over the choppy seas to our dive sites for the day. The winds of the previous evening had left the seas even choppier than the day before. Several of the passengers were having trouble with the rough seas and although James is prone to seasickness he was able to keep his breakfast, unlike some of the others. When we finally tied into the wreck that was our first dive of the day we couldn’t wait to leave the pitching deck for the relative calm below the ocean surface. I admit I was starting to feel the effects of the heaving sea when we splashed in but I was not prepared for what I saw when we arrived at the wreck of the Papoose. This 412 ft tanker lies upside down in 125ft and was sunk back in 1942 by a U-boat attack. The most amazing thing about the wreck was the fish. Schools of little fish clung close to and inside every opening of the wreck while schools of larger fish swarmed around the perimeter. Outside that circle of fish, dozens of large sand tiger sharks reaching 8ft in length circled waiting for the dinner bell. If my stomach was a little queasy when getting off the boat watching this dizzy mass of fish was simply disorienting. Noted diver and star of “Deep Sea Detectives”, John Chatterton had been here just the week before to film the sharks. He complained about the number of fish swarming around the wreck and was heard to refer to them as “bio-clutter”. Although this could have been a very interesting wreck dive I spent my whole time fascinated by the sharks moving in toward us one by one, then moving just outside our field of vision. James kept very close contact with me during that dive.

Our final dive site was going to be another wreck off shore but the weather was not co-operating so we sailed to more sheltered waters inshore. Here inside the close shore waters the temperature is not affected by the Gulf Stream and the water is cooler and greener. Although the water clarity and colour reminded me of local diving the wreck of the Spar was still encrusted with plenty of hard coral and held lots of tropical looking fish to see. It was good that I opted to wear my 7mm wetsuit for this day of diving since water temp was mid 60s, still comfortable by my standards. On this dive James decided to sit it out. The pounding waves and diesel exhaust had taken their toll. Olympus is a SDI/TDI dive facility so when I approached Capt George about diving solo for the last dive of the day he was perfectly agreeable as long as I could produce a solo cert card. Of course I never leave home without one so I was able to enjoy a leisurely solo dive on a shallow wreck while getting the most out of my nitrox fill.

I definitely enjoyed my experience in the Graveyard of the Atlantic and intend to return again. This summer I will be returning to the Atlantic to dive the wreck of the Andrea Doria. I am sure this will be at least as exciting as my previous dives in the Atlantic and I will posting all the details upon my return.