Atlantic Ocean Ship Wreck Diving

Atlantic Ocean Ship Wreck Diving

Over the long weekend of September 12 - 14, 2008, David Smith and I (Bob Laney) went to Morehead City for deep sea ship wreck diving. We traveled nearly to the Gulf Stream, far out in the Atlantic Ocean. Paul Anderson and David originally planned the trip under the aegis of Blue Dolphin Dive Shop in Winston-Salem, NC. Then Paul developed back pain from training for a snorkeling trip to the Caribbean later this fall and had to cancel. Without Paul, David was left without a dive buddy, which is required. The dive master on the boat can assign a buddy to a solo diver, but there is such a strong bond of reliance between buddies, like rock climbing, that it is better to bring your own.


Left to my own devices, I would not go Atlantic wreck diving. The Florida Keys and the Caribbean are where I usually dive. On average, the Atlantic sites are much farther from shore (30 miles vs. a few hundred yards), longer boat rides (8 hours round trip vs. 15 minutes), deeper (120 feet vs. 50 feet), colder (77 degrees vs. 82 degrees), shorter visibility (20 feet vs. 80 feet), windier on the surface (15 mph vs. 5 mph), higher waves (6 feet vs. 2 feet) and more variable, unpredictable current.

Those differences mean the biology, chemistry and mechanics of the Atlantic dives are more technical and dangerous. There is greater hydrologic pressure, causing more ear equalization effort, slower descents and faster air tank depletion. There is more blood nitrogen buildup, allowing less bottom time and slower ascents. The lower visibility and stronger currents make it easier to get lost from the group or the boat. There is the generally stronger danger of running out or air, getting the bends and a longer trip to the surface.

But Paul's offer of a mostly free trip was a challenge and a chance to learn a new set of skills. Even though I had to pay for my share of the travel expenses [note to Paul: you still owe me a $40 fuel surcharge refund], it was an offer too good to refuse. Unfortunately, I missed Katie Stone's wedding [sorry, Cassie & Ray]. David and I carpooled down Friday morning.


Upon arrival in Morehead City, we checked into the local outfitter, Olympus Dive Shop on the waterfront, next to the deep sea fishing boat docks. After signing enough Releases to make our lives worthless, we got our tanks and weights. Then we put our gear on the boat and assembled it. The early assembly allowed us to arrive at the boat a half hour later the next morning. Supper was the standard seafood platter at The Sanitary Market on the waterfront a block to the east from Olympus.

We spent the evening at the luxurious ['not!] dormitory that Olympus rents on Arendell Street a block to the north of their shop. It was nice to meet about 10 other divers on our trip who were staying in the same place. Some were through Blue Dolphin and some were booked directly with Olympus. Even though a few of the divers were from several states away, most of them seemed to know each other. Apparently there is a sub-culture of divers from all over eastern USA who regularly dive with Olympus on the wrecks off the Outer Banks. Cape Lookout, the south-eastern most tip of the Banks, is the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Olympus, being in Morehead City, the next closest town, is wreck dive central.

Many of these other divers are more advanced with more technical gear. Some had 2 or 3 air tanks (compared to mine and Dave's 1 tank); multiple first stages festooned with specialized gear (we had one first stage); 2 or 3 regulators; fancy flashlights attached to their wrists with insulated hoses running to large battery packs strapped to their B.C.'s (our flashlights were in our B.C. pockets); 1 or 2 reels of rope (we had none); and all kinds of rescue gear. They talked about their recent dives to exotic places like the Red Sea, Africa; and Truk Lagoon, South Pacific Ocean.

Saturday morning we arrived at the shop and got our number tags that Olympus uses as a fail safe check-out and check-in system to assure that they never leave a diver in the ocean. Olympus won Scuba Diving magazine's award as the best dive operator in North America! In the pre-dawn darkness we entered the boat and stashed our duffle bags with travel supplies in the little metal lockers under our gear seats. Our tanks were bungee corded to the boat rail to prevent falling over when we hit the waves. Dave chatted with other divers while I climbed to the upper deck and snoozed in the bean bag chairs.

The Nitrox divers did their tank testing and oxygen level recording on the dock. Most people noshed on some kind of energy dense, carry on breakfast -- like peanut butter on whole wheat bagel and orange juice. As dawn was breaking, the big boat captained by Olympus owner George Purifoy pulled away from the dock facing Bird Island and crossed the Inland Waterway to the Morehead City harbor. Then she exited Beaufort Inlet, past Shackleford Banks and headed SSE out to sea.

Two sunny and salt-spray filled hours later, 28 miles from the coast, the boat anchored at the first dive site, the Shurz wreck. Some divers saw a turtle and porpoise. One of the crew dove in the water with the anchor line and charged non-stop to the bottom, where he tied on to the wreck and checked the conditions. When he returned, he told the Captain, who passed the information on to us.

We were thoroughly briefed by the captain, mate and crew as to the parameters of the dive: 115 feet depth, 78 degrees, thermocline at 90 feet, 25 foot visibility and little current. They also drew a magic marker picture of the wreck on a white board and described a recommend dive profile. All divers had to promise to return to the boat with 500 out of 3,000 pounds of air remaining.

The dive master in his on-boat, pre-drive briefing liked to start out by saying the visibility is 5 feet, engendering groans from the divers envisioning clouds of silt. This announcement would be followed by a grin and admission that the poor water clarity was due to thousands of fish--engendering cheers!

The Olympus has a highly organized 'hang line' system with a web of ropes strung under the boat in a specific configuration. On the way down, the divers follow the lines from the surface, below the boat, to the anchor line, and down the anchor line to the tie-in point on the wreck. At the end of the dive, the route is reversed. At the 15 foot depth safety stop there is are two long, horizontal, lines that many divers can hang on for their 3 minutes. Then another long line with a big buoy on the end trails in the current behind the boat to catch divers having difficulty with the current. The ladders to climb onto the deck are designed to allow the divers to keep their fins on until safely on the deck. There the crew checks off the diver's number and helps to remove cameras, fins and tanks.

Dave and I geared up, checked and tested our gear, ogled the other tech divers' fantastic array of equipment, stood in line, called out our number and prepared to step over the deck edge into the water.

Paul had warned me that the 'giant stride' drop to the water was an abnormally long 6 to 8 feet. I perfunctorily held my hand over my mask and regulator to keep them in place. Then I hit the water with a resounding smack. I immediately felt like my first open water training dive -- disoriented and discombobulated. The hard splash had yanked off one fin and knocked loose my mask and regulator. It took me awhile to get re-organized. Dave got a picture of me hanging sideways in the water clearing my mask of sea-water.

Then descending was another issue'or two. The colder water meant more protective clothing. I wore a neoprene farmer john overall shaped sleeveless wetsuit, a sleeved jacket, toboggan, gloves and socks. More neoprene equals more buoyancy in the water equals more weights in my B.C. to get under water. To reduce inertia and give myself the most mobility, I purposefully wore the least possible weights for this much neoprene - 18 pounds. But when I entered the water, I did not have quite enough weight to submerge. I floundered around on the surface for several minutes before I got calmed down and remembered my training. I exhaled all my lung air, relaxed and did a feet first surface dive (sweeping my arms out and up, like slow motion jumping jacks, pushing up on the water). As I began to sink, the neoprene was squeezed by the increasing pressure and at about 20 feet I became negatively buoyant. As I sank faster, I had to add air to my B.C. to avoid plummeting into the depths.

Then I had more trouble equalizing my ears on this dive than any of the other 34 dives that I had done. The depth was not new -- I had been over 100 feet before. But I had never descended straight down an anchor line from the surface to 120 feet. Before, I had always made deep descents by following the downward curve of the reefs or the bottom. This time I had to keep hanging back and doing the valsalva maneuver to relieve the pain in my ears. I later learned from the crew that the trick is not to wait until it hurts, but to start swallowing and yawning at the surface and keep it up constantly all the way down.

I was so anxious that by the time I got my gear re-fastened, equalized my ears, pulled myself hand over hand down the anchor line and reached the wreck, I had used an astounding 1,000 pounds out of 3,000 pounds of air. By this point in the dive, it should have been more like 300 pounds.

On the deck of the Shurz wreck we saw many beautiful but poisonous lion fish. They are exotic -- not endemic to this area - and are becoming an invasive pest by taking over the habitat of native fish species. The wreck itself was an old, fairly small ship that has mostly disintegrated --about 200 feet long and with lots of 'relief'  things sticking up to explore, hold fish and use as guide posts for navigation. It was covered with clouds of baitfish. We saw many barracuda and atlantic spadefish. There was time for a complete cruise around the upper structure, so we saw the whole ship in one dive.

Our dive computers are activated by hitting the water and show us many important numbers, including current depth, maximum depth, time of day, time in the water, temperature, pounds of air remaining, nitrogen loading, ascension rate and others. One number that had not mattered on any of my prior dives, so I never paid attention to it, is remaining bottom time (RBT). That is the deadline to leave the bottom and start ascending. If you exceed that time, then you will be forced into decompression mode (DM), which the computer will lead you through. The headache is a DM dive requires much a slower ascent and longer safety stops, so if you don't plan for DM, then you can run out of air before you get to the surface. Recreational divers are taught never to do a DM dive, either on purpose or accidentally.

A typical 45 feet deep dive in the Caribbean is limited by the 1 hour that the air in the tank will last. The Caribbean RBT of several hours is so long that it does not matter - there is always more RBT than air in the tank. But all the dives this weekend were about 120 feet, the lower limit for recreational divers. Our average RBT was about 13 minutes. The depth makes our air consumption speed up, too, to maybe 35 minutes, but there is still plenty of air left over. Thus our limiting factor was the RBT. To make a proper dive profile, I had to learn a new set of calculations to determine when we had used up less than half of our RBT, to 'turn' the dive (stop moving away from our boat) and return to the anchor using most of the second half of the RBT, then start to ascend with a few minutes of RBT remaining as a safety cushion.

Once we started ascending, even while still fairly deep in the water, our RBT would increase. For example, at 110 feet I may have 3 minutes RBT. Then when I ascend to 80 feet, even though it is only 1 minute later, I may have 12 more minutes of RBT - for a new total of 15 minutes. Magic! From then on, we can stay in the water and play around the anchor line until our air runs out, maybe 20 more minutes. The danger is that with so little visibility and usually a stout current, you have to stay right at the anchor line to avoid getting lost from the boat. The crew demands that we ascend with our hands physically on the anchor line. But sometimes we got brave and pulled away a few feet to watch the barracuda, who always hung around 50 to 75 feet above the wrecks.

Back at the surface, I became re-acquainted with another limiting factor. In my scuba certification class I had learned about surface intervals (SI), the length of time a diver has to wait between dives to keep from over-loading his blood with nitrogen and getting the bends. In the Caribbean, again, SI was not a factor. Here in the Atlantic, the dive master reminded us to check our computers for when our 2 hour SI expired. 'Oh,' I exclaimed to Dave, 'so that's what that number counting down at '1:55' stands for!' Well, duh...

We all ate our packed lunches, lounged around and enjoyed the beautiful weather while the captain motored the boat to another dive site. I saw a school of flying fish. We geared up and, like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning, all 20 of us divers held out our computers and counted down to the minute when we could jump back in the water.

The second dive site Saturday was the Papoose. The conditions were similar. But the wreck was vastly different in layout. It was huge over 400 feet long, and upside down, so the visible surface was the smooth, mostly featureless bottom of the steel ship. It was too big to see all in one dive, and hard to tell where you were on the wreck. The dive boat anchor line was tied to the wreck in a certain spot demonstrated to us by the caption in his dive briefing on the drawing board. That spot is critical, because you have to be back there after burning only about 10 minutes RBT to start your ascent. If you just wander around the wreck in an unorganized fashion, it is so big and featureless, and the visibility so short, that you may not be able to see or find the anchor line when your RBT expires. If you have to ascend without the anchor line, then you could surface over 100 yards down current and physically be unable to swim back to the boat. Bad news! Thus, we had to plan our dive configuration carefully.

Dave was our leader, so he 'planned the dive and dived the plan.' As we passed our agreed 'turn' point at the wreck's rudder, and headed back in the general direction of the anchor, I was at 110 feet depth. Dave dropped down to the sandy floor and investigated the crevice under the hull ' a good place to find sea life ' at 120 feet. When I followed him down, I was alarmed to see my RBT go from 8 minutes to 2 minutes. I was torn between staying at Dave's elbow, which a buddy is supposed to do, so air can be quickly shared in an emergency, or hustling back toward the anchor before my RBT expired. I drifted up and over the hull towards where I hoped to find the anchor, and was relieved to see my RBT go back to 7 minutes. Dave was still in sight and reasonably close, so I hovered there for a few minutes. Soon, Dave angled my way, and we continued exploring the fish living around the holes in the hull. We made it back to the anchor with several minutes to spare.

Nitrogen narcosis is a hallucinatory effect of deep diving -- colloquially the equivalent of drinking a martini for every 50 feet of depth. Unlike the bends, which is a danger to be avoided, narcosis is automatic and cannot be avoided, and is not deadly. It is simply an impairment of judgment of which the diver must be aware. After the turning point on several dives, I had a couple of fleeting thoughts -- wondering if I was losing my orientation, because of over-concern for where and how to find the anchor tie in. In retrospect, I wonder if I was feeling the effects of nitrogen narcosis?

On this dive I learned another trick about using [actually, not'] the head ' nautical lingo for the boat bathroom. Due to the large crowd of crew and divers, it was usually occupied. Adding that some of the divers got seasick, and some of the ladies (about half the divers) changed clothes in the head, meant that it was basically never available. But divers have to drink lots of water to counter-act the dehydrating effects of the sun, wind and compressed tank air. What's a guy to do? Peeing in our wetsuits is a time honored tradition. I don't know what the ladies do ' it was never mentioned. But it is difficult to make your bladder void while moving your limbs. Some kind of autonomic reaction clamps that little valve shut. Well, we are required to spend substantial periods of time on the underwater hang lines. Hmmm'that gives me an idea! I learned to hold back until I hit the water, then enjoyed a leisurely trip down to the anchor line with a beatific smile on my relieved face. Ditto on the way back up. Of course, while still below the surface I had to unzip my jacket and pump water into my suit to avoid smelling like a grammar school boys' bathroom.

Similar to Bonaire, I viewed this trip as a major challenge. Before and after each dive, I went through a gamut of emotions: fear of the unknown, anxiety over the difficult conditions, nervous excitement during the dives, relief at their conclusion and joy from my accomplishments and new found skills. Saturday evening heading back to port felt satisfying'but there are still two more dives tomorrow.

Sunday morning our first dive was a major coup: the U-352 . This German submarine was discovered by our captain in 1963. It has become a major goal of wreck divers all over eastern USA. Many people plan scuba trips just for that wreck, but are denied access due to often bad weather or sea conditions. We hit it just right [sorry, Paul']. As the boat stopped at the dive site I saw a porpoise surfing in our wake. Weather and water conditions were similar to the prior dives. I was surprised how many men crossed the Atlantic and stayed gone from their home port for months at a time in such a tiny ship. This was my most fun dive. I have a 'thing' for navigation and planning. This was the smallest boat and the most recognizable shape, which made for the easiest orientation and safest navigation around the wreck. I would enjoy coming back here the most.

Just before our ascent, Dave dropped his camera on the sub's top deck. The deck was rounded, so we guessed that the camera rolled off to one side and landed on the sandy bottom. We had almost no RBT left, giving us a tough choice: abandon the camera and miss showing our friends all our hero shots? Or look for it and risk going into DM? I went to starboard while Dave went to port ' where he quickly found it.

Sunday afternoon our last dive was on the Spar wreck - a former US Coast Guard cutter. On our descent I got to play Ranger Bob. As we neared the bottom of the anchor line, Dave paused to give me the standard 'OK' signal. I waved my arms and made a big 'X' to signal 'No.' I tried to indicate that his tank had fallen off his B.C. and was almost dangling free. His equipment had been in place on the dive boat deck before we hit the surface, so the best cause I can guess is that on the descent he had rubbed his back against the anchor line while turning around, and maybe scrubbed open the Velcro strap and cam buckle.

His B.C. inflator hose was pulled back over his shoulder so far he could not reach it, putting him in danger of an uncontrolled descent. And his regulator was pulled tight, almost coming out of his mouth, also no fun at the bottom of the ocean. I had a moment of concern: do we try to do an underwater rescue and risk making things worse? Or abort the dive and straggle to the surface trailing gear? I made a conscious decision to do the former. Hanging in mid-water, I tried to shove the offending tank back up into its strap, but there was no solid point to cling to, so we both rotated in space.

I waved Dave over to the anchor line with me and slung one of my elbows and both legs around the chain to get maximum leverage [with big, floppy fins on, that is more of a chore than it sounds like']. I loosened his tank strap and let if fall free, grabbed it with both hands and shoved it back up. Next I fastened the top retainer strap around the first stage, so that if things got worse, at least the tank would not swing loose around Dave's feet. Then using one knee to prop it in place, I wrestled it up snugly and replaced the main strap. Done! Dave gave me a left handed shake and we flashed another set of 'OK' signs.

The Spar had the most relief of all the dives ' an intact superstructure and several rooms which allowed fish and divers to weave around the ship parts like kids playing follow the leader'or hide and seek. This wreck was one of those so thickly encased by huge schools of baitfish that when we descended into the schools on the boat's deck, we actually could not see, like being in a fog bank.

Best of all, there were a couple of large sand tiger sharks patrolling the main deck. Dave got several close-up photos and even tweaked one's tail. Even though they were about 6 feet long and could have taken a thigh-size bite out of us, sand tigers are known to be non-aggressive and diver tolerant. In fact, they are shy. Somebody had killed a sand tiger on another shipwreck nearby recently, and left the dead carcass on the boat. Our crew told us the rest of the local shark denizens simply left and never came back.

On the ascent, we both knew this was our last few minutes in the water, and we had been run off the bottom by short RBT's each time, while having plenty of air in our tanks. This time, we took it slowly and looked around at the other gently ascending divers and barracuda. At the 15 foot hang line, Dave drifted down current. After awhile, through the murky water, he could still see all the paraphernalia around me (hang lines, divers, boat) but I could not see him. I became concerned about not being adjacent to my assigned buddy, but I did not want to risk drifting far enough away from the boat that I would lose sight of it. When my air got down low enough to head to the surface, I left the lines and angled up and away, down current, swinging closely in front of Dave. We floated to the surface together and grabbed the drag line.

Then, for the 3 crew, the real fun began. One at a time, so that there were always 2 crew members on board, they grabbed their gear and dove in the water. Most of the time they took heavy excavating equipment ' like crowbars and scooter sleds. I was shocked! In the Caribbean, not only is touching the reefs forbidden, we cannot even wear gloves to prevent temptation. Here, when the crew returned, they usually had several big metal artifacts in their hands!

On our last prior dive trip in June, 2008, to the Blue Stone Quarry near Lexington, Dave got an ear infection. To avoid any such problems, after each of these dives I used homemade alcohol and vinegar ear drops.

Upon returning home, I found myself having some abnormal after-effects. Frequently when I engage in a strenuous outdoor activity, like snow skiing or rappelling, then that evening when I go bed, for a few minutes right before I go to sleep, I will see in my mind's eye and feel in the balance part of my brain as if I am doing it again ' jumping over a mogul or dropping off a cliff. On this diving trip, I spent so many hours on top of the ocean in the boat bouncing on the swells, or under the ocean swaying in the current ' 18 hours in 2 days - that I started to get acclimated to the rocking. When I went home, my body was still expecting that rocking. Since it was not happening, my body compensated by doing the opposite ' making me feel like I was rocking when I was not.

For that entire Sunday evening and parts of the next two days, I had the sensation that was still swaying on the boat. Lying in bed the first night home I felt a little seasick for a few moments. I also had to keep clearing my ears every few minutes, as if I were driving up Deep Gap hill on US-421-W. Paul reassured me that I was not, in fact, dying, but suffering from standard withdrawal symptoms after deep diving.

Captain George Purifoy took our boat out again Sunday evening, a few hours after our last trip, with another set of divers. They went to the final resting place of Blackbeard's pirate ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. It was closer to shore, in bad visibility and strong current. Two of the divers, a young couple, got in trouble. The husband surfaced too fast and had to be semi-rescued from among the ocean waves. The wife lost sight of the group and surfaced a quarter mile down current from boat. She was eventually rescued, too. Apparently due to the stress, before heading back to the dock, George slumped over the boat rail and died of a heart attack. There was a huge outpouring of kind words and strong feelings at his funeral. I wonder how the ditzy young couple felt?

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Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.