Shipwreck Empire

I pulled myself down the line through the density of a midwater thermocline, concerned the dark and limited visibility would spoil my first dive on the newly discovered USSTarpon, a decorated World War II submarine that sank in 1957 while under tow during a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. A sudden break in the haze opened visibility to 40 feet, and out of the gloom appeared the only American submarine in the United States accessible to recreational divers. Gazing upon the long gray tube I was astonished to observe it shimmering mysteriously, as if intent on engaging the enemy 140 feet below war-torn waves.

Map of North Carolina Coast

But wait a minute. The sub seemed to be moving. It couldn’t be! Finally I realized several large, lead-silver shapes were dancing along the darkness of the hull. Four rather sizable sand tiger sharks impeded my path to the submarine. With a touch of anxiety, I eased past the 10- and 12-foot creatures, girths as big as 50-gallon drums, and touched the cold metal of the hull. After a few moments of deep breathing to calm myself, I continued my dive into history on this magnificent war machine, perpetually waiting for divers willing to brace the challenges of open-water shipwreck diving.

Since that adventure almost 30 years and 2,500 regional wreck dives ago, I have swum alongside hundreds of sharks on a single dive in the waters off North Carolina, a coastline recognized as one of the best locations in the world to dive a seemingly endless variety of shipwrecks in the company of large marine animals. There are wrecks for every experience level from novice to advanced technical diving.

The “Ocean River”

North Carolina boasts 301 miles of coastline, more than any state on the East Coast except Florida. The southern two-thirds of its beaches are bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. This “ocean river” swerves into the Carolina coast during the spring and summer months, bringing tropical fauna and flora into the shallows and flooding the wrecks and reefs with vivid color and abundant marine life. Divers are often astonished by 100 feet or more of visibility, water clarity usually expected only in tropical waters.

As the Gulf Stream approaches Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks, a lengthy expanse of barrier islands off the Carolina coast, it barrels into the cold Labrador Current flowing from the north. The colliding currents head off into the North Atlantic trailing swirling eddies of water treacherous to both ships and divers. Throw into this mix several wars, countless hurricanes, crowded shipping lanes, the vagaries of marine weather and a gradually sloping coastline, and you have a wreck diver’s paradise.

School of sharks swim at seafloor

Diving Into History

Joining the USS Tarpon in the submarine dive portfolio are three German U-boats sunk during WWII: the popular U-352 sub out of Morehead City is accessible to many divers with its resting depth of 115 feet. In the vicinity of the Outer Banks, the U-85 rests off the shore of Nags Head at a depth of 90 feet, while the largely intact U-701 lies 115 feet deep, mired in the ever-undulating shoals off Cape Hatteras. Only recently discovered, the U-701 can be difficult to reach because of its location in the shoals and the sand that sometimes completely obscures the wreck. But on lucky days, intrepid divers can explore an almost totally intact U-boat with its 88mm deck gun aiming off into the blue.

Each has a unique place in the history of naval warfare, and their lore and lure have captivated thousands of adventure seekers during the past several decades. No one knows exactly how many shipwrecks grace the seafloor off the coast of North Carolina; estimates reach as high as 2,000, but more than a hundred of them are well-known and readily accessible to recreational divers.

Something for Everyone

Diving the colder waters off the northern third of the coast generally requires a full wetsuit and hood, but those willing to brave the cooler temperatures are treated to a veritable smorgasbord of options. The WWII Liberty cargo ships Zane Grey and Dionysus were sunk in only 65 feet of water just outside of Oregon Inlet as part of the artificial reef program. A bit north of the U-85 are the tankers Byron D. Benson and Norvana (York), both sunk by U-boats in 1942 and both resting at 90 to 100 feet. The large bulk carrier Marore, the tanker Mirlo++ and the Equipoise all lie a bit deeper at depths between 125 and 140 feet and require specialized training to reach.

South of Cape Hatteras toward Okracoke Inlet, more than 20 intriguing wrecks are frequented by dive boats from Hatteras and the coastal dive shops in Morehead City and Beaufort. Deeper favorites include the Proteus, a passenger liner sunk in a 1918 collision with another ship; the Dixie Arrow, a tanker torpedoed in 1942; the tanker British Splendour, another victim of German U-boats; and the huge tanker Australia, which broke apart and sank in two sections after being torpedoed near Diamond Shoals. All of these lie at depths between 90 and 125 feet. The freighter Kassandra-Louloudis, another WWII casualty, lies a bit shallower at 70 feet. Resting on shoals near the Australia, in good sea conditions the Kassandra-Louloudis is a treasure trove of artifacts, including medicine vials, tires, rebar, truck engines and railroad rails.

Very pretty turtle swims near reef

The majority of the warm-water wreck dives are visited by dive charter boats out of Beaufort and Morehead City and as far south as Wilmington. Inshore of the Cape Lookout Shoals are a slew of shallower dive sites such as the W.E. Hutton, sunk by torpedo in 1942, and the Suloide, which ran over the Hutton‘s superstructure, opening its hull and eventually sinking a mile away. Both are at depths of 65 to 70 feet, serving as excellent training sites for newer divers.

More well-known are the offshore wrecks both north and south of the Lookout Shoals. The Papoose is a 400-foot tanker resting upside down in 120 feet of water 30 miles from the Beaufort Inlet, and the USSSchurz joins the aforementioned U-352 submarine as one of the two most popular wrecks in the area. The Schurz is a former German cruiser impounded in Hawaii during WWI, converted into an American gunboat and then sunk in a collision in 1918. The ammunition locker at the bow has given up many a souvenir to visiting divers over the years.

Yellow fish swims near wall of coral

South and west of the Cape Lookout Shoals lie the shipwrecks of the Cape Fear region. Boats from the Morehead City and Beaufort areas will visit them on occasion, and though the dives are well worth it, the long day in jarring seas make trips out of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach or Southport easier options. The tanker/cargo ship Cassimir, the freighter Normannia and the tanker Esso Nashville are all just north of Frying Pan Shoals at deeper depths of 110 to 120 feet. The remains of the famous John D. Gill offer a slightly shallower option at 90 feet, while the 125-foot-deep Lobster Wreck (Porta Allegra) is known for its rich marine life, including the giant lobsters that inhabit the ship.

A great deal of Civil War history is associated with the ports along the North Carolina coast, especially the port of Wilmington. Cape Fear was refuge to Confederate blockade runners attempting to escape the clutches of Union gunboats, and its waters are littered with the remains of those who failed to make it to safety, including the HebeUSSPeterhoffBendigo and Modern Greece. Two shallow wrecks, the WWII Liberty ship Alexander Ramsey and the wooden freighter George Weems are also great sites for newer divers and advanced training.

For me, the jewel of the Frying Pan wrecks is the steamer City of Houston, sunk in 90 feet of water during a vicious storm near Southport in October 1878. Happily, everyone aboard survived. Happier for divers, the ship was laden with a huge cargo of Christmas goodies, making the wreck a veritable warehouse of artifacts, including sewing machines, china dolls, slates, bullets, toys, medicine vials and even glass photographic plates.

Technically Speaking

For those with the advanced training to do it, there are a number of wrecks that offer additional challenges. The freighter Tamaulipas, the whaling factory ship Lancing and the paddlewheeler Idaho all rest well beyond recreational limits at 160 feet. The 450-foot USSYancey was sunk as an artificial reef. Her top decks reside within recreational limits, but the bottom goes to 165 feet deep. The 160-foot-deep Manuela is a particularly exciting dive; the ship is spread out over a large debris field in three main sections. It has given up a number of artifacts over the years and always reveals fascinating marine life, including mantas, goliath groupers and an array of sharks.

Other wrecks call for caution but are wonderful sites for the properly trained diver. At 240 feet deep, the E.M. Clark is a 500-foot tanker resting on its starboard side. It’s a popular site for the technical diving community and great training for some of the more arduous expeditions to the Andrea Doria or USS Monitor.

Shark gives off a toothy grin

Of course, the USS Monitor is the most famous of them all. The Union “cheesebox on a raft” saved President Lincoln’s blockade policy when it fought the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia to a draw at Hampton Roads near Fort Monroe, Va. In December 1862, she was under tow off Cape Hatteras when she foundered in a fierce storm and sank in 235 feet of water. Lost for more than 100 years, the Monitor was discovered in 1973 and serves as America’s first National Marine Sanctuary. The deep and fickle water of the Monitor Marine Sanctuary makes it an extremely dangerous environment for the unprepared or unwary diver, yet the Monitor‘s legacy positions it as one of the world’s most prestigious quests for technical divers.

This, and more, is the empire of shipwrecks that beckons thousands of scuba divers to North Carolina’s shores every year. Some come to experience the mystique of these underwater museums, some for the thrill and challenge of open-ocean diving with denizens of the deep, and still others for the color and beauty of the enchanting reefs created by the ships themselves. But no matter the individual motivation, it’s there for the sport and technical diver alike, a vast realm of adventure.

The identity of shipwrecks has been known to change as additional exploration brings new facts to light. Though the true identities of some of the wrecks mentioned in this article are currently in question, the wrecks are identified with the name by which they are most well-known.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2011