A California diver does North Carolina - lions & tigers, oh my!

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Posted by Jim Lyle on August 06, 2007 at 14:41:56:

California diver does North Carolina (July 29 – August 5, 2007)

The email read, “Congratulations on winning second place for Wide-Angle in Scuba Diving’s 2007 Photo Contest. You’ve won a trip for two to North Carolina’s Crystal Coast which includes 5 nights, 6 days accommodations, three boat dive trips and a percent off at Olympus Dive Shop.”

Cool! I’d never been to the Crystal Coast, but always thought about how neat it must be to dive the historic NC wrecks and perhaps see a sand tiger shark. A quick call to Scuba Diving to choose some dates, the redemption of a bunch of frequent flier miles on American Airlines, and I was all set to go. Late summer or early fall is the best visibility and warmest water, so I picked July/August.

Leaving LAX, I flew the “redeye” to Dallas, where I changed planes for the final hop to Raleigh-Durham. After boarding the plane in DFW, we were told there was an equipment problem with the aircraft. Later, it was announced the problem was not going to be resolved, and they were looking for another plane [ever wonder where they keep spare planes? Hmmm.] A couple of hours later, they “found” a replacement – of course it was at a gate half-way across Texas – the passengers raced from terminal to terminal to board the plane-of-second-choice [why was this plane available? Hmmm.] Miracle of miracles we landed safely in North Carolina and to my further wonderment, our luggage arrived with us. I collected my checked luggage…two checked bags containing all my dive gear and clothing…added it to my carry-on back pack with my camera/lenses and carry-on camera case containing the housing, strobes, chargers, lens ports, etc. [Next sport is going to be a “lighter” one…badminton?]

Olympus Dive Center

The drive to Morehead City from Raleigh was a long one – 3.5 hours, but the scenery was gorgeous – tall trees, green fields, and very nice roads. It rained and I saw more water in one hour than had fallen on Los Angeles all last year. I made it into Morehead City in time to drop by the Olympus Dive Shop to check in. The friendly people at the shop were very helpful in getting me straightened away - waivers signed, nitrox analyzed, and gear stored on the boat. To my surprise and joy, the boat was doing an extended run to one of the further wrecks and we were asked to be ready to go by 6:00 AM the next day.

The alarm went off at 5 AM and I drove the short distance to Olympus in anticipation of a new experience. I met the rest of the divers, who, for the most part, were a dive group from New Jersey [South New Jersey, if you please!] I looked at all the gear, saw lots of pony tanks, backplates/wings, fancy regulators, air-integrated computers, etc. and knew these weren’t newbies. I quietly stowed my old BC, ancient regulator, and hokey-puck computer in a corner. When I placed my camera rig – Olympus E-330 dslr, Ikelite housing, with dual Ikelite DS-125 strobes - on the camera table, I got back some of the respect I had lost with my dive gear. There were many small point & shoot cameras, a couple of video-cameras, but mine was the largest and most expensive rig on the boat [the theme from “A Handful of Dollars” echoed in my head.]

Dive boat

The Olympus dive boat is a 65’ aluminum, converted crew boat. The dive deck is large, with stations for over twenty divers and their gear. The cabin, below decks, is air-conditioned, and has lots of room for dry stuff and divers. I had been warned that there was no food provided on board, but coolers were on the upper deck for brought lunches/drinks. To my delight, there was lots of shade [cheap, Irish skin] for me to sit under on the boat ride and between dives. Because we were headed for a site further than normal, the boat left the dock at 6:15 for the 3.5 hour run to the Cassimir.

It’s a giant stride entry off the side of the Olympus. At the entry point, a line goes down to a spreader that leads to the anchor line – very useful in current and in finding the wreck! When divers return to the boat, via the anchor line, the ascent rate is slowed by the sloping spreader, which leads to a weighted safety-stop line. There are two regulators hanging near the stern, just in case a diver needs additional air to satisfy their deco requirement. While deco diving isn’t forbidden, it is discouraged in case an emergency requires all divers to return to the boat. Diving is deep in NC and most divers use 30% nitrox to extend their bottom times. There is a mandatory two-hour surface interval between dives.

I was first in the water, after the crewmember who set the anchor. As I moved down the anchor line, I could just make out the large wreck below me – it was moving! A blanket of small grunts billowed over the debris – thousands of them. Above the grunts, a cloud of small baitfish rose, fleeing hunting jacks, and flew past me. “Hey, this is pretty nice!” I took in the panorama, with visibility of over seventy-feet, I could clearly see the debris field, parts of the hull, and large iron ribs rising from the sandy bottom. Moving away from the wreck, I went in search of the bow – where is it…where is it…ooooo, it’s big! Towering over me, the bow loomed, with schools of fish clouding the scene. I returned to the main wreck to explore a little more before I ran out of bottom time and had to return to the line for a slow ascent to the safety stop lines hanging in the water on both side of the Olympus.

After the two-hour surface interval, we dropped on the Cassimir for a second dive. This time, I moved towards the stern, stopping to photograph some of the denizens that call the wreck home. I saw hogfish, grunts, amberjacks, barracuda, grouper, and many small fish that I didn’t recognize from my trips to the Caribbean. Hey, that’s a lionfish!!!! I had heard that they were now in the Atlantic Ocean – escapees from a pet shop during a hurricane, or released by some aquarium owner, depending on whom you want to believe. Elsewhere on the wreck, I saw four or five more lionfish. They may be exotics, but they are here to stay. Too soon, my dive computer indicated it was time to go up. The run back to the mainland took another 3.5 hours – a very, very long day, but well worth the effort.

Day two – conditions weren’t very good, rough seas, wind, big swells, and squalls all around us. The first dive was on the Shurz. The wreck is on its side, with the bridge and other objects littering the sand. There are so many small fish on this wreck that it can be disorienting when you can’t see very far.

The famous owner of Olympus Diving and captain of the Olympus, George Purifoy, donned his wetsuit for a dive during our surface interval. With a big grin on his face, he threw a scooter into the water and jumped in after it holding his mask and a crowbar in one hand, and disappeared into the deep, in search of treasure – all part of the day’s entertainment. [The dive scooter is used as a blower to uncover buried artifacts.]

A vote was taken whether to stay on the Shurz or make a run to the Spar, in the hopes of seeing sand tiger sharks – the vote was unanimous, sharks! One of the main attractions of North Carolina diving is the presence of these fierce-looking-snaggle-toothed-scary-but-safe sharks. I was first in the water and swam down the anchor line where the mate, who had secured the line to the wreck, waited. Danny made the universal shark signal, one hand held vertically-fingers together, on top of his head, and pointed towards the bow. I swam the length of the ship and found several of my quarry on the flat deck. There was one really big female – ten feet long, at least it looked that big to me – and several smaller sharks! I took several pictures and then dropped to the sand in front of the bow, where several more sand tigers were silently moving with an escort of small fish riding their bow wake. Hey! No music; I don’t hear any shark music! Oh, that’s right, these are sand tigers, not great whites.

Carcharias Taurus

BTW, the New Jersey divers were a joy to dive with – friendly, capable, experienced divers. Thanks, guys.

“Sweet tea?” the waitress asked. Huh? Oh, right, I’m in the South…with a capital “S.” I’d forgotten that iced tea in the south comes presweetened with lots of sugar. I must not be too far south, because normally no one asks, they just assume you take it that way. Another geographic marker - grits on the menu.

No Canons or Nikons allowed?

“Sawed-off shotguns are illegal. Sawed-off spear guns should be too!” - overheard on one of the dive boats.

North Carolina diving is pretty strange…you can take things from the ocean – shells, artifacts, game. It’s a little weird seeing the mate jump in the water to set the anchor line, carrying a spear gun and lobster snare. Even weirder is the allowed collection of items on the wrecks. After some thought, I guess that’s okay. The items recovered from the wrecks, on display in the Olympus dive shop, are ones that I would never see in the water. The ships, themselves, are still there to enjoy, even if someone has removed the china and brass. If someone digs up and takes a Pepsi Cola bottle, circa 1942, from the sand, is that bad? Most of the junk would be in a landfill if it were on land.

Day three – The NJ divers had moved over to another dive boat for an extended run. This left me on the Olympus with a bunch of new people. Luckily, the boat was far from full – only nine divers and seven store employees. You gotta love it when the staff all dives. The first dive was on the Bedfordshire, a British gunboat that was sunk in 1942 by a German submarine. Unfortunately, the torpedo hit the Bedfordshire amidships detonating the ammunition and blowing the boat to splinters. There really isn’t much left except for a debris field, the boiler, and some depth charges. This dive had current and poor visibility – a generous 15 feet or less. I came all this way to dive in this? There are good dives and excellent dives…this was a good dive.

The captain took a vote on where to go for the second dive and everyone opted to go to the Spar with the sand tigers – no objection from me. Conditions on the Spar were much better – sixty feet of visibility and little current - more opportunities to take pictures of the sand tigers.

On the way back to the dock, we were exchanging lies when one diver looked at me and asked, “Do you post to scubadiving.com?” It was Walter Campbell (aka Capt. Mikey) from the diver-to-diver forum…we were board buddies and were finally meeting face to face. We chatted about other divers we had met and knew and, too quickly, the day was over.


Discovery Diving

When I booked my trip to N.C., Olympus could only get me on boats for the first three days. They put me on a waiting list, but I called around and found spots with Discovery Diving in Beaufort, one of the other major dive operations in the area. I dropped by the shop to sign waivers and rent tanks & weights for the next three days.

The Outrageous V is smaller than the Olympus boat, with less protection, but similar in layout. There were only nine divers on the boat and Captain Terry Leonard asked what people wanted to see and many said, “sharks.” The boat went to the wreck of the Caribsea. When I dropped in the water and made my way down the anchor line, a large sand tiger rose to take a look before silently drifting off into the distance. What looked like great visibility on the surface deteriorated badly at the bottom. I estimated ten to fifteen feet at most and less at times. Part of the lack of visibility was the vast curtain of baitfish concentrated near the wreck. My dive buddy, Pete and I found several nice sand tigers near the bow and then navigated the length of the wreck to the stern before turning towards the anchor line.

The passengers voted to stay on the Caribsea for the second dive. After the SI, I moved toward the bow of the wreck with the intention of hanging around waiting for the sharks. As I waited, Ali – one of the other divers – pulled my fin and indicated that I should follow him. He led me to the bowels of the wreck where several sand tigers were swimming in large lazy circles below decks. Wonderful, thanks Ali! I spent the majority of the dive inside the wreck with the sharks. When the sharks grew tired of my flashing strobes and moved off, I repositioned on the sand beneath the bow for a few more up-close-and-personals before running out of bottom time and having to go up the anchor line. On the safety stop, I was joined by some log-sized barracuda and a school of Atlantic spadefish.

Friday’s sea conditions were great, no wind chop and a long low swell. I had put the wide-angle lens on the camera in hopes of some clear water and a suitable subject. When Capt Terry said we were going to the U-352, I grinned from ear to ear. Good choice! I suited up and was ready to go in the water. No sooner than Terry said, “pool’s open,” I was in the water. Being first down the anchor line, I could clearly see that we had about seventy feet of visibility. The German submarine lies on its side, the bow has sagged, exposing the torpedo tubes. Aft, the conning tower makes a great photo op. A large turtle circled the dark shape on the bottom, but I couldn’t get close enough for a shot; besides, I was here to take pictures of the wreck, not wildlife. I can’t imagine how exciting it was when George Purifoy and friends first saw the wreck and knew what it was. Even today, it’s a privilege to dive on it. This was icing on the cake for me, I got to see the sand tigers and the U-boat.

The second dive was a return to the Spar to play with the sharks. Big grin.

My last day of diving and the conditions are crappy – big swells and choppy seas. On top of that, I managed to pull the shade off my wide-angle port before the first dive. I decided discretion was the better part of whatever and left the camera on the boat. It has been years since I’ve done a dive without my camera (outside of lobster season.). I cruised along and looked at all the pretty sharks and composed images in my mind. We were going to go back to the U-352, but diverted to the Aeolus. The Aeolus was sunk as part of the artificial reef program back in the 80’s. She’s a retired Navy cable layer and was broken up by a couple of hurricanes. The stern is upright, the midships has collapsed, and the bow is on its side. I spent the entire dive on the stern, below decks, watching the sand tigers swim lazily in circles…while I wished I had my camera.

The second, and my last dive of the trip, was back to the Spar – about 400 feet away from the Aeolus. Here too, I was sans camera and enjoyed a lazy circumnavigation of the wreck before running out of bottom time and having to ascend for my safety stop.

“California? You came all the way to North Carolina to dive?” That was the reaction of most divers I met on the boats. Nearly everyone else was from the East coast, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, or Virginia. Now, to be honest, had it not been for the Scuba Diving magazine trip, I would probably not have been there. North Carolina diving, while not high on my life list, was, at least, on the list. I had read and heard about the great diving, the historical wrecks, and, of course, the sand tiger sharks! What I did not realize, was that the diving was World Class. NC should rank up there with other more exotic destinations – forget Fiji, Truk, et al.; why travel half way around the World? Call and reserve a spot on one of the Olympus or Discovery dive boats; you won’t regret it.

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