Divernet


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NEARING THE STERN OF THE U-352 I look out to the blue, just as a goofily-fanged sand tiger shark cruises past my right shoulder. It doesnt come as a complete surprise, as Captain Bobby Purifoys briefing aboard Midnight Express had mentioned that there might be one or two about.
Another photographer I passed on the way up the line had kindly replayed a picture of one for me on his digital camera.
Even so, a raggie coming this close so early in the dive catches me sufficiently unawares that I fail to get its picture.
As I arrive at the stern, the shark keeps going, down and out across the rippled sand. I follow for a few metres but soon give up, as I dont want to lose the wreck. Besides, I hope that the shark will loop round and back to me.
Looking down, a pair of eyes in the sand key me in to the outline of a butterfly ray, its good size confirmed when it spooks as I swim back to the stern of the U-boat.
Big critter distractions out of the way, I settle in to enjoy the wreck and the shifting hordes of baitfish that form a tight cloak about it.
The type VIIC U-352 was depth-charged by the US Coast Guard cutter Icarus on 9 May, 1942. The 35m depth makes it ideal for enjoying the nitrox and taking my time, especially as I have brought some twinning bands and a second regulator with me.
After 20 minutes of sharing I have the wreck to myself for another 20.
I spend time among the densest shoal of baitfish, by the conning tower and then by the now-empty gun positions.
The 88mm gun was blown off when U-352 was depth-charged. One of the 20mm auto-cannons is on display on the dock at the Olympus dive centre. Even with all the peace and quiet, I dont see the sand tiger again.
But never mind, because a day later at 22m on the wreck of the tanker Ario, I get my very own big momma raggie as a buddy for most of the dive. For the first five minutes I follow her at a distance. For another 10 minutes we swim alongside each other. Then, for another 10 minutes, big momma follows me.
Only when I finish my film with the last shot of the shark do I realise that I have not taken a single picture of the wreck. The boilers, engine, rudder-post and condenser are all well worth a look, and there is plenty more marine life, including a colony of sea spiders.
The Ario was torpedoed, then finished off with gunfire from U-158 on the night of 14 March 1942.
Until recently it was mistaken for the wreck of the WE Hutton, a similarly sized tanker torpedoed by U-124 five days later. However, Captain Bobby and his father George, who captains the dive centres other boat, Olympus, are both convinced that the configuration of the masts is better matched to the Ario.
China found on the site carries the crest of the Scoony Vacuum Oil Co, owner of the Ario, and there are anchors at the bow, whereas those of the WE Hutton were blown away by the torpedo.
U-158 actually got two ships with one torpedo, because a year later the freighter Suloide collided with the wreck of the Ario, continuing for another mile before sinking in 21m. Both wrecks were then blasted by the Coastguard to prevent further such accidents so, except for boilers and engines, both are close to the seabed.
I find no sharks on the Suloide, but I do notice a regular creaking sound, like a badly maintained first-stage piston.
It turns out to be toadfish, a sort of bulbous cross between an anglerfish and a scorpionfish. I get quite excited because I have never seen one before. Local divers ignore them, as they are a dime a dozen in these waters.
Back to the deeper offshore wrecks: an hour before sinking the WE Hutton, U-124 made short work of the tanker Papoose with a pair of torpedoes.
The Papoose rests upside-down in 36m, the stern third or so intact, then, further forward, broken to the seabed.
What is special about this wreck are its residents. A photograph in the dive centre shows the wreck in sand-tiger soup. A video that Captain George played while I was on Olympus showed at least 10 in a single scene.
I get perhaps 10 over the whole dive, with a maximum of four at any one time.
Early in the season they are less used to divers, and a little skittish as we approach. An unexpected obstacle to photography are the hordes of baitfish clouding the wreck. And its not only the wreck obscured in this way. As the sharks cruise and circle, each one is surrounded by a frantically moving cloud of followers. Is this a defensive tactic, or do the little fish expect the sand-tigers to guard them from the amberjacks also circling the wreck
This wreck is assumed to be the Papoose, but has yet to be positively identified. It may even be the WE Hutton. Whichever way the evidence is examined, one of the three tankers, Ario, Hutton and Papoose, has yet to be found.
A wreck and lots of sharks on the same dive - if that isnt enough to make any day of diving, we get a humpback whale strutting its stuff for a good half-hour on the way back in.
North Carolina is a waypoint on their migration route from the Silver Banks breeding ground back to the Arctic.
Each day, as Midnight Express leaves Morehead City and the Beaufort Inlet, Captain Bobby decides how far offshore we can comfortably go. If sea conditions and weather are OK, first choice is a 25-30 mile run to the offshore wrecks in the 30-35m range.
Failing that, closer, more sheltered wrecks lie in the 20m range. For technical groups, there are wrecks further offshore in deeper water, including the Civil War USS Monitor.
And as if all the genuine wrecks are not enough, North Carolina also has an active artificial reef program. It began with creating fish habitats for anglers but grew to include divers.
Inshore I dive the tug Titan, sunk upright in 19m in July 2004 amidst a scattering of 300 concrete pipe sections, also part of the project.
Its a pleasant dive but too small, too new, too shallow and too clinical compared to the other local wrecks.
The USS Indra, sunk in 20m in 1992, is a more interesting artificial reef. Originally laid down in World War Two as a Landing Ship Tank (LST), it was completed as a landing-craft repair ship.
Holes cut in the hull make it easy to swim inside the full length of the Indra, up and down through the decks, then pop out aft to admire the purple gorgonians that forest the exposed stern.
Further out, the Navy cable ship USS Aelos is one of the oldest artificial reefs in the area, sunk in 35m in 1988. It sank on one side, but 1996 hurricane Fran turned the wreck through 90, then righted it and broke it in three.
As on the other deeper wrecks, sand tigers roam. After exploring the machinery and hanging off the stern a while, I divert my attention to the shoals of Atlantic spadefish. All of the deeper wrecks have been home to a few, but they seem particularly prevalent here.
Top of the list of those many wrecks I didnt get to dive is the USS Schurz. This was an 1894-vintage German armoured cruiser originally launched as SMS Geier, then seized by the USA in 1914 and commissioned into the US Navy.
The Schurz sank in 1918 after colliding with the SS Florida, and lies close to the Papoose with a similar collection of marine life, including another concentration of sand-tiger sharks.
My final dive is on the US Coastguard buoy tender Spar, sunk in 34m as an artificial reef just 300m from the Aelos.
Only down for a couple of years, the Spar already has its own cloud of baitfish, amberjacks and sand tigers. I finish my last film by ambushing a sand tiger shark as it rounds the ice-breaker bow.

TORPEDO JUNCTION

When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought the USA into World War Two, it was barely prepared for war in the Pacific, let alone the Atlantic. Shipping along the East Coast was completely unprotected.
This opportunity was not wasted on the commander of the German U-boat fleet, Admiral Karl Doenitz. He dispatched whatever U-boats could be spared to pursue the easy targets.
Through the first few months of 1942, U-boats picked off many ships that followed predictable routes, their navigation lights showing and their outlines silhouetted by the lights of towns and cities.
Ships travelling north would follow the Gulf Stream, and ships travelling south would come closer to shore to avoid a head-current, and get a push from any back eddies. In both cases, the bottleneck effect of the capes of North Carolina turned the shipping routes into a U-boat shooting gallery.
By May 1942, the lights had been turned out ashore and on the ships, which now travelled in convoy and zig-zagged as a matter of course. Increased numbers of escorts, submarine-hunters and air patrols began to reduce the effectiveness of U-boats and, from April, Doenitz lost seven of them.
By the end of the summer, the U-boats had been moved on, but by then 259 ships had been sunk, with the greatest concentration off North Carolina. The shipping routes past Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras became known as Torpedo Junction.

LIONFISH SETTLE IN

A special hunter of all the tiny baitfish found clouding the North Carolina wrecks are lionfish. These wouldnt be so special in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean or on any Indo-Pacific reef, but they are not native to the Caribbean or Atlantic.
Yet the red or turkey lionfish variety, most commonly found in South-east Asia and the western Pacific, has somehow been introduced. Lionfish were first spotted off North Carolina in 2000.
Speculation as to how they arrived favours larvae transported in tanker ballast water, but they may have been accidentally released from aquariums. They are now well established, and feature in dive briefings along the lines of: Be careful not to put your hand on a lionfish.

THE GULF STREAM
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Beginning in the Gulf of Mexico, water heated by tropical sunshine flows up the coast of Florida and then pushes offshore to cut the corner past Georgia and South Carolina.
North Carolinas Cape Lookout (look out for the dangerous shoals) and Cape Hatteras (a corruption of hazardous), poke far enough into the Atlantic that the Gulf Stream can wander within 20 or 30 miles of shore.
Winds can blow back eddies off the Gulf Stream, bringing warmer water inshore and giving big variations in temperature, even on a single dive.
In May, water temperature varies from 16-19C, with the warmer dives usually those further offshore. Later in summer it can rise as high as 26C, but still vary by a few degrees with the whims of the Gulf Stream.
As the eddies are unpredictable in strength and direction, the diving system is that a crew-member dive-bombs the wreck to tie a small anchor in, guided by the captain via a two-way comms system.
The boat stays tied in to the wreck and all divers use the line. A bottom line is left across and along the wreck, to be recovered by the crew with the anchor once all divers have surfaced.
From the anchor line, a yoke leads back to deco stations with surface-supplied bail-out regulators hanging from either side of the boat.
You can hang onto a floating line trailed from the stern while waiting your turn at the ladders.
Should a diver surface away from the boat and be unable to swim back, one of the crew stays wetsuited with a scooter ready to take a line to the diver or tow him or her back.
BLACKBEARDS RUN
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The end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 released a surplus of privateers no longer employed by the English crown. Many turned to piracy, including Edward Teach, who rose to fame as the pirate captain Blackbeard.
Blackbeard plundered across the Caribbean before turning to North Americas coastal shipping and colonies.
In July 1718, his flagship the Queen Annes Revenge ran aground while attempting to enter Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. The sloop Adventure tried to tow her clear and also became stuck.
This accident of seamanship may have been intentional. The company had grown to more than 300 pirates on four ships, and Blackbeard escaped on a smaller sloop with most of the booty and a small hand-picked crew!
Blackbeard was killed soon after, cornered by the Royal Navy in Ocracoke Inlet in North Carolina. HMS Pearl came back to Virginia with his head hanging from the bowsprit.
East Carolina University now manages the Queen Annes Revenge archaeological project, with many preserved artefacts displayed in the maritime museum in Beaufort. Divers can visit the wreck by enrolling on an archaeological speciality course run jointly by the QAR project and local dive operators (www.qaronline.org/divedown2006.htm)
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Captain George at the helm of Olympus.

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Bobby Purifoy captains Midnight Express

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Frame from the U-boats starboard bow hydroplane

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The Olympus dive centre.

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Hatch in the aft deck of U-352

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A sand tiger shark on the Ario wreck

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A toadfish, making odd noises on the Suloide.


Lionfish can be seen on Papoose - how they got there is a matter for debate.

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A sand tiger accompanies a cloud of bait fish on Papoose.

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Fixing an anchor line on the Indra. The diver and captain communicate using a through-water comms system.

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Entering the Titans wheelhouse.

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Baitfish above the port bridge wing of the Spar wreck.

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A sand tiger shark on the Spar buoy tender wreck.

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Steering mechanism of the Aelos.

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Spadefish are also frequently seen on North Carolinas deeper wrecks.

CITY LIFE

The port city of Beaufort, established in 1722, has a population of about 4000. In the 1840s it was just too small for both the amount of shipping and the size of the ships coming in to unload, so North Carolina Governor John Morehead instigated plans for Morehead City, across the channel from Beaufort and connected to the railroad.
Morehead City (population about 8000) remains an active commercial port and is home to a fleet of leisure charter boats. Dive boats typically depart at 7am and return to shore at 3-4pm, so there are plenty of opportunities to spend the late afternoon exploring shoreside. You will find:

  • Beaufort Maritime Museum, with a history of shipwrecks, Blackbeard, Queen Annes Revenge and Torpedo Junction.
  • The Aquarium - visit early in your trip and find out what you are diving with.
  • The Banks, a detached beach running off the coastline. Some banks are joined by bridges, roads and ferries, while others are isolated. Shackleford Bank has a herd of wild horses dating back to the days of Spanish exploration.
  • Further away, at Kittihawk, is the site of the Wright Brothers first flight.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Raleigh-Durham from Gatwick with American Airlines, www.american airlines.co.uk. It is about three hours drive to Morehead City in a rental car.
DIVING: Olympus Dive Centre, www.olympusdiving.com. ACCOMMODATION: Hampton Inn, www.hamptoninn.com. Olympus Dive Lodge, www.olympusdiving. com
WHEN TO GO: Year round, though diving may be restricted by weather, especially in the winter.
PRICES: Flights start from£370, rooms at Hampton Inn from $80-$150 a night, or $25 for a bunk at the dive lodge. Diving costs from $105 plus tax a day for two dives, plus cylinder rental ($7 for 12 litres of air to $19 for 15 litres of nitrox).
FURTHER INFORMATION: North Carolina Division of Tourism www.northcarolinatravel.co.uk. Torpedo Junction by Homer H Hickman Jr, Dell, ISBN 044020275. Operation Drumbeat by Gumundur Helgason, www.uboat.net/articles/ index.html article=22. U-boat logs, www.ubootwaffe.net