Scuba Diving In The Graveyard Of The Atlantic
The Gulf Stream provides Caribbean-like diving, with tropical conditions and marine life, but the wrecks are what make North Carolina’s seascape so interesting. Abnormally shallow shoals along the coast have contributed to the large number of wrecks along the Atlantic’s bottom, along with wars, weather, and wary seamanship. “Warm and tropical waters sown with hundreds of natural shipwrecks make this part of underwater America one of the finest for recreational diving,” wrote Rod Farb in his excellent book Guide to Shipwreck Diving: North Carolina.
The dive season along the coast of North Carolina usually lasts from May to October or November. Visibility generally averages between 40 feet to more than 100 feet. The average temperature is usually in the upper-70s and often reaches into the 80s. The wrecks range in depth from about 25 feet to more than 170 feet, but most of the popular dives are between 80 feet and 125 feet.
The variety of wrecks is what keeps bringing back divers. There are more than 600 wrecks that date from the Spanish fleets of the 1500s through current times. Civil War ships, merchant marine boats from two centuries ago, wrecks from both world wars, commercial shipping casualties, fishing vessels, and much more await adventurous divers. The area truly deserves the nickname, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Some Special Dives
With dozens of dives to choose from, there are definitely some favorites among local divers. Dive shops (see below) can help divers choose and reach the best dives for their skill levels and current conditions.
Two popular introductory choices are the W.E. Hutton and the Suloide. The W.E. Hutton was a freighter sunk by a German U-boat in 1942 in 70 feet of water just 14 miles south of Morehead City. The Suloide struck the wreck of the W.E. Hutton in 1943 and sank about a mile away at 65 feet. Both wrecks offer lots of colorful marine life. In fact, most North Carolina wrecks feature lots of fish, including many bright tropical species.
The deeper shipwrecks offshore continue to draw divers from near and far. Some popular picks include U-352, HMS Bedfordshire, City of Houston, John D. Gill, Normannia, the U.S.S. Schurz, and the Papoose.
The U-352 is perhaps the most famous dive site north of the Florida Keys. This German submarine was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter, Icarus, in 1942. It now lies at 115 feet only 26 miles south of Morehead City and offers much to see in a small space. Though coral life is limited, the submarine remains are of continuing interest. It is the only U-boat off the coast of the U.S. generally available to sport divers.
Just two days after the U-352 was sunk by the Icarus, the Bedfordshire (an armed trawler) was sunk with a single torpedo by another German U-boat. The wreck is in several interesting sections, with lots of tropical marine life and several unexploded depth charges to be avoided.
The City of Houston is one of the oldest wrecks regularly dived in North Carolina. Lying in about 120 feet off the tip of Cape Fear, she sunk in a storm in 1878. Lots of marine life can be found on the ship, as well as occasional 19th century artifacts.
Both located due east of Carolina Beach, the John D. Gill and the Normannia are also typically covered with fish. The Gill is a huge oil tanker sunk by a U-boat in 1942. The Normannia sunk in a storm in 1924 – she’s 42 miles offshore in warm, blue, and often clear water.
The Schurz was originally a German warship before being interred by the U.S. in 1917. It was accidentally rammed by a tanker in 1918 and lies in 110 feet of water 28 miles south of Morehead City. The wreck is strung along the sand, with lots of artifacts and much marine life.
The tanker Papoose was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942 and lies upside down at 130 feet. Entry into the hull is possible through several wide openings and marine life throughout is fascinating. Just a quarter-mile away, the Ella Pierce Thurlow sits in 125 feet of water and provides an interesting view of a four-masted schooner sunk by a storm.
There are also numerous “artificial” reefs (intentionally sunk ships) to be found off the coast. The Spar, a 180-foot coast guard cutter, is the most recent addition to the artificial reef scene. Lying in just over 100 feet of water and typically featuring lots of marine life, it is upright and the top of the wreck is at about 70 feet. Nearby is the Aeolus, a 439-foot cable layer that was once intact – but the hurricanes of 1996 broke it into four distinct pieces. Visiting divers should ask local shops about other artificial wrecks, including the Indra – a great shallow option.
Down off the Cape Fear coast, the Hyde was intentionally sunk in the 1980s after a career at sea that included being the only Coast Guard vessel to circumnavigate the globe. It stands intact and upright in about 85 feet of water. A dive here features lots of fish, easy “swim throughs,” and large sand sharks in summer.
There are many other diving opportunities all along the coast. In the colder waters of the north, the most popular destination off Nags Head is the U-85. Between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, check out the Proteus and the U.S.S. Tarpon.
North Carolina coastal diving isn’t limited to wrecks. In the Cape Fear area, divers have been finding massive fossil shark teeth (up to 7 inches long) on certain ledge systems at about 100 feet. Visiting divers also find huge resident grouper on the ledges. In addition, abundant lobsters are much larger off North Carolina than those generally found in the Caribbean.
Plan Your Dive
Learning to dive is easy and well worth the time and effort. The dive shops along the coast, as well as most dive shops throughout the world, offer dive certification classes. For those not yet certified to dive, but still wanting to explore the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” there are several snorkeling opportunities.
Morehead City’s Olympus Dive Center and Beaufort’s Discovery Diving are the companies to contact for great diving, lodging recommendations or packages, dining ideas, and the many local sightseeing options for surface intervals. In addition, Cape Fear Dive Center in Carolina Beach (south of Wilmington) is a newer option for divers looking to explore North Carolina’s underwater world in the Cape Fear area. Up in the Outer Banks, Ghost Fleet Dive Charters, Outer Banks Diving, Outer Banks Dive Center, and others await visiting divers. Several other smaller dive shops can also be found along the coast and inland.
With so much to see above and below sea level, the North Carolina coast should be part of every sea lover’s dreams. “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” is certainly a heavenly haven for divers.
By Lynn Seldon
added: December 15, 2008
updated: June 14, 2012
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