New York Wreck Diving
By Capt Tom McCarthy
StoneRust.com | EastWreckDiving.com
In 1524, a European explorer named Giovanni da Varrazzano discovered a protected harbor that he named New Angoulême. Though he would later meet a grizzly fate in the Caribbean at the hands of cannibals, his discovery would go on to become New York City. At the time of this writing, New York Harbor has been a transatlantic shipping destination for 492 years. During that time, it has steadily grown to become one of the busiest ports in the history of mankind. As I write this article, I’m sitting outside a restaurant at City Pier A, overlooking the entrance to New York Harbor. To my right are Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty; ahead are the Varrazzano Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean. These sites are well known even to the average tourist; however, ask even a local about the sites that lie beneath the water in the harbor and it’s a different story.
Whenever I tell a local that I own a dive boat based out of the south shore of Long Island, 90% of the time the next question is, “Is there even anything to see?” My canned response is generally something like, “Shipwrecks. This has been the highway that connects the world to New York for almost 500 years. Until very recently, there was no GPS and no radar. For almost 500 years, ships have crashed into each other right off our coast. Add in two World Wars, endless fog, and the harsh winter sea and we’ve got more shipwrecks than you could imagine.”
New York City grew in part due to its protected deep water ports and close proximity to European ocean routes. From the iconic images of ships loaded with immigrants bound for a better life to the terror induced by the German U-boats of both great wars, New York owes its status as one of the greatest cities mankind has ever seen to the countless sailors whose lives upon which it was built.
The diving in the waters of New York and New Jersey is unique, but the region is often overlooked as a dive destination by those who don’t live here. However, it’s an area where the divers, dive boats, and those who have crewed them have been the topics of best-selling novels and documentaries for years, where history extends from the shipwrecks on the bottom to the boats above them in a spectacularly rare way. A late friend once tried to capture this when he wrote, “Forget the fact that these guys possess legendary diving skills and experiences; they also possess legendary wit and remorseless humor.”
But why dive here? What makes these cold, dark, distant shipwrecks so captivating? In a word: history. In every diver there is an innate desire for exploration, to see or touch something long- lost. This is still possible in the waters of the Northeast. Although 500 years of history and an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 ships lie on the bottom, very few remain diveable. There are no high- masted ships of the line lying perfectly preserved, no 200-year-old bow carvings pointing silently in the darkness. In the shallow, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic United States, the ocean’s claim over these ships starts at their sinking. Every year the wrecks we have come to love are weathered and battered more and more. Once-familiar landmarks slowly erode into the sands beneath them. The ship’s history - and so our history, - disappears with it.
It is with this in mind that a unique culture has developed: a collection of divers whose hearts are more simpatico with the likes of Indiana Jones than that of Cousteau. While they may be union tradesmen, financiers, lawyers, doctors, opticians, watchmakers, plumbers, firemen, and policemen by the weekday, they are historians and archeologists by weekend. Make no assumptions; these men and women often know more about the history of the ships they dive than even the most learned historian.
Despite the historical archives just a boat ride away, it baffles me at times to think that our area is often only known for the wreck of the Andrea Doria. The harrowing tales of life and death involving divers on this wreck are known the world over. I, however, would like to focus on two other shipwrecks, ships that, in my opinion, have histories just as fascinating, but which are significantly more accessible than the Andrea Doria. These wrecks are the USS San Diego and the RMS Oregon.
USS San Diego
One of the most-visited shipwrecks in the Northeast is the USS San Diego. At a commanding 503 ft in length, the “Diego,” as she’s often known, was the only major warship lost by the United States during WWI. She is a time capsule of the Great War. Though the circumstances of her sinking have been argued since her demise in 1918, it is now believed that she was sunk by a mine laid by the German submarine U-156.
The wreck itself is on the National Register of Historic Places and the taking of artifacts is expressly prohibited. However, this was not always the case, and the real old-timers have some absolutely amazing artifacts in their collections. The wreck itself provides a whole world of possible dives. For those not trained in overhead diving, the mostly-intact exterior still features many of the side-mounted armaments. For wreck penetration, there are few ships that have such a vast interior to explore. It should be mentioned, however, that the wreck is in an advanced state of deterioration and great care should be exercised while touring inside. The wreck itself lies upside down in 110 ft of water, and the top of the wreck now begins around 80 ft since her internal decks are collapsing at an increasing rate. It’s amazing that she has lasted this long; her thick, armored hull has certainly given her the strength to weather a century of North Atlantic seas. This is all the more reason to get out and see her while she’s mostly in one piece.
Switching gears from military ships, our second most-dived site is the wreck of the Oregon. A former Cunard line steamship that stretched to an astonishing 521 ft in length, this ship represents the finest in 19th century transatlantic travel. After a night time collision with an unknown ship in 1886, the Oregon sank to the bottom, where she now sits upright in 125 ft of water. The ship itself is slowly being claimed by the ocean, but several prominent pieces are still clearly visible. These include her massive boilers, a large steering quadrant, propeller, bow section, and of course, her gargantuan triple-expansion steam engine, so large a diver can actually swim through it.
One major difference between the Oregon and the San Diego is the artifacts. Divers have been allowed to search the Oregon for world-class maritime artifacts for years. As the sand buries her, however, these artifacts have become scarce. Even though New York Harbor has been traveled through for almost 500 years, we have very few remaining ships older than the Oregon. The moral conundrum of leaving things for future divers becomes a bit easier to grasp when it’s understood that most of what we are seeing will be gone within a generation.
This wreck is steeped in history. In 1884, the Oregon held the Blue Riband award for the fastest transatlantic voyage ever. She was also ahead of her time in terms of living amenities: electricity was a new phenomenon aboard ships and the Oregon was one of the first to offer it. This luxury wasn’t without its issues though. Prior to one trip, the ship’s power generator, known as a “dynamo,” was out of commission. The irate ship’s manager called up a local company’s owner to have them send out a repairman immediately. The owner happened to have an interview with a potential new hire that day, and tasked the new employee with fixing the dynamo. If he could accomplish the job, then he would be hired. As the story goes, the new hire worked through the night and succeeded in getting the dynamo up and running for the voyage. This new hire was an immigrant named Nicola Tesla and his new employer was Thomas Edison. It would be one of the few times they worked together before becoming bitter rivals in the war between AC and DC electricity.
Planning a Dive
So, how does one go about diving in this area? Though the New York/New Jersey coast is a unique dive destination, admittedly, it’s not the most tourist-friendly location in the U.S. Most charters only run weekend trips; however, weekdays are typically available for private groups with some lead time to prepare a crew. The boats of the area are not affiliated with dive centers, and few have access to fill stations.
Day trips are the most common type of outing but overnighters do exist, mainly for deep-water wrecks like the Andrea Doria. It is important to obtain lodging beforehand as few boats have overnight accommodations. There are plenty of small hotels and such in adjacent areas, so once you find out where your charter leaves from you can do the research yourself or ask the operator for a recommendation.
Due to the long boat rides required to access these deep-water sites, most dive boats leave the dock somewhere between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. depending upon the destination. For deep trips you may even have to depart the night before or shortly after midnight. The area is best visited by car so that you can bring all your own equipment and tanks.
Local boats should be regarded as a barebones taxi to the shipwreck. Few provide food or water and it is recommended that you bring your own stocked cooler on board. Some boats do provide a meal but it is always wise to read their website or call the captain with specific questions.
Once on board you’ll want to ask crew members if there are any specific rules with regards to where gear is to be placed. Many boats have limited space so stay away from massive luggage. Most local divers use standard sized milk crates to stow their accessories. My charter, Tempest, actually has a storage system built into the bench to specifically fit these crates.
Preparing to Dive
The diving itself is conducted by tying directly onto the shipwrecks we visit. Usually a crew member is sent down to tie the anchor chain around some large, sturdy piece of the wreck. We call this the “tie in.” Once the line is secured, divers are free to do their dives at their own pace and are often simply given the boat’s intended time to leave the wreck for the day. The crew then logs each diver’s estimated dive time and times in and out of the water. Most vessels have a travel line (referred to as a granny line, Carolina line, etc.) that is connected somewhere in the back of the boat and attaches at the primary bow anchor line. This allows the diver to pull themselves forward without an exhausting swim. Some lines are simply a dock line with a large shackle at the anchor line. Others, such as ours, are more elaborate with several weights built into it that allow for divers to hang from it during decompression. The crew will generally inform you of what they use prior to your dive.
On the bottom, visibility and temperature vary greatly. We can have days with 5 ft of visibility and days with 100 ft (although the latter is quite rare), but the average is about 20 - 30 ft. Water temperatures range from the low 40s to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, depending upon depth. In the later months of the season thermoclines form and it’s not unusual to have balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit water at the 20-ft stop. All descents and ascents are conducted along the charter’s anchor line. Some sites are located in busy shipping lanes, and a free-floating diver can become a dangerous situation for everyone.
To avoid getting on a North Atlantic Captain’s nerves:Don’t:
• Pretend you know how to run the boat better than the Captain • Show up late or not at all
• Clog the head (toilet) or get seasick inside the head
• Lie about experience/certification
• Leave things everywhere
• Show up not knowing how much weight you need
• Surface away from the boat or drift away after jumping in
• Let tanks/equipment destroy the boat
• Cancel without notice and ask for a refund
• Send the Captain weather reports
• Arrive at the boat at least 30 minutes early for departure (earlier if it’s your first time trying to find it)• Listen during pre-dive briefing/safety briefing
•Listen to the crew and ask questions
•Respect common areas and keep gear neat
•Double check that all equipment is functioning and on the vessel prior to departure
•Understand local practices
•Run a reel
•Have a team put together before arriving
•Tip the boat crew
Obviously, there are extenuating circumstances that prevent a safe return to the anchor line. In such an eventuality it is advised that divers shoot a lift bag. A more interesting regional procedure actually includes tying off your up-line to the wreck itself and conducting your ascent on what is now essentially your own fixed anchor line. This is definitely something you’d want to practice first before attempting, but could prevent you from surfacing in a shipping channel or away from the boat in the fog.
One side note about deeper diving in the area: If your entire dive career has been spent diving in warm, clear waters or caves and you wish to visit New York/New Jersey shipwrecks, it is advisable to start off diving wrecks in a shallower range. Very often we have trained technical divers call up wishing to visit the Andrea Doria for their first northeast wreck dive. While they may be accomplished divers in their own right, the conditions of the area are such that these individuals need some work-up dives in the shallower area to become accustomed to the cold and dark depths in that range. Signing up for a deep trip can include an interview process by the boat’s captain, so divers should be prepared to detail their personal dive resume. The best advice I have for those new to this area is to talk to the boat crew throughout your trip. They are often the most seasoned veterans on board. They mostly all work part-time for fun and usually enjoy the opportunity to share their wisdom and stories.
There is a rich history of diving in this area for a reason. We have some of the last untouched pieces of legitimate unwashed history right in our backyard. No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve never had the fulfillment that comes from diving in the Northeast U.S. It’s my hope that you add it to your list of considerations when choosing your next dive trip.
This article was featured in Vol 18 No 1 of Global Underwater Explorer's Quest Journal. For this, and other great publications regarding SCUBA Diving, visit https://www.gue.com/quest. For more information about charters to New York based wreck diving, please visit EastCoastWreckDiving.com.