May 30, 2011 - Sand Tiger Shark Invasion!
More images and video for this blog at my web site Evolution Underwater Imaging Mikes' Blog 5/30/2011
In the last nine days my crew and I have run nine full day charters and four half day charters on the "Midnight Express" with the Olympus Dive Center. It was a great stretch with some stellar diving but today we have a day off for some well needed rest and to catch you all up on the details of the week.
First off I wanted to say thanks to the Sea Gypsies dive club from New York City for spending the better part of the week diving with us. We had great weather and dive conditions and hit a wide range of wrecks from the Hutton (a.k.a Papoose) to the USS Schurz and the Atlas Tanker. The Sea Gypsies did a good job of covering all the main wreck sites including the obligatory trip to the U352.
The wreck of the Hutton aka Papoose lies 36nm due south of Morehead City and is one of the longest runs that we will do on a regular day charter. If the weather cooperates it usually takes upwards of two hours to get out there but when the dive conditions are good (and they were) then it is well worth the effort. Generally speaking the further you venture south and in to the Atlantic Ocean the closer you come to the Gulf Stream waters that move up the East Coast of the US from the warm clear tropical waters of the Caribbean and the South Atlantic. On occasions the visibility on the Hutton can exceed 100 feet. On this day however the viz was a pleasant 50-60 feet. As captain of the "Midnight Express" I have to sit atop and wait for all the divers to return and tell me how great a dive it was before I can slap a tank on and head down for a looksie. The benefit is if you listen carefully you can ascertain where all the hot spots are on the wreck. Once all the 'Gypsies' returned safely and told me what they saw and where they saw it, I donned my gear and grabbed my underwater housing containing a Nikon D300 with a 12-24mm Nikkor Lens and headed to the bottom.
The first thing that became apparent to me was the multitudes of Groupers who looked like they have fed well over the winter. Fat and large they were. I was not interested in photographing them though because all too often they are very hard to approach due to them watching a few of there not so smart buddies wind up on the end of a spear shaft. So I turned my attention to the Sand Tigers who as usual were very cooperative. I managed to get off a few good shots but due to the deeper depths my bottom time ran out and it was time to head up. I was hoping to spot a Sea Turtle or a Giant Southern Stingray but unfortunately not today. All in all a very good dive though.
One of the best dives of the week in my humblest of opinions was the USS Schurz. The visibility was easily 60+ feet on the bottom with a plethora of marine life. We even had a half a dozen Sand Tigers wandering around the wreck which is not unusual but rare to have that many on this site. The swarms of bait fish twirling around and undulating back and forth was mesmerizing. No matter how wonderful a photo you take of this phenomenon it does no justice as to seeing it live with your own two eyes. A note of highlight on this dive was the numerous juvenile Lionfish inhabiting most of the wreck. Last year we saw a significant drop off in them most likely due to the cold winter but it would seem as though they are starting to move back in. I will be writing a blog on Lionfish later on in the week so stay tuned for more on that topic.
Towards the end of the week the 'Gypsies' had hit many of the highlight wreck sites so I offered to take them to a wreck that we do not visit frequently, the Atlas Tanker. The Atlas lies on the Eastern side of Lookout Shoals of the Outer Banks of NC and was sunk by a U-Boat in WWII. The visibility of the water has a tendency to be green and brown colored. The haze that is created leaves the wreckage with a ghostly feeling. Over the years many divers swear that the Atlas is a haunted wreck. Take this eerie setting and add dozens of Sand Tiger Sharks to it and then you now have a formula for one heck of an adrenaline pumping dive. You will be swimming along the wreck and slowly a 8-10 foot dark shadow with teeth emerges from the haze and then another one passes by you from behind and then another from underneath and others from all directions. For some this dive is a thrill seekers dream while for others it is just down right creepy nightmare. As for myself, I will dive with these enigmatic critters in any condition.
I had heard from another dive boat captain in the area that the wreck had about 40 feet of visibility with many sharks milling about but this report was over a week old. The conditions change on that wreck sometimes over night and the viz could have dropped to less than 10 feet. On the other hand it could have remained the same or better yet improved. Due to the wind and weather patterns we had experienced all week I decided to give it a shot and the 'Sea Gypsies' were up for some excitement. We headed through the shallow slot of Lookout Shoals and proceeded over to the Atlas. As we approached the Atlas I didn't have to tell my mate, Mike to abort tying up to the wreck with the anchor if the conditions were not optimal. Last year he jumped in on the Atlas to tie in and couldn't see his fins on his feet a few feet away. That dive was scrubbed. He later indicated that he felt like there was something watching him from the outer limits of the mirky water.
This time however Mike jumped in and tied up in the matter of a minute or so and radioed up to me that the visibility was at least 40 feet on the bottom and 50-70 feet above the upper parts of the wreck and there were Sand Tigers everywhere! "Gideeup, I said to myself. I knew we were going to have some fun. After delivering the great news to the divers getting them in the water in a timely fashion was easy enough. Pretty soon the deck was clear and it was time to sit watch and wait for the divers to return.
One by one they came back. "Oh my God" said one. Holy @!$*", said another. I have never seen so many sharks" was a common statement. After about the seventh or eight diver returned with numerous superlatives I couldn't get them back on the boat quickly enough so I could hop in and check out the scenery below. Soon I was popping my regulator in my mouth and hopping over the side with camera in hand. Sure enough there were dozens of sharks in your view at any given time on any given section of the wreck. I quickly started shooting trying to get a single image that described the multitudes of sharks swimming about but was having poor luck due to the slight haze in the water. I was just too far away from the subjects to get that shot clearly. So I returned to the boat to discover that unanimously all divers wanted to stay for another dive on the Atlas. No problem. I would be happy to oblige.
After everyone completed there second dive I jump back in for a short 10 minute dive and shoot some video to which I thought might do some justice to the magnitude of sharks in the water. I will let the video I shot speak for itself. You can see it here at this link at my web site:
ATLAS TANKER VIDEO click here
Let me not forget to mention that the Sharks were not the only component of the underwater menagerie on the wreck this day. There was a school of angry looking bluefish darting in and out looking for a meal while another school of Amberjacks kept circling me with what seemed like a Mona Lisa smiles on there faces. Hyper active Spanish Mackerel by the dozens occasionally swam in causing sheer panic amongst the bottom of the food chain dwellers of the wreck, the swarms of tiny bait fish. It really was a wonder to look at this amazing underwater ecosystem at work. I was pleased and grateful that Mother Nature sent in clear waters to the Atlas so we could have a look at it. Once we left the Atlas that day I suspected that with this news it would be only a matter of days before we would return and we did just that.
For most, Friday was the last day of diving for the Sea Gypsies. They were a great bunch of safe and easy going divers who were very easy to please. Everyone at Olympus looks forward to there return especially myself. Say hello to the Big Apple for me and if you could, mail me a dozen everything bagels from 'Murray's Bagels' in the Village and in exchange I will take you back to the Atlas on your next visit.
Memorial Day Weekend
On Saturday and Sunday, the Midnight was chartered by a group from Dive Inn Watersports from Michigan. These die hard divers road tripped more than 800 miles to dive the coast of North Carolina for only two days of diving. The pressure was on to deliver some world class dives to these folks in short window of opportunity. Understandably, there primary goal was to see the U-352 so I happily took them out there on the first morning. The ride was an unusually long one due to a system of squalls that had to be circumnavigated on the way out. After about two hours we managed to get anchored up on the sub and although the conditions were not rough they certainly weren't calm either. Many were feeling the effect of sea sickness and wanted to get in the water as soon as possible and that they did. The visibility on the Sub was about 30-40 feet which is ample to get a feel for this historically rich wreck site. Once all divers had there fill of the U-352 it was time to give them a glimpse of the USCG Cutter Spar with the hopes of seeing a few sharks. The wind and seas began to calm down and some on board began to get there sea legs back and enjoy the day to the fullest. The conditions on the Spar were great with 40 foot of viz and maybe 70 degrees on the bottom. There were some sharks on the wreck but not as many as the norm. All seemed to have a very pleasant dive regardless of the number of sharks present.
On Sunday, as predicted, rumor of the stupendous dive two days prior began to spread to the gang from Michigan and sure enough I was on course for the Atlas with a big 'shark' eating grin on my face. In short, the first dive went very much the same with numerous sharks and marine life going to and fro around the wreck. One of the first divers from Michigan returning from dive number one was still on the ladder when he shouted "Be green, save fuel and lets dive the Atlas again for a second". All concurred with this fella and I certainly did not argue either. I would be happy to stay. So we did a second dive with the horde of Sand Tigers and all their cohorts with continued excitement by all participants. On the ride home I was hoping that the long journey from Michigan for the Dive Inn Watersports crowd was worth it for them. I suspected that it was. The U-352, Spar and the Atlas delivered some great conditions and hopefully some memorable dives for all of them. We hope to see you all back again soon.
Lastly let me thank the rest of the divers who chartered with the "Midnight Express" this past week who did not get mentioned especially the guys from ECU who offered me there lunch without hesitation (I did not accept of course), the gentleman from the USCG station in Elizabeth City and all the others. We hope to see you and your friends back here soon.
Please visit my Facebook business page at Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken) and don't forget to click "like".
If you would like to dive with us in North Carolina please contact www.olympusdiving.com and get the latest schedule, rates and condition reports.
Also please visit my web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to see a complete portfolio of my photography and documentary films plus additonal images shot this past week.
Stay tuned for more blogs to come.
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