July 12, 2011 - SUDS & Subs

July 12, 2011  •  Leave a Comment
 

 
Sand Tiger Shark inside the wreck of the Aeolus. (New)

 

     This past week at Olympus Dive Center had a few ups and downs but, in the end, the ups made it all worth while.  The boat that I captain, the Midnight Express, had a few days off in the mid week with a break in the lull on Thursday, July 7 with a trip to the wrecks of the Atlas Tanker and the Caribsea. The action on both of these sites was up to par for the season with around 30 foot of visibility, water temps on the bottom climbing in to the mid-seventies and the usual Sand Tiger Sharks gathering in mass on both sites. (See photos and video from the Atlas in last weeks Blog, "Joisey Divers".)  Many of the passengers on board had experienced some adverse weather during the week and were extremely pleased that we made it out to these wreck sites and to swim with the sharks.  With this successful day under our belts the next two days would not prove to be so fruitful.  On Friday and Saturday Mother Nature landed another one-two punch to our nether regions in the form of 20-25 knot winds and seas building as high as eight feet thus grounding the Olympus fleet from diving activities.  Everyone was, to say the least, a little vexed with this weather set back including the men from SUDS.

SUDS divers from left to right Joe Yantz, Shane Heath, John Doherty, Matt
White, Tyler Anderson and Dave McRaney. (photo courtesy of Danny Fachiola)

 

     SUDS or Soldiers Undertaking Disabled SCUBA is a 501(c) 3 non-for-profit organization and chapter of the Wounded Warrior/Disabled Sports Project founded by the Midnight Express's very own first mate, John Thompson, in Feb 2007.  Based out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, SUDS is designed to train our wounded war veterans from Irag and Afghanistan to participate in SCUBA diving offering them a fulfilling and challenging activity that can help facilitate the rehabilitation process, promote mobility and not to mention offer an opportunity for some fun while their at it.  If anyone deserves to have a good time, it's these men, who made untold sacrifices in the defense of their country.

Midnight Express first mate
and founder of SUDS,  John Thompson.

In 2007, John Thompson, while volunteering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was deeply moved by the men and women he saw healing from horrific wounds sustained in battle.  Feeling an overwhelming sense of duty to help them in what ever way he could, John decided to do what he knew best and that was teach them to dive with their disabilities.  With a staff of more than a dozen men and women volunteers John set up the SUDS program which to date has certified more than 300 men and women to dive in locations such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, St. John, Curacao, South Florida, Puerto Rico and of course the Outer Banks of North Carolina with Olympus Dive Center.

The dive boat Olympus of Olympus Dive Center.


This weekend past, Olympus Dive Center would be host to six men from SUDS on board the company flag ship, M/V Olympus captained by Robert Purifoy but, as I just mentioned the first two days of their three day excursion were 'blown out' due to foul weather.  That didn't stop these men from doing what they came here to do and that was to train and dive.  On Friday and Saturday the SUDS guys went to a nearby quarry where SUDS member John Doherty performed his open water check out dives and passed with flying colors.  Welcome to the club John!  The other SUDS guys Joe Yantz, Matt White, Tyler Anderson and Dave McRaney took part in a wreck diver specialty course with Olympus instructor Jon Belasario and by all accounts they exceeded expectations once again.

 

The SUDS Team training at the quarry.


Mean while, veteran SUDS diver, Shane Heath stood by and supported the others in their training as part of his Divemaster program, which he is currently enrolled in. Most instructors, including myself, who have trained military personnel agree that it is always a pleasure to teach them for the simple fact that they are apt at listening and carrying out instructions with precision.  It's apparent they are a product of outstanding training in the military and it carries over to their civilian lives as well.  Over all the trip to the quarry was a very productive one for them all even though they did not make it offshore to dive the wrecks the first two days.

 

Celebrity guest mate on board the "Midnight",
Gavin Vollmer of the Olympus.


However, the entire weekend was not a wash out for offshore diving for the SUDS men.  Mother Nature granted us a reprieve from the high winds and seas allowing us a dive day on Sunday July 10th.  Although the ocean was still a bumpy mess with 3-4 foot ground swells leftover from the previous 48 hours of blustery weather, it was safe and manageable enough to make it out to the wrecks of the USCG Cutter Spar with the SUDS men on board the Olympus.  John wanting to be there for the guys traded places with Olympus mate, Gavin Vollmer for the day.  Unfortunately, I would not have the honor of taking these men out diving on the 'Midnight' but I did received a full report at the end of the day.

 
Secretary of SUDS and Olympus employee,
Danny Facciola.


As told by SUDS secretary, Danny Facciola the day offshore for the men went without a tangle in every way but one.  Many of the guys apparently were feeling a little under the weather due to the unsettled seas and their defiant attitude towards Mother Ocean by staying out late the night before and not getting enough rest.  She has a way of humbling even the toughest 'salt'  and these military vets were no exception.   When the guys were done hanging their heads over the rail, they sucked it up and donned their gear on the swim deck and made a forward roll in to the water. All the men met on the hang lines under the boat and performed 'bubble checks' on each other looking for any gas leaks from their gear.  With everyone passing this test four of the guys Joe, Matt, Tyler and Dave accompanied Jon Belasario for wreck diver specialty skills down on to the Spar.  The visibility was around 40 feet and there was a slight current that would test these men a little more.  Jon would drill them on gear configuration and the utilization of wreck reels, which is a spool of string that is used for navigation in and around wrecks.  Gear configuration is very important in diving.  Knowing where your gear is and how to access it quickly at all times is critical.  For some of these men these skills are made more difficult when having to use prosthetics.  The word has it that all four did marvelously on the dive.  While these guys were off getting tested, newly certified diver John Doherty stayed close with divemaster candidate, Shane Heath and instructor Danny Facciola and swam around the wreck checking out the schools of Atlantic Spade Fish and Sand Tiger Sharks on the wreck.

 

"Someone stop the boat from moving"

The SUDS divers hangin' out.

On dive two on the Spar the wreck diver candidates penetrated in to the wreck as part of the course training.  Entering a dive environment that has no immediate exit over head can be a little tricky but, with the correct training and use of underwater lighting systems and wreck reels it can be exciting good fun.  All of the guys did great and even when Matt White dropped his light he handled the situation like a pro and managed to deal with the problem and find his way out safely with the team.  By all accounts the guys had a blast and learned a lot at the same time.


I wish I had the opportunity to dive with the SUDS team but my schedule on the 'Midnight' did not allow for this.  At least Danny and John had some good stories for me.  For example, the other night over dinner at a local restaurant John, the SUDS guys and Danny were approached by the waitress after she brought their meals and said, "are you missing anything?" Without delay one guy humbly says, "well, I'm missing a leg", while another indicates, "I'm missing several fingers" and so on.  The waitress immediately turned crimson red and ran back to the kitchen not knowing how to retort.  She had just become another victim of a group of men whose desire to have one of many needed laughs, at their own expense, was more important then not embarrassing the waitress.  You gotta love their sense of humor.  I personally am pleased that the SUDS guys squeezed off a couple of successful dives on Monday and completed some courses in the down time.  I truly hope that SCUBA diving will continue to be a part of each of their lives and become as important to them as it is to me.
 

The SUDS Team posing in front of Olympus Dive Centers statue of Neptune.



The only down side to Sunday's diving was losing my first mate, John to the Olympus.  You see, the only way I can safely and legally go diving from the boat that I am captaining is if there is another qualified and licensed captain on board while I'm diving.  John happens to be a licensed captain and my ticket to dive as well.  With him gone I was stuck being a bubble watcher from the surface.  Missing a day of diving is no big deal.  I knew I would have plenty of dive opportunities ahead of me this season and giving up a dive is the least I could do for SUDS.  It was for a good cause.

 

A Few of the gang from "The Dive Shop" readying for
a dive on board the Midnight Express.

 


Along for the ride on the 'Midnight' on Sunday was a group from "The Dive Shop" visiting us from Fairfax, VA with first timers to the Outer Banks dive experience.  We also had on board with us a group representing Venturing Crew, a Boy Scouts of America(BSA) program you can read all about in this link provided.  Headed up by 17 year old Rachel Eddowes this group of four individuals would certainly be doing some 'venturing' today wreck diving in the Atlantic Ocean.  The dive conditions for the Spar were as described above with all divers indicating they had a great time and were relieved that the weather cooperated so we could get out to enjoy the day of diving.  Once the Spar was crossed off the hit list we pulled anchor and got underway for the arduous journey over to the wreck of the Aeolus 400 feet away while the Olympus kept their parking spot on the Spar.  Both wrecks were sunk as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program around twelve years or so apart.  When the powers to be sunk the Spar it was feared that is fell atop the Aeolus.  As luck would have it that did not occur.  They are two distinct wreck sites in close proximity to each other that are both great dives.  The Aeolus in actuality is two different dives.

"The Dive Shop" instructor, and group leader,
Martin L'Heureux.
 
Barbie taking Barbie for a dive.
SCUBA Barbie wearing the
latest in dive fashion.

Sand Tiger Shark within the wreck
of the Aeolus.  (New)

 

More than ten years ago a massive hurricane swept through the region and ripped the ship in to two large pieces with many smaller ones separating the bow section from the stern section across a 150 foot debris field that is difficult to navigate across.  We would be diving the bow section today.  I briefed everyone on the wreck and asked them to please not get lost while trying to reach the stern section since making free ascents away from the dive boat in the open ocean is a dangerous undertaking when currents can sweep divers away.  On this very calm day it would be less dangerous but very inconvenient for my crew who would have to swim out several hundred feet of tag line and tow them back to the boat. Everyone made it in to the water for their dive without incident and when all divers who explored the Aeolus returned they reported a great great dive with multitudes of marine life in clear warm water.  I would have to take their word for it today and wait until tomorrow to get to see the Aeolus with my own eyes.
 

Surface interval with Venture Crew and "The Dive Shop" divers
on the sundeck of the 'Midnight' on a calm day.

 

On a brief note, after the full day passengers were dropped off at the dock, I took the Midnight Express back out for a single tank dive in the afternoon to the wreck of the USS Indra otherwise, jokingly known as the Indra Doria, after the famous luxury liner that sunk of the coast of New York in 1956 or the Indra Maru, after the outstanding Japanese wreck dives of Truk Lagoon, which are mostly merchant ships or Maru's.  The full boat was rounded out by the dive club Cape Cod Divers who are with us all week.  More on them in the next blog report.  The conditions were a respectable 20 feet of visibility and 77 degree water top to bottom.  Considering there were 6 foot seas rolling over this wreck the day before we were happy to find the conditions this good.

Cape Cod Divers Troy,  Bryan and Jodi.

 

 

Olympus Dive Instructor, notorious 'Aunt"
killer and my girlfriend, Annette Papa hamming
it up for the camera.



Monday, July 11
After crawling out of bed on Monday morning at 0445 I head to the kitchen to grab my equivalent of a cup of coffee, a large glass of orange juice and discover a marauding army of brown ants had taken over my galley.  There was a line of them traversing my ceiling right in to the cupboard as well as a swarm in the sink devouring the scraps of jam in a jar left there the day previous.  Now, I don't have a problem with insects and with my travel experience I am no stranger to them and even worse vermin.  They have a purpose in the grand scheme of things but, once they make the mistake of invading my home and space the gloves come off.   I wanted to start decimating them immediately but I had to get to work so I set off writing my girlfriend Annette a letter indicating the problem and what to do about it when she awoke. "Buy aunt poison and kill them all!" I write bold faced.  Annette must have been a little distraught as to why I wanted to poison her aunts but she figured out my typo in the nick of time.  Fast forwarding to the end of the day I come home and there is Annette armed to the teeth with ant traps, spray guns and even non-carcinogenic remedies she brewed up from recipes found on Google.  'Zap', she hits an unarmed ant on the window sill.  She had the look of a killer on her face who had just seen battle.  There were dead ants (not aunts thank goodness) everywhere.  I asked "did you spend your entire day off from work killing ants?" where she answered excitedly "they mess with the bull they get the horns".  That's my girl!

 

An office with a serious view.


While Annette was putting notches in her gun I was heading offshore to the wreck of the Aeolus once again but, this time to explore the other half of the ship, the stern section.  We had on board the group from "The Dive Shop" and the Cape Cod Divers as well.  The trip out was one of the nicest I have had all season.  With a gentle ground swell rolling out of the southwest and barely a puff of wind, the ride was more than comfortable but delightful.  First mate, John Thompson, found his way back on board the 'Midnight' and would have the honor of jumping in to tie us off to the upper section of the Aeolus.  Once he secures us to the wreck he informs me that the viz is a little better than yesterday and that there is a NST (non Sand Tiger) shark roaming about as well as a half dozen ST's as well.  I once again brief the divers and add on at the end that I want everyone to check and recheck everything before they head in to the water.  "It's the calm days where divers get lax and forget something so let's be on our toes today" I say.  Everyone agreed.

 
Venture Crew leader Rachel Eddowes enjoying a snorkel after her dive.
 
Perfect giant stride entry by ECU's finest Stephanie Harper.
Love those fins!
Stephanie, chalking up another awesome dive towards
her nitrox certification.

Notice the flat calm seas behind this returning diver.

Don't forget your fins.

Jodi, Bryan and Troy from Cape Cod Divers are sporting state of the art rebreather dive units and are the first ones ready to make the jump without delay in to the water.  David, also from the Cape, follows after them with a comfy dry suit and a standard open circuit SCUBA unit.  The other divers, some of which are novices, look at these crazy looking rebreather rigs and say "where are they going...outer space?".    "In a way, sure", I say to myself.  The rest of the gang waste little time and with the calm seas and the steady boat gearing up and entering the water is a piece of cake.  As the divers begin to return, all with smiles on there faces, I get reports of Sand Tiger Sharks milling around unconcerned inside the mid section of the wreck.  I immediately have a dive plan set in my head that includes snapping some pictures of these sharks within the wreck with ambient light shining in from the sides and ceiling.  All the divers make it back safe and sound each with positive things to say about their dive.  Finally, I can climb in to my gear, which has been collecting dry rot in the corner of the dive deck for the last week, and head down for a much needed dive on the Aeolus. 

Dale gearing up for a splash on the Aeolus.


As I swim down the anchor line, the first thing I see is what I believe to be a Gray Reef Shark or a Sand Bar Shark cruising by in mid water but, I was not sure which one due to it being too far away to tell.  I could have hovered around and waited for it to come back but, I had a dive plan in my head and I was going to stick to it.  I start off heading down the port side companionway in the hopes of seeing a shark swimming towards me and firing off a few shots.  As luck would have it I see one heading towards me but I notice from the distance that it was a newborn at no longer than 3 feet or so in length.  I squeeze off a shot or two but the little guy was barely noticeable in the frame so I moved on.  As I look to my right inside the remains of the wreck I can see shadows lurking around inside that were most likely Sand Tiger Sharks.

Sand Tiger Shark in the companionway. (New)

 

Another perfect pose from my fave model. (New)

 

Up close and personal with Carcharias Taurus. (New)

 

Getting shots of sharks inside the wreck to me is very desirable.  Sharks by themselves are interesting but, when you can combine them with another element such as a phenomenal ship wreck you can achieve an even more eye grabbing shot.  As I rounded the corner at the end of the companionway, I look inside and sure enough there are several sharks swimming about with little concern to my presence.  I set my strobes and my exposure and find a good spot with an interesting backdrop to start blazing away.  The repeated bright glare and flash from my strobes does not alarm them at all and they continue to swim around in circles offering perfect poses to my lens. "What luck", I say to myself.  "I can't find humans that can pose this well" After about 30 minutes my dive computer tells me it is time to go.  I could have easily sat there for another 30 minutes and shot more but duty called and it was time to return to the boat.  After climbing the ladders I had a great sense of accomplishment.  The dive was great, I nailed a few decent photos and everyone was having a great time on this calm day on the ocean.  This is what it is all about.  The rough weather, the greasy boat maintenance, the early rises etc.  It is all worth it.


Sea fans such as you see on the bottom
add stunning color to the wreck of
the Aeolus. (New)


Our second dive this day was to be on the U-352.  Most had never been on this epic German WWII sub and those that had were more than happy to do it again.  The visibility was at least 50 feet while other reported 70 feet.  Bryan Burnham from Cape Cod Divers stated "to be able to see so much of the sub at once was great!" Similar comments continued to come in from the other divers as they returned to the deck. I love days like this but sadly, the days diving was over and it was time to head home once the last diver emerged. The ride in was beautiful. I had hoped that a pod of dolphins would join us and ride along our bow but I guess I was asking for too much on this already near perfect day. Dolphins would not do us the honor by showing up at my invite. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

 


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