August 16, 2011 - Sea Trials

August 16, 2011  •  Leave a Comment
To all those who are new to my blog, to get the gist of it please read, "Welcome Aboard",  from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports. Visit to see video shorts from the 2011 season at Olympus Dive Center and click here for more info about myself.

Photo of the Week
Sunrise on the Morehead City Waterfront.
This past week was full of challenges for myself and the crew of the Midnight Express in delivering top notch diving to the divers visiting us at Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, North Carolina. We have been tested day after day by Mother Nature. Between strong currents, squalls and heavy wind and seas I was put through the ringer but, in the end we managed to dive every day.  We may not have been able to get to where we wanted to go but, we got out and had great dives all the same.
Olympus Dive Center.
On Thursday August, 11th I arrived at the dock with what seemed to be a perfect weather day. The skies were clear and the winds were low with a flat calm sea. The passengers had requested a dive on the W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose which is a long run offshore and I could not see any reason to not accommodate their request. The Papoose has been a hot dive site this season. If you have not already seen them check out these Videos on my web site to prove my point. After motoring two hours over a flat calm sea we arrived at the W.E. Hutton without a hitch. I pulled back the throttles and slowed the boat down to a crawl to allow my crew to prepare to get the anchor ready to tie in to the wreck. As soon as the boat came to a near halt a pod of dolphins came up under the pulpit inviting us to play. With barely a ripple in the waters surface one could look down and see the Dolphins as clear as day and there even was a pair engaged in mating! A bunch of ooh's and aahs from the divers on board proceeded this act of marine exhibitionism. The fact that Dolphins can get away with having sex in public while everyone watches not only approvingly but enthusiastically is yet another reason to love these creatures.

Without further delay I pulled up over the wreck and yelled out to my first mate, John Thomson, "OK go ahead!" where he immediately jumped over the edge and headed down to the wreck. It was at this point that something was amiss. While waiting for John to tie us in to the wreck I was having difficulty maintaining my position over the GPS waypoint number. I kept getting pulled off the wreck while the anchor line trailed underneath the boat. "Damn, current!" I thought to myself. Sure enough, John moments later radioed up to me on the com from his full face mask that there was plenty of current all the way to the bottom. He indicated that he was having difficulty just making way in to it. At some point he made the call that there was no way we could safely dive this wreck and that he was coming up. Even if a diver could make it down they probably would not enjoy themselves holding on to the anchor line for dear life with the ocean whizzing past your face during the course of their entire dive. It was a bummer. A perfect day for a dive with sharks on the Papoose and we got chased away by current. Plan B was to head a little closer in shore to the wrecks of the Spar and Aeolus, (which are only 400 feet apart) where traditionally you will find less current and dive on these sites. Indeed once we got hooked in it was discovered that the current was much less. After completing two great dives here with Sand Tigers and Mermaids I headed the boat for home thankful that we were able to dive at all today.

Beautiful Sea Fans on the Wreck of the Aeolus.

A handful of the gang from A-1 SCUBA.

The following day on Friday August 12th the Midnight was host to the dive group from A-1 SCUBA in Trevose, PA.  For many years now Alan Moss and Jennifer Mayfield have been bringing their divers to North Carolina to dive with Olympus Dive Center and it was a pleasure to have them back with us once again. After discussing with Alan and Jennifer where they wanted to dive it was decided that we would bang out a trip to the, you guessed it, the U-352. Once again sea conditions would make for a fairly easy run out to the sub with the exception of one thing. A huge storm system was sitting directly over where the wreck of the U-352 lays. Rain by itself is not enough to deter me from driving through a squall but when you see major lighting within the storm respect should be given and the storm stayed clear of if you can help it. So staying clear of it was what I did. I made a detour over to the Aeolus which was on the fringe of the storm and sat there adrift waiting to see what it would do. Eventually it drifted off and cleared out of the area but not before wasting 90 minutes of mine and everyones morning. We decided to dive the Aeolus for the first dive and then head to the U-352 for the second dive. The Aeolus has had a decent sized population of Sand Tiger Sharks lingering about most of the season and these divers understandably wanted to see sharks.
A toothy Sand Tiger Shark inside the wreck of the Aeolus.

With the visibility around 40 feet or so and plenty of sharks and other marine life around, all the divers had a great time including myself for I managed to sneak away for a dive with my camera and score a few nice shots that you can see within this blog. The dive was so enjoyable for everyone that they unanimously decided to stay for the second dive with the hope of diving the sub the next day. By the end of the day I had a boat load of sated SCUBA divers on board heading for home. Even though everyone had a good experience today and the day before I couldn't help feel like a spoiled child who was not allowed to go diving where I wanted to go. I shrugged it off and figured tomorrow was going to be better. I was wrong.
Sand Tiger Shark and Magenta Sea Fans on the
Wreck of the Aeolus.

On Saturday August 13th the weather forecast stated: "10-15 knots of wind from the south east with 2-4 foot seas. Not bad really but for one thing. The forecast was wrong. After motoring 2 hours out to the U-352 with A-1 SCUBA once again we attempted to tie up to the sub in 3-5' seas blowing 15-20 knots which is on the fringe for a safe dive. This time I motored up to the drop point in these rather dodgy seas and dropped my mate John over my waypoint. A minute later he radioed up and said he was on the conning tower of the sub. Great you might think except I dropped him on the Stern which is 100 feet away. To make matters worse as John struggled to tie us in with a stiff current on the bottom I was getting pushed around by the surface current like a freshman on my first day of high school. To make matters worse this intense current was pushing me up in to the wind and seas! John was able to secure the hook on to the wreck while my mate, Mike and I, struggled for another five minutes before pulling in all the slack line that had been spent over the side of the boat while fighting with the current. Once all was secure I looked over the side of the boat and there we were completely side to the 3-5 foot seas and 20 knots of wind. "Ugh" I muttered to myself but it probably was more of an expletive than "ugh". I decided this was once again an unsafe dive environment and pulled the hook, recovered my diver and turned the boat towards are 'go to' wreck site, the USS Indra which was more than twenty miles back the way we came from. At this point I was getting pissed off. Pissed at what exactly I do not know. My divers were very understanding and my crew was doing an exemplary job. Being angry at NOAA for supplying a faulty forecast is a lame excuse since they get it wrong most of the time anyway and should not be trusted. Having a grudge and being disrespectful against Mother Nature is pointless and downright dangerous. So what was my problem? I guess I just got tired of being pushed around for three days straight. My father might say something like, "get used it it. Your a guest out on the ocean and only get to be there when she allows it." or something like that. Solid words to live by though.
Jennifer Mayfield of A-1 SCUBA after a great dive.
We pulled up to the Indra one hour later but the ocean was still a little bumpy to say the least. Once the boat was secured to the wreck a huge 7 foot swell rolled under the boat stretching the anchor line taught like a piano wire. This huge swell was maybe sent as a reminder to get my attitude right and it did just that. After the big swell it seemed to return to the usual 3-5 footers and I opened the pool for the A-1 divers to check out the Indra. In short, we stayed here for the next two dives with visibility around 30 feet or so. Even though we did not get to dive offshore and see the U-352 I barely heard a single complaint all day even with the less than calm conditions. If it weren't for these divers and there easy going attitude I may have popped an o-ring. I went home that night, sat on the couch and drank a beer before passing out at 8PM feeling slightly beat up and a tad defeated.

A-1 diver chilling out on surface interval.

I didn't know dive computers had
video games.
Diver receiving the 'fin treatment' on board the 'Midnight'.

On Sunday I awoke and checked the NOAA buoy reports to discover that the wind was still blowing hard offshore and the seas had built even larger than the day before. I figured we may have to spend another day diving close to the beach in shallow water where it may have been calmer. I was happily mistaken. By the time the 'Midnight' shoved off the winds started to drop right out. I pointed the boat due south towards the Papoose and only hoped for the best. If the seas allowed us to make the 32 mile trip I would only have to worry about the rugged currents plaguing us these past days. I was no longer optimistic or pessimistic but a true realist. I could only do what nature allowed me to do and that's it. After tying up to the wreck I was extremely pleased that the current had dropped somewhat. It was still present but very manageable. Finally, a minor victory that we would get a chance to dive a wreck that we set out for. I briefed all the divers on the conditions and indicated that today would be a good day to stay on the anchor line during your descent until the current slacked off on the bottom.
Another A-1 dive.

All the divers excitedly suited up and jumped in for the dive pulling themselves hand over hand down the anchor line in to the current until they vanished from sight. As they returned it was apparent that the dive was a huge hit. Decent 'vis', warm water in the mid eighties and plenty of Sand Tiger Sharks to be seen. Surprisingly, Jennifer and Alan requested we stay for two dives. "What the heck" I said.  "Why not?" So we stayed for two dives on the Papoose ending the three day A-1 charter on a very high note for myself, my crew and all the divers. I was relieved. I managed to persevere the sea trials thrown at me over the last four days and have fun with safe dives on the wrecks of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Without fail, I'm sure that there will be plenty of tests in the future though. Maybe that's what makes diving here so exciting and this work so addicting.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

PS: Photo Tips of the Week will be delayed due to the late hour, lack of dinner on the table and an early rise for a charter tomorrow.

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Please visit my web site to see video excerpts from my documentary films and a complete underwater photographic portfolio of my work and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.

If you wish to dive Graveyard of the Atlantic contact Olympus Dive Center for more information.

Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
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