The Outer Limits
North Carolina's Top Ten Wrecks Dives
Story & by ©Mike Gerken
Images by ©Mike Gerken, ©Scott Johnson & ©Chris Walker
(As Published in Scuba Diving Magazine; Mar/Apr 2013)
Hovering in a gentle current, marine life is thick all around the Wreck of the Aeolus. Feisty jacks, frantic tunnies and numerous other menacing predators patrol the perimeter of the wreck in pursuit of frenzied baitfish. A dozen or more hulking barracudas loiter around in mid-water like thugs on a street corner, while from a safe distance, countless weary groupers mill about on the bottom trying to make sense of the noisy invader. The spectacle grows only more intense as I discover a dozen or more sand tiger sharks inside the wreck. They show no fear as I approach. With the exception of my camera trigger finger firing off photographs, I remain motionless under the top deck of the wreck while the sharks swim round and round within arms reach. One after another, they bump in to my dome port with menacing ragged teeth bared. Even the repetitive bursts from my strobes won’t startle them. The subject matter is perfect, and scoring great images comes easy — just another banner dive day on the Outer Banks.
As long as ships have sailed across the Atlantic, they have found their way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But the 150 miles of beautiful barrier islands were not a welcomed site for some of these intrepid vessels. Many met their doom here, victims of hazardous shoals, rough waters, German U-boat attack or simple human error. The tragic irony is how these sunken ships have now become a haven for divers who visit here to explore the remains and experience the amazing marine life that inhabits them.
Diving the wrecks of North Carolina can require patience at times due to occasional heavy winds and strong currents that create challenging conditions, and sometimes keeps dive boats tied to the dock. The one- to two-hour passage offshore into the Atlantic can be tough on those who lack the seasoned stomach for open ocean travel. And because average depths run around 110 feet, novice divers might be intimidated. But there are some fantastic inshore wreck sites that sit in only 60 feet of water that have entertained beginners for years and with the bonus of a much shorter boat ride. These shallow wrecks are also great for conducting training dives and building up skills and confidence to venture offshore to the deeper wreck sites with stronger currents. And when the warm clear waters of the Gulf Stream push further north and closer to the coast during the summer months, dive conditions can verge on tropical, with water temperatures reaching the low 80s on the surface and visibility sometimes exceeding 100 feet.
To those who frequent the region, the challenges of the Outer Banks is a right of passage, and well worth the access to these world-class wrecks. Because on any given day, an offshore dive here can produce a once-in-a-lifetime underwater experience. In other words, when its good, it’s awesome and worth every effort.
Top Ten Wrecks
No. 1: U-352
Without a doubt, one of the biggest draws to the Outer Banks is the opportunity to dive on this historic World War II German U-boat. On May 9, 1942, the U-352 was cruising close to the North Carolina coast in search of enemy targets when she picked a fight with the wrong ship. The scrappy USCG Cutter Icarus was on her game that day when the U-352 opened fired with torpedoes and missed. In retaliation, the Icarus launched depth charges and sunk the U-352 in 110 feet of water, 28 nautical miles south of Morehead City. Thirteen men perished in the attack while 33 survivors were picked up by the Icarus and retuned to Charleston where they spent the rest of the war as prisoners. Sitting with a 45-degree list to starboard and her conning tower intact, the U-352 fascinates divers and strikes at their imagination when they get a glimpse of a this amazing piece of WWII history.
No. 2: Papoose
The wreck of the Papoose has a convoluted history since in actuality it is the wreck W.E. Hutton. During the early stages of WWII, German U-boats wreaked havoc along the Eastern seaboard sinking numerous Allied merchant ships. In the confusion, the wreck of the W.E. Hutton was misidentified by the United States Navy and thought to be the wreck of the Papoose. Even though this mystery has been solved, most still refer to the ‘Hutton’ as the Papoose. Sitting upside down in 120 feet of water, the 435-foot tanker is a favorite to many divers who come to see the plethora of marine life that includes the sand tiger sharks that are seen here with regularity. With the Papoose resting nearly 36 nautical miles from shore, its popularity is increased due to the clear waters of the Gulf Stream; 100 foot of visibility is not unheard of on the Papoose aka W.E. Hutton.
No. 3: USCG Cutter Spar
Not all the wrecks of North Carolina met their end due to tragic events. The USCG Cutter Spar is one of the many wrecks sent to the bottom as part of the North Carolina artificial reef project. The 180-foot buoy tender sits in 110 feet of water with a strong list to port. It has become a very popular dive because it’s fully intact, easily navigable and a favorite hangout for sand tiger sharks, schools of Atlantic spadefish and the occasional giant southern stingray. Amazingly, the Spar was moved 200 feet from her original location and rolled over on her port side when Hurricane Irene struck the coast in August 2011. She weathered the storm intact, though — a tough little ship.
No. 4: USS Schurz
The captured World War I German gunship, the USS Schurz, is a classic North Carolina wreck dive. The 255-foot ship was sunk June 21, 1918, 30 nautical miles south of Beaufort Inlet, after colliding with the SS Florida while sailing at night. When discovered in the 1980s it was a popular dive for those seeking to reclaim artifacts and take home a small piece of history. Brass portholes, crew personal effects and weapons were some of the many items removed. Today, it is illegal to take artifacts from the Schurz and most are content to see the beautiful reef system this wreck site has become. Colorful sea fans, abundant marine life, dense schools of baitfish and the occasional shark keep divers returning year after year to this treasure trove of a dive site.
No. 5: Caribsea
One of my personal favorites, the wreck of the Caribsea is one of those hit and miss dive sites. Notorious for low visibility conditions as well as large schools of sand tiger sharks, this dive can be a top shelf experience when the blue water pushes in on rare days, exposing up to 100 sand tiger sharks in one spot. Sunk on March 11, 1942, by a German U-boat attack, this 251-foot freighter sits in 90 feet of water on the east side of Cape Lookout Shoals. Scientists believe the sand tiger sharks gather here during the summer months to mate.
No. 6: Aeolus
The Aeolus is another one of North Carolina’s popular wrecks that was sunk as part of the artificial reef program and only a few hundred feet from the wreck of the Spar. This 400-foot wreck sits in 110 feet of water and was split in two during a powerful hurricane that swept through the region in the 1990s. During the 2012 dive season, the Aeolus became home to approximately a dozen sand tiger sharks that took up residence inside the wreck. Divers returned day after day to swim right amongst the sharks in what became known as ‘Club Aeolus,’ North Carolina’s coolest shark lounge.
No. 7: Proteous
No top ten list for North Carolina would be complete without including this gem of a wreck. The 390-foot luxury steam liner, Proteous sunk on August 19, 1918, in a collision with the SS Cushing approximately 20 nautical miles south of Cape Hatteras. Mostly a low-lying debris field, with the exception of the prominent stern and propeller, she was popular dive for artifact hunters during the 80s and 90s. Today, it is a hot spot for shark sightings, vast numbers of grouper and big pelagic life, such as African Pompano, giant amberjacks and barracudas. The added feature of the regular appearance of clear warm Gulf Stream water makes it an impressive dive.
No. 8: Atlas
Another victim of a German U-boat attack, the 430-foot Atlas tanker was sunk on April 9, 1942, only a few miles from the wreck of the Caribsea in 115 feet of water. Like the Caribsea, the visibility on the Atlas can sometimes be less than 20 feet, but when the blue water rolls in this wreck site is a showstopper. Enormous sand tiger sharks at a whopping 10 feet in length can be seen patrolling the wreck by the dozen. The marine life is thick on this wreck and an opportunity to dive it should not be missed.
No. 9: USS Indra
The wreck of the USS Indra has many humorous aliases, such as the Indra Maru after the famed Japanese wrecks of Truk Lagoon, or the Indra Doria after the mount Everest of wreck dives, the Andrea Doria. This 330-foot landing craft was sunk in 60 feet of water only 10 miles from Beaufort Inlet as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program. Since the 1990s she has been visited by more divers probably then any other wreck off the Outer Banks. Because she is partially intact, sitting upright and within close proximity to Morehead City, she attracts both novice and advanced divers, alike. Whatever you call the ”Indra,” she is a legendary wreck site in her own right.
No. 10: Naeco
On March 23, 1942, the 411-foot Naeco went down in a fiery mess at the hands of yet another German U-boat attack in World War II. Today, the ship sits in two distinct pieces about a mile apart some 38 nautical miles due south of Morehead City. This wreck, which sits in an average of 140 feet, is as far offshore as dive boats will venture. With clear, warm Gulf Stream water being the standard conditions here, it appeals to those divers who don’t mind the deeper depths.
Need To Know
When to Go The dive season on the Outer Banks kicks off around April and picks up full steam June through October with peak months in July and August.
Dive Conditions The water warms up to the mid-70s typically by June and tops off into the 80s in July and August. Visibility is at the mercy of Mother Nature but tends to be an average of 50 feet during peak season. One hundred foot vis days are not unheard of.
Operators With more than 25 years of experience diving the wrecks of the Outer Banks, Olympus Dive Center (olympusdiving.com) in Morehead City is a good bet for getting to the top wrecks. For smaller charters, try the Atlantis V (atlantischarters.net), a six-pack boat out of Atlantic Beach.
Price Tag The charter fee depends on whether you’re diving tec or rec. Inshore single-tank shallow dives start at $65, with full-day offshore charters ranging from $125 to $165 (tanks, air fills and rental gear not included). Stay at the Olympus Divers Lodge for $25 per night, or numerous local hotels/motels ranging from $55 to $200 per night during peak season.
Be patient when diving the Outer Banks and try not to be discouraged when the weather creates adverse dive days. If you go out enough, it is only a matter of time before you will have a dive experience that will last a lifetime.
If you’re prone to seasickness, don’t forget to take your medication and get plenty of rest and avoid acidic foods before departure. Pass on the orange juice at breakfast.
In the event of bad weather, book at least four days of diving in case you loose one or two days due to cancelled charters. If WWII history is your thing, then request a dive on the U-352 without fail with a second dive on the USCG Cutter Spar for the sand tiger shark action. On day two, try the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose for a slightly deeper dive experience and end up on the wreck of the Aeolus or USS Schurz for dive two. They are all in the same vicinity. When the visibility is good, don’t miss out on the shark encounters on the Caribsea and the Atlas.
A full day of diving offshore will work up any ones appetite. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the Morehead City area such as Floyd’s 1921 in Morehead City that serves up southern style cooking with a gourmet flare.
If you can’t see fish underwater due to bad weather, then no worries, there is plenty to do on the Outer Banks. Visit the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium and check out the fantastic exhibits on display or spend a day at one of the many famous beaches and relax under your umbrella running your feet through the sand and taking a dip in the warm Carolina waters. Also, the Civil War museum at Fort Macon at the entrance to Beaufort Inlet or the Maritime Museum in the quaint town of Beaufort will entertain any history buff.