Diving the shipwrecks of North Carolina



By Stephen Weir

Fidgety. Overheated. Impatient. The man with the double nitrox aluminum tanks and fully accessorized dry suit (with neoprene sneakers and matching gloves and hood) waited as the dive boat was secured to the remains of a Nazi U-boat sunk off the coast of North Carolina five wars ago.
One of a dozen club members from Boston, he was sweating both figuratively and literally to get wet. For him this was the ultimate North Carolina T-shirt dive, the reason why he spent close to a day white knuckling it down the interstate to secure a berth at the end of the bench of the 55ft long dive boat Midnight Express.
To his right, a photographer from Raleigh stood in the on-deck shower area. He grabbed the ship’s hand-held fresh water hose and filled his thin 3 mm wetsuit with hot water to get himself toasty warm before jumping into the rolling Atlantic Ocean.
One diver was dressed for the south, the other for under the ice. But both were properly attired for a spring dive 35 miles offshore from ,, the epeicentre of an area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
“ At this time of year (late May) it is hard to know what to wear,” said Bobby Purifoy, the captain of Midnight Express and vice president of the Olympus Dive Center. “At the surface the water is just 64 degrees (Fahrenheit) and you feel the cold in a wetsuit, but at 40 ft you will punch through into the northbound Gulf Stream and it warms up to 74 degrees. Throughout the summer it gets really hot (80 degrees F) and the water column is uniformly warm.”
It is the presence of the clear, warm blue waters of the Gulf Stream that makes diving in the waters off North Carolina, so popular. Many of the 100 diveable wrecks are miles and miles out in the Atlantic Ocean (2 hour boat rides to the site are the norm), yet at 100 ft the water is balmy and the visibility is almost Caribbean in its clarity.
The coastline of North Carolina is protected by its Outer Banks – a string of low lying slands. Uninhabited, save for herds of wild horses, these glorified sandbars are constantly changing in shape and size, making for treacherous boating conditions. More than 2,000 ships have sunk here since people began keeping records back in 1526. This is where the cold waters of the Labrador Current (Canada’s biggest export to the state), collide with the aforementioned warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
In addition to the natural hazards, German U-boats in World War 1 and early World War 2 added hundreds more ships to the burgeoning list of lost ships. The enemy subs would lurk in these waters and pick off Allied convoy ships. Although the U-boats were deadly, they were not indestructible. U-352, the State’s most popular diveable shipwreck was sunk by the Coast Guard Cutter Icarus in 1942.
The sub was discovered in 1974 by Bobby’s father captain George Purifoy, the owner of the Olympus dive shop. The family owned operation is based in Morehead City, a seaside fishing community located at northeastern end of the state in an area known as Cape Lookout Shoals.
Looking through the Purifoy dockside shop you will see more of the sub’s neat stuff than you will in the water. The deck gun, steel hatches, the captain’s log and hundreds of other items are on display right next to the rack of U-352 T-shirts.
Although there are far better and less difficult dives to make in North Carolina, the U-352 is the one that everyone asks for. The U-Boat sits upright on the bottom with the conning tower sticking up at about a 30 degree angle. There are parts of the periscope, and some ballast tanks lying on the sand nearby.
“ Underwater there are few high points to look for. There is a broken torpedo in the forward tube and an unexploded depth charge tucked in beside the hull. I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” cautions Captain Bobby Purifoy. “ If you do try to enter the sub be careful, there is no current in there, it looks clear but, if you stir things up, the visibility will drop to zero.”
The U-352 is considered an advanced dive. It is deep (120 feet), 33 miles off-shore and ocean conditions can vary wildly in terms of current, temperature and visibility. The Olympus dive charters do not allow decompression diving -- experienced divers bring scooters so that they can see all of the crumbling 218 ft long ship in 20 minutes of bottom time.
More interesting is the nearby Papoose. A 412 ft long tanker, she was torpedoed in 1942 by a German U-boat. It took only minutes for the single screw ship to turn turtle and sink. Today the ship lies upside down, banana shaped, on the sandy bottom, 100 ft down.
It is believed that the Papoose had molasses in her holds. Now they are filled with fish; late in May the vermillion snapper was the dominant species that schooled by the thousands and thousands inside the Papoose.
“ The visibility today is 70 feet without the fish, but, with them it gets down to 10!” said Captain Bobby. He was right. The big fish – from baitfish to grouper – shroud the hull while the smaller species hide in the holds. The Papoose is the only topography in that corner of the ocean floor and slight bit of broken elevation attracts an amazing number of smallish sized fish (and their predators).
Even though divers are there for the shipwrecks some of the biggest thrills are provided by ever present man-sized sharks. Somedays the sharks number in the the hundreds around the popular dive sites.
“ 99 percent of the sharks you will see on your dive are Sand Tigers, “ said Captain Bobby as he gave a briefing at the stern of the dive boat. “They are like big dogs, they will come within inches of you. It still freaks me out a bit to see them moving in so close, but, if you don’t touch them, you won’t have a problem! We can almost guarantee shark sightings on the Papoose, there have been dives when I have counted over 150 of them on the wreck.”
The Sand Tiger (Carcharias Taurus) is like no other shark that divers will encounter. Large (they grow to 10ft) wide and with a big nose,the Sand Tiger doesn’t like to cruise, it hovers. This shark will hang motionless over the deck of a shipwreck, waiting for its next meal to come by. It can remain almost stationary because it is denser than seawater. It stays neutrally buoyant in the water column because it periodically inhales air (which it holds in its stomach) from the surface.
The wreck of the Schurz (the former Geier) is another popular place to photograph Sand Tigers. And while the nearby Papoose had reduced visibility because of the number of fish around it, viz on the Schurz can hit zero because of the sheer number of bait fish schooling on her on her.
The Geier was a 255 ft long German gunboat which was seized by the US Navy at the onset of World War 1. Renamed the Schurz, she patrolled the North Carolina coast. One evening in 1918. running without lights to escape the eye of lurking U-Boats, the Schurz collided with a steamer and sank in about 100 feet of water.
Underwater for almost a decade, the Schurz’s has been virtually destroyed by the elements. Her boilers, deck guns and anchors have spilled out of the wreck and now litter the bottom. Because of the hundreds of thousands of fish living amongst the rubble, dive boats routinely string out guidelines so that divers can find their way through the fish to the boilers and back!
Spear fishing is a big time sport for North Carolina divers. On the Midnight Express, the dive masters bring spear guns to bag groupers, flounders and big snappers. The Olympia dive shop will throws post-dive BBQs for its customers and their catch often finds its way onto the grill. Most dive shops regularly schedule lobster and spear fishing trips.
There are more than 60 dive shops in the State operating out of four major dive areas along the North Carolina coast. Morehead City dive shops have over 30 wrecks both inshore and out which they regularly take passengers. Cape Fear, Cape Hatteras and Nags Head are the three other dive districts.
Be it six pack cruisers or former oil tender boats like the Midnight Express and her sister ship the 65 ft Olympus (which can take up to 24 divers) all of the North Carolina dive boats meet Coast Guard standards and are well equipped to be at sea even when conditions are rough. A dive association has been active in sinking artificial wrecks close to shore so that divers won’t always have to endure a 2-hour boat ride to the wreck site.

North and South is a relative thing. Canadians have a long standing tradition of coming south to North Carolina. Air Canada has two daily 90 minute flights from Toronto to Raliegh. For many Canadian divers the coastline is just an 18-hour drive from Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, the state has warm sand beaches, hang ten surfing, outstanding hotels, inexpensive restaurants and golf courses galore.
And as many dry suit divers head south to see the wrecks of North Carolina there is an equal number of 3 mm wetsuit wearers who come from the deep south to dive the dives and buy the t-shirts!
Article appeared in the Toronto Star. A later version Cutline: Top. Sand Tigers patrol a sunken Nazi submarine off North Carolina.
Middle. Stephen Weir examines the remains of a sunken German U-Boat U-356
Bottom. Stephen Weir photographs Sand Tiger while state tourism photographer is about to have a close encounter of his own


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