IVS Heads South to the Land of Dixie

The Basic Facts…
It’s summer time and you know what that means…the Gulf Stream has shifted westward and is at its closest proximity to the continental US. In areas such as Beaufort, NC, where the coast juts out into the Atlantic, that means the warm clear waters traveling northward from the Gulf of Mexico are within 15 or so miles offshore and very reachable by boat.

IVS Trip to Cooper River July 4-6, 2011

The IVS Team with Some Serious Shark Teeth at Cooper River

So it is not coincidental that we have scheduled our first North Carolina dive adventure for this holiday weekend. We’ll spend three days diving the wrecks off the coast there, then we’ll depart on the evening of July 4th to enjoy a collection of fireworks displays as we travel down the highway. Some of us will head north and homeward, while the more adventurous (or crazy!) will head south to dive in the murky alligator-filled waters of the Cooper River, in search of fossilized Megaladon sharks teeth.

Traveling South…
But first we need to get to North Carolina, and of course that might make for an adventure in itself! Some of us, like Csaba Lorinczy, daughter Niki, and Craig Bentley, opt to head down an entire day early. They depart Thursday evening, stopping in the big honkin’ RV at a campground on the way down, and arrive in NC early Friday morning. Early enough, in fact, that they were able to get a 1-tank dive in on Friday afternoon with Olympus Dive Center, visiting the Indra. Conditions were acceptable, with 30 ft of viz and a slight current, a good way to get a 60 minute head start on the bottom time for the weekend.

Herb Dubois, with sons Sheldon and Ryan, head down early Friday morning, and Judy Mullen and Ashley Carpenter drive up from Savannah, GA in the morning also. Mike Barnhardt drove down from Maryland, and Shelly Liu and Stephen Francke came from New York to round out our crew of twelve for the weekend. Training-wise, the Dubois men, along with Ashley, will be completing their Advanced Open Water dives this weekend with us, so we are hoping for some stellar conditions and great weather!

Meanwhile I still have a few things on my desk screaming for attention before I can head off, so I need to spend a few hours in the shop Friday morning. No problem, I can get out around 11, that will get me there in the early evening. Well 11 rolls around and now noon is looking good, but we need to do some more service work and fill some oxygen tanks for a client, so now 2-ish sounds feasible. Nope, a few more things need attention, and I must get that darn newsletter out, so 2 comes and goes, as does, 3, 4 & 5. Finally, I am packing gear and loading the truck, and as the wheels start to roll southward, the little hand is on the 6! At least we are going! In nine-ish hours, I should be in sunny North Carolina!

Well as luck would have it, Michele didn’t have any plans for the weekend, so she offered to help with the drive down and maybe, just maybe, if the seas are really, really flat, she’ll come out and dive. Based on our experience in Riviera Beach earlier this year, we’ll see about the diving part, but I am thankful for the driving part indeed! Off we go, and we make it to the Harbor of Mercy, Havre de Gras, Maryland, where we stop for a dinner and some music along the waterfront there. McGregor’s Pub is always a great choice for some local seafood, and the soft shell crabs are in season. We’re not disappointed in the least! We get back on the road and I make it til almost midnight, until we need to stop for fuel and a change of pilots. I kick back for a few zzz’s while Michele drives, and I am really enjoying a nice nap when I am rudely awakened by those darn flashing blue lights. Seems someone wants get to know us a bit better here, and he’s walking up to the drives door right now.

Well for those of who remember last year’s drive to Florida and Mark Hughes run-in with Officer Napoleon Bonaparte Jr., I am thinking, as I look over at the drivers window and just see the top of blue hat and the end of the over over-compensating big flashlight, that this must surely be his little cousin! It usually sets a bad tone when the diminutive cop needs to look up at the lady in big truck and ask her to pass down the paperwork. “Well hello officer”, I say from the passenger seat, “what brings about this meeting tonight?” “I clocked your vehicle doing 75 in a 55 zone, sir”, he announces, and I am thinking good, we are making progress here, a little ice breaking so to speak. “Where y’all heading?”, he inquires, and I think about saying Beaufort, but rather than botch the pronunciation like only a true Yankee can manage, I opt for the easier to pronounce ‘Morehead City’. “Going diving?” he asks, like the name on the truck and the stack of tanks sticking up in the back didn’t give him a clue. “Yup, we are, we’re here with the stimulus program and about to spend a lot of money at the local businesses”, I say, thinking maybe this might inspire him to think of the overall positive impact our visit will have on the North Carolina economy as a whole. “I’ll be right back”, he says, and walks away with the registration and Michele’s license. Well a few minutes later he’s back at the door, and I am about to slap myself on the back for my intervention, when he announces “I’ve written you up for doing 75 in a 55 zone”, he says, as he hands the paperwork back. “Hey, thank YOU for the consideration”, I offer, and before I say anything further, that little voice of sanity and prudence inside my head tells me it is time to go. You gotta love North Carolina cops…NOT!

So now we really have to push it a bit to make up for the time we lost, and I am thinking, he might have baited us into speeding! But no, that would require a little more thought process than the little man in blue could likely muster, so I take over the helm and finish up the last hour to the lodge. Nice way to be welcomed into the state! Oh well, we are here, that is what matters most, and the engines on the boat have not started yet, so that is progress for me! And I even have time to relax a bit!

Saturday Morning, the Diving Begins…
The rest of the gang stirs on Saturday morning and we start to gather at the dive shop in preparation of our day on the water. Releases are signed, gear is loaded, and we await our departure. Wait, who is that walking across the parking lot? Well it’s Paul Highland, our neighbor and owner of Divers Den in Lansdale, He’s down for the weekend also, with a group from his shop, so I am wondering who we left at home to dive Dutch this weekend? We exchange hellos and bid each other safe diving, as his group departs on one of Discovery’s other boats. We’re on the big boat, the Outrageous, a 47 ft former crew boat with owner/captain Terry at the helm, and fellow captain Steve working as crew. Boat briefing complete, final gear checks done, and we head out to sea.

Stop number one is the Schurz, [history] 83 surface, 74 bottom temp, 50 ft viz, covered with baitfish so much that you could hardly see other divers 20 ft away, big stingrays buzzing with shark escorts, a few lionfish, 111 ft of depth, 37 minutes of bottom time, great starting dive to kick off the weekend.

Many of our readers are familiar with our practice of honoring great undersea navigators, and have visited many of our commemorative sites, such as the ‘Z-ball’, ‘C-ball’, and ‘Lynn’s ball’ during some of dive adventures. Needless to say, when you are leading a group underwater, and your name is associated with one of these infamous sites, it comes as no surprise that your navigational decision-making is sometimes questioned. So it should have come as no surprise to Csaba as he led Niki and Craig back to the anchor on the Schurz, and proudly pointed it out to them as the ascent line, that the two of them simultaneously shook their heads and indicated “No, that is NOT our line!” Csaba. His confidence rattled, decided OK, maybe they’re right, and continued down the wreck, second-guessing himself all the way. All the way, that is, until they got to the other anchor line, and he looked at the big “Divers Down” written on the lift bag attached to it, that he turned to his two companions and said, as best as can be said underwater, “That’s what you get for doubting me!”. So back to the original (and correct) anchor line they headed, Csaba chuckling and knowing that this won’t be the last time he’ll have to redeem himself.

Once everyone is back on board, its only a short motor away, and a little more surface interval, until we splash for dive #2, this time on the famous U-352, a former German U-boat sunk in action during WWII. A perfect example of bad decision making, the loss of this U-boat can be attributed to it’s captain’s decision to take on a US Coast Guard cutter, the Icarus, on a clear day in only 100 ft of clear water…not exactly ideal conditions if your plans go awry and you need to hide your submarine. Oh well….thanks for the wreck go dive on! Here we enjoy another amazingly similar profile, 111 ft for 37 minutes, finally returning to the surface for a little work on our tans and some degassing as we head to site #3.

Keeping it consistent and taking advantage of the great conditions, we opt to stay deep and head over to the USCGC Spar for our third and final dive of the day. Another 111 ft dive for another 37 minutes (how’s that for consistency?) and did I say “sharks?” Let me say that right here, we were surrounded by sharks, sharks, & more sharks! Small one, big ones, huge ones, and every one laid back and just checking us out as we were checking them out, literally within less than 2 ft away. Let me tell you, I was close enough to brush those big snarly teeth, I kid you not. After I sent everyone back up to the surface, except Shelly and Stephen on their rebreathers, I just spent another 15 minutes suspended in the water with the sharks. Truly, truly a magical dive, another “top 10’er” for me.

And meanwhile back on land, the folks in the “Darwin Awards” Department were picking a local winner today, and Michele, who has joined us on this trip but opted to not test the seasickness gods, had the chance to enjoy quite a show in the harbor this afternoon. She was waiting to take a ferry over to the uninhabited island across the harbor, and of course with it being the Fourth of July weekend, she expected to see and hear fireworks all around. So it sounded like a couple of vintage M-80’s exploding right there at the fuel dock in front of the ferry landing, where a line of boats awaited the chance to pull up and get some go-juice in their tanks. “Hey, check that out”, someone shouted, and Michele noticed one of the boats pulling away from the dock spewing smoke. Then she saw the flames, thinking wow, this was getting interesting! And the people screaming on board as the fire really got going on the boat. But wait, time for some decision-making on the captain’s part….he needed to get the people off his boat, and hey, there’s a convenient dock right there so he started towards it….totally ignoring everyone else screaming at him “Stay away from the fuel dock!”. Yeppers, he was bringing his burning boat right back into where enough gas was stored to create one mother of a fireworks display. Out of nowhere, a Coast Guard launch and a tow boat were there, getting a line on his boat, pulling him away from the potential disaster, and encouraging his passengers to leap into the water to get picked up. Crisis averted, remind me to not invite this guy to a barbecue!

Back to port, we fuel up the boat and tie up for the night, ready to repeat it all again tomorrow! Some of us head over to the Stillwater Café on the waterfront for dinner, and to share photos and swap stories of today’s awesome events, including these shots of the fuel dock episode…

Sunday the Diving Continues…

We headed out again at 7 this morning to slightly less inviting conditions with a bit of a chop and 3 to 4 ft seas. Our plan was to run east to the Caribsea, but the pounding would have made for a less-than-pleasant travel experience, so we shifted to a more southerly course and made for the Westland, a wooden barge carrying scrap iron that went down in 1941. Most of the scrap iron had been run through a compactor, so you essentially had solid steel boxes, measuring 18” square by about 3 ft long, stacked as far as the eyes could see. And we could see pretty far, as the viz was probably 100 ft or better today. Lots of life covered this oasis in an otherwise barren sandy bottom, with sand bass, tropical, moray eels, amberjack, sheepshead, spadefish and plenty of other varieties to make for a very interesting dive. One of the most prominent life forms that selected this particular place to call home was bristle worms, numbering in the thousands, and stretching to 8 inches or more in many cases. They were literally everywhere you looked and crawling on every surface, nook and cranny. Now many of you know that I have a special relationship with these guys, where I inadvertently offer them parts of my body to sting and they oblige by stinging it. I am sensing a few years of nightmares are in the works now with the visual of this wreck burned into my memory. A good dive overall, with a bit of current, 108 ft deep and a 45 minute run time.

Next stop on the hit parade of wrecks is the HMS Bedfordshire, a 162 ft long British armed trawler, which was performing escort duty and anti-submarine patrols along the middle Atlantic coast. It was sunk in 1942 by the U-558, under the command of Kapitanleutnant Gunter Krech, which had been prowling the east coast seeking merchant ships to send to the bottom. Not having much luck in that department, when they spotted the British warship on patrol they decided any sunken Allied ship is a good sunken Allied ship, so sink it they did. One well-placed torpedo split the boat in half, and according to the U-boats report, actually lifted it out of the water. The Bedfordshire was lost with all 37 hands aboard, and in fact was not even known to have been sunk until two of it’s crewman’s bodies washed ashore on the beach in Ocracoke.

We dropped in to a bit more current, and the viz was probably down to 50 ft or so, but hey, we’re diving! Water is still 80 degrees, wrecks are still covered with life, a couple of big stingrays with us on the bottom, big amberjacks swooping by, very nice. Another 50 minutes of bottom time, max depth 96 ft.

En-route to our third drop for the day, we come upon a huge leatherback turtle sunning himself on the surface. Very cool to see this majestic endangered species out here!

Our destination is the Ashkhabad, a Russian freighter converted to a tanker that met it’s demise on bright sunny day in April, 1942, when the U-402, right under the nose of her escort ship the HMS Lady Elsa….hmmm..are we seeing a trend here with the British anti-submarine efforts during WWII? I’m just saying…..

Anyhow, the story gets better. As the leaking gasoline and fire spread across the ocean, the crew abandons ship, but the captain’s lifeboat is right in the middle of the fire. He orders the crew to jump overboard to escape the fireballs blasting from the ship, and they do, going under with each explosion. When it finally quiets down they surface only to find their lifeboat on fire. They manage to get that under control and begin to row to shore, joined by the other two lifeboats. The Lady Elsa, incompetent at keeping the subs away, at least serves as a nice ride for the crew back to port, as the Ashkhabad quietly sits on the surface, with fires still burning in the cargo area.

The captain returns the next day to the wreck, still floating and smoldering at sea, and they re-board the vessel. Much to their surprise, the ship has been looted, and personal belongings, valuables, and some navigational equipment stolen. What the heck, they are thinking, can this get any more embarrassing?

They return to port and again visit the ship the next day, only to find the HMS Herfordshire tied up to her, and the Herfordshire’s crew taking even more booty off the Russian ship. Busted, the British sailors are forced to return everything they took from what they claimed to believe was an “abandoned ship”. Nice try, boys.

So now with personal items back in hand, the crew goes back to port to prepare to reboard the vessel in the morning and prepare it for a tow to a shipyard. But before they can get there, the USS Semmes, a destroyer, comes upon it and deems it a navigational hazard, and begins firing a few rounds into the Ashkhabad to sink it. The Semmes is joined in the target practice by the HMS St. Zeno, and as Captain Alexy Pavlovitch steams over the horizon with the US naval tug Relief, he is greeted by the site of his vessel, torpedoed, burned, looted, un-looted, shot, and now sinking below the waves. What a report he must have to send back to Mother Russia, eh?

Well with all that wacky history behind it, our dive today was a great way to celebrate the collective military fumbles that brought us this wreck. Broken now on the ocean floor, this looks like the Benwood on steroids, a huge, busted open wreck, marked by two prominent boilers sitting in the center, and an equally large condenser blow off into the sand about 40 ft away. We’ve got more fish of all flavors, a huge green turtle sleeping inside one of the boilers, morays, shrimp, crabs, toadfish, and some really nice healthy cowries too! Towards the end of the dive, we’ve got everyone safely back on the ascent line except Shelly and Stephen, so I have some quiet time to really enjoy the wreck without teaching or leading…these are the best times for me!

As I approach the anchor line, I notice a huge cloud of lower visibility water coming towards me in the current. Why is the viz down, I am thinking…..well it is because of the millions of stinging jellyfish that are floating right at me!! Yikes! I need to back away from the anchor, retreating to the relative safety of the big boilers, as the cloud starts sweeping by me, nothing but thousand upon thousands of pulsating jellies, trailing long streams of stinging tentacles behind them, in some cases extending back 3 to 4 feet from the larger specimens. I brush a few away that come to close, and as I am hiding there, I notice Stephen and Shelly coming. I signal to them to come my way, and they do, as their eyes widen watching the cloud of jellies go by. While they are hanging with me we check out the turtle again, play around with some little critters, and finally there is a break in traffic, and we bolt for the anchor line. We ascend to just about the thermocline at 60 feet and that’s the magic number for the jellies, as they are working in the colder water below. Whew!! Our ascent is uneventful, with 60 minutes of bottom time at 60 ft, and we re-board, and begin the two-and-a-half hour bumpy and wet ride home. Another great day in the books!

For dinner tonight the entire group gathers at the Spouter Restaurant, where we enjoy a great meal and a lot of laughter, stories and jokes…OK, we enjoyed them; I can’t vouch for all the other patrons in the restaurant with us! After that it was time for bed and one more North Carolina wake-up to round out a fantastic weekend!

And now, it’s Monday….and Mother Nature has not been kind to us, with rough seas and high winds, high enough in fact that Discovery’s captains have unilaterally decided to cancel operations for the day. No ship is leaving the port, so there’s no diving today. Bummer!

So we enjoy a leisurely morning, unload the gear from the boat, and pack for traveling. Herb, Ryan & Sheldon Dubois, Judy Mullen, and Ashley Carpenter are heading south to South Carolina with me, while the rest of the crew head north and home. It’s a five hour drive to Charleston, SC, so I get in a mornings work at the “office” and then follow the guys south, arriving in North Charleston around 9 in the evening. Time for a quick bite and then some rest before we swim with the alligators in the morning.

Tuesday we gathered for a 6:30 a.m. complimentary breakfast in the Sleep Inn lobby, and go over our plans for the day. We’re doing four dives today, so we need to supplement our tank count a bit to make it through the day. Bill Routh, owner of Off the Wall Charters, and our guide for the day, joins us with the extra tanks in tow, and we load up and convoy over to the Cypress Gardens landing on the Cooper River. He runs a 33 ft long pontoon boat, nice and roomy and stable for playing on the river.

We load the boat up on the trailer, and Bill slips it into the water without a glitch. We climb aboard, get our briefing out of the way, and chug on down the river. We are just between tides now, per our plan, and the river is slowing down on the outbound tide. We are planning to dive the inbound tide, where the ocean tide backs up and overcomes the downriver current, so this tide is a lot easier to manage than the other. The downside is that the visibility is reduced due to the amount of silt and vegetation in the water, but we’ll manage.

Stop at the first sight, tide stops, but before we can get in, it turns and begins moving in the other direction. This area has a lot of eddy currents so we opt to visit it tomorrow and move to an alternate site for our first dive. A quick dive site briefing and then Capt Bill drops us in, one by one, spread along a massive gravel bed that runs through this section of the river. Five first time Cooper River divers with me, and every single one comes up an hour later with wide smiles and bags full of sharks teeth, fossils, and some pottery pieces too. Way to start it off!

That certainly sets my mind at ease for the rest of this trip, as this is true solo diving here. With visibility of less than 2 ft, there is no staying in touch with your buddy, in fact, on the outside chance you run into another diver while you are down, you can hardly recognize them, and have to shine your light on various parts of their kit to figure out who it is.

Meanwhile, a pod of bottlenose dolphins are in the river with us today checking us out and playing around the boat…very cool, especially since we are about 25 miles upriver from the Charleston Harbor and the ocean. Ashley is a little freaked out about this, since she has now twice on this trip related a story about an incident in Hawaii, where a female swimmer was sexually assaulted by a male dolphin, with him allegedly wrapping his extended penis around her knees. Well, after the laughter died down a bit, we talked about dolphin anatomy and endowments in general, and concluded, in our little study group, that surely a male dolphin must have originally told this story, complete with all bragging rights and exaggerations. We assured her that we’d keep a close watch on her knees in the event of a dolphin encounter, and she felt better knowing we had her back like that.

Dive #2 was a second location just around the bend from the first, and we get another 60 minutes of bottom time here also, with a max depth of 41 ft. And again, we have scored well in the tooth-gathering department.

We take a short surface interval after the second dive to allow the peak tide to pass, and then we’re in for dive #3. Another hour of solo diving, max depth about 40 ft., and more teeth in the collection bags. Sheldon scores a really nice fossilized turtle shell, Ryan is coming up with some amazingly small teeth that the rest of us are missing, and Ashley is kicking butt in the overall number of teeth collected. Everyone is having a blast!

When we surface from each dive, we inflate a small safety sausage on a 10 ft. jon line, allowing us to mark our location and take a moment to hang safely below the depths of propellers from boats that might be ignoring our ‘Diver Down’ flags in the river and on the dive boat. The nerve of some people! Once we have ascertained that there are no incoming propeller sounds, we surface, and Bill runs the boat over to pick us up. On this particular dive, Ashley surfaces, gives us an OK sign, and hangs quietly on the surface awaiting her pickup. We’ve got another diver ahead of her to get, so she has to wait a few minutes, and she is enjoying a little ‘Zen’ time basking in the glory of kicking our butts in the collection totals. Well, this was not a great idea at this particular time, as we watched the grass part on shore and a nice big alligator slip into the water, swimming right over to see what sort of gift has been left on his doorstep. Ashley is oblivious to this, and we are shouting out to get her attention. Finally, as the ‘gator is less than about 20 ft. from his potential dinner, she hears us yelling to her to make noise and wave her arms, and she obliges. With that, the ‘gator realizes she is not carrion, an alligator delicacy, and he submerges and turns away, leaving Ashley for the dolphins. Anyhow, we breathe a collective sigh of relief, and are thankful that this crisis has been averted!!

Bill is an absolute wealth of historical information regarding the river, the artifacts, and the history of the area over time, and shares factoids and stories with us during our time aboard the boat. One of the lesser-known artifact facts he shares concerns Prohibition-beating South Carolina Dispensary Bottles that are often found in the river. These unique bottles were used to package and sell liquor in a manner much the same way as “medically prescribed marijuana” is sold today..by some pseudo-prescription…proving that once again, some laws tend to be, as I like to say, “guidelines”…

Dive #4 is more of the same, and the animal life is aggressive on this one…as I drop to the bottom, I feel “bang, bang” on the back of my legs, and then again, and I am thinking, what is trying to eat me? Of course I can’t see that far, so I rotate slowly, and sure enough, there are the culprits, two catfish who are thinking they have found the mother lode of a dinner here. Not happening today, boys, I think, as I shoo them away and begin my dive. Again, everyone spends an hour solo diving and everyone comes up with teeth and smile. Very cool day of diving indeed.

Back to shore we unload the boat, clean the silt out of our hair, and then head out for a local dinner, before calling it a night and getting ready for our next day of fun on, and in, the Cooper River!

More to come…including photos!!!

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