Into the Blackness…..Cooper River diving!

The world is full of diving opportunities and some are certainly more unique than others.  The Cooper River in South Carolina clearly fits the bill for one of the more unique ones.  Winding through the SC Low Country, this river offers divers an amazing venue to hunt for million-year old megaladon shark teeth, fossilized bones, pottery and Indian artifacts dating back 1,000 or more years, and they get to do this in consistently high-flowing currents and visibility ranging from zero to perhaps 4 ft at best, while navigating around massive sunken trees and other entanglement hazards, and enjoying chance underwater encounters with 5 ft long channel catfish, even bigger sturgeons, and the occasional alligator!  You just can’t get it like this at home!

Our operator for this adventure is Mark Johnson and Dive the Cooper, located in Moncks Corner, SC, right on the banks of the Cooper.  Mark has been diving this river and leading groups for years, and has a first hand knowledge of the best areas to visit, and the best ways to work with the challenges of the river conditions to maximize safety and ensure a great experience for the participants.

Our able crew for the week include Cooper River veterans and fossil-finders extraordinaire Ashley Cooper and Ryan DuBois, accompanied by Judy Mullen, Herb DuBois, myself, and Cooper River newbie Dave Olejnick.

Plans are to depart Tuesday evening, drive during the night, and start our diving Wednesday mid-day to catch the slack tides.  I give Dave O an estimated 10:00 pm departure time, and he arrives around 8:30 to see me in typical pre-trip fashion…..with nothing packed yet!  But we take care of that, fill a few last tanks, gather some dive gear, and pack up the car.  OK, so it’s 11:40 and we’re finally on the road for our ten-hour journey!  A mile down the road, going through my mental checklist, and I realize I forgot my sleeping bag.  I ask Dave if he’ll share his, and that’s when the line gets drawn in the proverbial sand….so much for the “buddy system”, and we turn around to grab my own sleeping bag.

Herb & Ryan also headed south, starting last evening with a rest break along the way, so they arrived fresh and ready to go.  Judy and Ashey drove up from Savannah, GA to join us on site and everyone pulled in at 11.  We unloaded the cars, set up our gear, and loaded it onto Mark’s 24 ft tri-toon (that’s three pontoon’s for us Yankees) deck boat.  It’s nicely set up with comfortable seating, ample deck space, and easy entry & exit points.  We head out to the river, going downstream, past old rice mills, to our first dive site, “Billy’s Bank”, a series of ledges starting at 15 ft and stepping down over a series a clay ledges until finally hitting 45 ft max in the center of the river.  There are huge swaths of gravel beds located here, and that’s where we are most likely to find the good stuff!

Mark sets up a downstream safety marker buoy, and then we drop back down-current and anchor.  The plan is to drop in, follow the anchor line down, get oriented on the bottom, and then work our way upstream, against the current, searching the gravel pits and clay bottom, and then drifting back onto the boat on the surface.  We gear up, and everyone splashes.  With the murkiness of the water, you lose sight of each diver as soon as they are about 3 ft under the surface.  The view is pretty much the same for the diver, with the only visual reference being the anchor line, as we follow it down and down, finally catching a glimpse of the bottom when you see the anchor.  You take a minute or two to get oriented, gets your lights adjusted, and drop down face first onto the bottom, staying negative and digging in with a screwdriver or trowel to hold yourself against the current.  Realistically, this is true solo diving, as the odds of staying together with your buddy are slim to none with the combination of conditions, visibility, and the task-loading of searching in the gravel for teeth.  An hour or so later, our divers pop up one by one, and drift back to the boat, smiling and with mesh bags full  of teeth, bones, old turtle shells, and more.

Dive two is similar, as we move less than a half mile down the river, and get another hour-long dive under our belts.  More good stuff added to our collections, more stories to share, and more laughs.  Dave O has decided to sit out the first day of diving, taking a wait-and-see approach to just how over-rated this alligator hazard was.  We’re thinking his wheels are turning for a dive or two tomorrow!

Back at the dock, it’s time to load the tanks into a couple of cars and we head over to John Cercopely’s place, Cooper River Dive Charters, for our fills.  He’s got a great operation located in his backyard, with an impressive compressor and gas storage system and a huge collection of artifacts he’s gathered from his hears in the river.  We salivate as we look and touch some of the huge 6-plus inch teeth he’s found, along with massive bones, mastodon teeth, whale vertebrae, and more.

Finally we’re off to dinner at Outback Steakhouse, and nearly three hours of laughing, joke-telling, stories, photo op’s and more.  One thing that is 100% consistent on any Indian Valley Scuba adventure is the fun and laughter that everyone enjoys.  Good times had by all, and we head back to bed, exhausted, with our bellies aching from the laughs, and we get some needed rest for tomorrow’s dives!