September 2013, Pt Pleasant NJ:
I had always wanted to dive the wreck of the Tolten, but circumstances just never came together until now. I think my yearning to visit the wreck stemmed from Mike deCamp's black and white image of the ship's helm from years ago--although clearly that artifact would no longer be there! The other reason is that I had always heard via "word of mouth" that the Tolten and Choapa were sister ships, but closer examination indicates otherwise. The two ships were built at approximately the same time, are of similar size and appearance and both were being run by the Chilean government at the time of their sinking. Looking at photographs of the two ships side-by-side, however, despite a similar overall appearance, there are obvious differences. One thing is for sure though--at half the depth and three to five times the visiblity typically found on the Choapa, the Tolten proved a non-life-threatening delight to explore!
The wreck was apparently wire dragged as a navigation hazard, and due to its shallow depth shows the typical deterioration that shipwrecks suffer over the years. As I swam about the wreckage, I was struck by the thought that it looked like someone had picked the ship up, shaken it to pieces and dropped it back on the ocean bottom. There were recognizable bits of a ship lying in jumbled heaps everywhere, but there seemed to be little discernible organization to them. The bow seemed the most interesting section to me--there were anchors and hawsepipes and a windlass all there, but strewn about in seemingly random order. Midships were boilers and an engine, and there were cargo hatchways that were pretty much intact, but they had dropped down nearly to the ocean bottom. There was a prominent steering quadrant still standing at the stern, along with what appears to be the remains of the auxiliary helm stand on a long shaft, fallen down to the sand. I suspect this may be the stand and shaft from Mike deCamp's photo.....
September 2013, Cape Hatteras:
Once again we made the long trek south from Hatteras inlet to the wreck of the Tamaulipas, one of my favorites here. Today we would add a twist, however, in that we planned on diving both the bow and stern sections in a single day. A bit further south, we headed for the tanker's aft end first. The high sections of the wreck appear to have collapsed downward a bit more since last year. I don't know how much longer this wreck will retain the structural integrity of her tank section--it will surely be a shame when it finally collapses. Very few sharks today, but still a lot of fish life including lots of lionfish near the stern.
After a nice dive on the stern, the crew pulled the Under Pressure's hook and we headed for the bow section of the wreck, only a couple of miles away. The bow lies a touch deeper, with a 160-foot bottom, and is completely upside-down. We had a really enjoyable dive here--the inside of the bow section is really interesting, and in places very photogenic. There are multiple holes corroded in the hull bottom (which of course is facing toward the surface in her present position), which allow sunlight to stream into the interior, adding a touch of drama to the scene.
The following day we had another great day on the ocean, and spent our first dive exploring an old Hatteras standby, the freighter Manuela. One of the seemingly unique and fascinating features of the Manuela, at least for me, is midships where a huge section of her hull lies inverted on the ocean bottom. The part that I find most interesting, however, is not the upside-down hull, but rather the debris field lying alongside it. It is as if the poor ship puked-up her guts on her way to the bottom, leaving her insides strewn across the seafloor like a gigantic steel version of that ancient kid's game "pick-up-sticks." Many years ago I took an image of the scene from above, looking down--a sort of underwater aerial photo of the hull and debris field on black and white film. I've always wanted to get a better quality version of that shot, but things never seem to quite come together--but as they say, today seems to have been the day! We had 80-foot plus of visibility, and the sun seemed to be in a better position today. (In the past I always seemed to be shooting into the sun and getting a non-strobe version of backscatter in the image.)
The Manuela has changed significantly over the years. The mid-ship section seems pretty much the same as I remember it, but the bow and stern have both deteriorated. The stern in particular seems to have almost completely collapsed--it used to be much more intact and lying on its starboard side as I remember it, and you could actually get inside parts of it. The bow is still in one piece lying on its side, but there is really only a skeleton left, as if some hunter had flayed a fallen beast and removed her skin of hull plates.
We only did one dive on the Manuela, moving to the sunken liner Proteus for the second dive of the day. The most interesting thing about diving the Proteus to me is the congregation of sand tiger sharks at the stern. It seems that there is some sort of cleaning station set up there, for the sharks circle endlessly beneath the remains of her stern, out across the surrounding sand and back again. A diver (and/or photographer) can kneel down in the sand and get right in the middle of the procession, and the sharks seem to pay no heed to you.
August 2013, Pt Pleasant NJ:
The Sommerstad, otherwise known as the "Virginia Wreck," was one of the first "deep" dives I ever made. While its 170 foot depth might not be condsidered particuarly deep by today's standards, in the 1980s, when all we had were twin 80s, air and Navy tables, it was. Visiting this wreck was considered a real treat, for the water was usually incredibly clear, something you just didn't see too often on the shallower inshore wrecks. The Virginia was frequented by fishermen seeking cod in the winter months, and over the years they had left behind a finely spun cocoon of heavy monofilament on the wreck. On a couple of occasions we were anchored near the wreck's bow, which was fascinating to me because it was upright, but tipped back at a 45-degree angle. I remember thinking it was pointing skyward and mimicked the sinking of the Sommerstad, whose bow pointed nearly vertical when she sank according to contemporary reports. On more than one occasion I had seen monster-size cod lurking inside the cavernous structure--so big they were frightening!
Fast forward to 2013. The bow still sits in the same orientation, but it has settled downward, almost as if some prehistoric giant had stepped on it and squashed it. The deck is now missing, apparently sliding off the hull to the ocean bottom, along with the deck winch. What remains is a fascinating lesson in ship construction--kind of like one of those plastic ship models you build as a kid with one clear side to show the interior. The twin hawsepipes remain in place, their anchor chains spilling out of their gaping maws as if being poured from a tea kettle. Peering inside (for there still is a dark, creepy interior to the structure) I see some of those same giant codfish I remember from years ago....
On a second dive I swim aft from the bow, passing over a wreck that appears to be mostly a rubble pile. Quite quickly I reach the three boilers, two sitting "normally" and one off the ship's port side and upended. It strikes me that the wreck is actually very small, much smaller than I remembered her. I'm quite sure the wreck hasn't shrunk over the years--the only explanation is the clarity of trimix--a far cry from those quick, rushed dives we did 20+ years ago.
Rounding the boilers I am confronted by a school of cod, swimming quite leisurely along the wreck out in the open. I freeze to avoid startling them, but they seem to pay no attention to me, neither stopping to look at me nor fleeing. I never did make it all the way to the stern of the wreck, and would very much like to return and perhaps see the entire wreck in a single dive.
July 2013, Montauk NY:
After a long winter of dreaming about this return trip to the U-boat we found last July, it's incredibly exciting to be in Montauk once again. We have been packing all our gear aboard Tenacious all afternoon and well into the evening. Tanks, rebreathers, scooters, cameras, food and water and anything else we might need offshore. It is a long 12-hour trip out to the wreck site--lots of time for multiple "day-dream-dives" to the wreck we all long to see again. On board are Joe Mazraani, Anthony Tedeschi, Tom Packer, Steve Gatto, Harold Moyers, Eric Takakjian, Mark Nix and myself.
For the past year I have had a specific image in my head. Ever since our discovery of, and dives to, U-550 last July, as well as Tom Packer's description of the submarine's bow, I have had a single objective for my return to the wreck. Picture the opening credit scene from the famous movie Das Boot: out of a dark green gloom, a shadow slowly emerges--a shadow that is headed directly toward you. Slowly it comes, growing steadily closer and gradually taking on form--a distinctive form clearly recognizable to any wreck diver: the bow-on view of a German U-boat. As it moves steadily closer it grows in size and height, grows until it is towering above you like a giant monolith. If you listen closely, you can surely hear that haunting music.....
That opening scene to one of the all-time classic World War II films is what I wanted to capture on "film." The only way to take the photo in my head, however, is by photographing with only ambient light--no strobes or artificial lighting can be expected to light up the entire bow of a U-boat! And the submarine is deep--100 meters down--so light levels are extremely low, pushing the limits of even cutting edge digital cameras. I learned this last year right here, shooting with a Canon 5D mark II camera: dialing up the ISO to 12,800 and shooting wide open at f/2.8, the images were still underexposed! I was able to process the raw files into useable images, but there was ample evidence of sensor noise and banding. Over the winter, I purchased a whole new camera system--a Canon 5D mark III and a new Aquatica housing. By my own tests in a darkened basement I determined that the new camera is 1-2 stops more sensitive to low light than the old, and I bought it with this very destination in mind.
Mark Nix volunteered to help me with my objective--and he had a scooter to boot! (I learned last year just how much drag carrying three stage bottles and a camera creates...) After our descent to the wreck, Mark towed me to the bow of the sub with his scooter, then posed next to the wreck. I dropped to the sand directly beneath and in front of the bow, while Mark moved from starboard to port, using his new Light Monkey LED to add accent lighting to the scene. It wasn't until then, standing on the bottom at 100 meters, that I fully came to appreciate how much rake there is to the bow of a U-boat--It was nearly impossible to get the whole thing in my viewfinder, even though I was using a 14mm lens! As Mark moved around the bow creating different compositions, I just kept banging away with my camera. The scene before me was so incredible that at one point I took my camera from my eye and shouted through my regulator, notionally to Mark, although I knew he couldn't hear me, "This is ____ awesome!" When we were done, Mark once again took me in tow, this time back to the anchor. We had a minute or two to bang out a couple quick shots of the conning tower, then it was time to head up to the surface. That image of the bow of U-550 will live in my memory forever....and many thanks to Mark for making it possible!