Action Close to Virginia’s shore
A tour of some of the best diving just off the shore of Virginia Beach. Click the title to read the full story. by Pete Nawrocky
It’s an odd combination of odors that gets most of us going on the morning of a boat dive; coffee and diesel exhaust. Sipping the second cup as the boat leaves Rudi Inlet and heads roughly east into the rising sun, divers tinker with dive gear and discuss the plan of the day. Flat seas and calm weather over the last few weeks of the summer has created a bit of excitement with the divers on board. Schools of Spade fish have been spotted on the surface off the coast of Virginia Beach and the water is very warm. Temperatures on the surface are in the low 70’s F and visibility reports are being reported as high as 50 feet in water as shallow as 60 feet. Shipwrecks are abundant in this area since it is the approach to one of the busiest series ports on the eastern seaboard. The Hampton roads area shipyards as well as naval port of Norfolk are entered through the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The course of most vessels will require them to travel within fifteen miles of the beach.
During World War Two many convoys left this area to bring war material over to Europe and much in the way of supplies also entered into the US market. Heavy shipping movement was not unnoticed by the U-boats patrolling the American shipping lanes and many vessels were damaged or worse sunk by torpedoes and mines. The action was very close to home, some attacks occurred in site of land! Vessels that have remained on the bottom have over time become natural attractants to marine life.
The sandy bottom along the coast leaves little in the way of natural “homes” for fish or other forms of inhabitants. A shipwreck therefore is a boon to divers and fisherman, attracting many species to an area that normally would be considered barren. The waters off Virginia are occasionally a mix of species that are found in two different biological zones. The Carolinian Atlantic and the Acadian Atlantic zones mix roughly off the coast in this area, therefore it is possible to find a clawed Northern Lobster in a wreck and look up to view a barracuda cruising along looking for a meal. Water temperatures play a key role when species can be found during the year; the summer months are the best time to see this interaction.
April fools day of 1942 was no laughing matter for the crew of the Tiger. In bound with a load of naval fuel the Tiger was torpedoed by the U-754 causing the fuel oil to ignite and creating hellish flames. Although the radio system was knocked out the flames served as a beacon to a nearby Coast Guard Cutter. An attempt was made to save the vessel but after six hours of towing the Tiger grounded at the stern and eventually sank. A vessel of this size (410 feet long) was a hazard to navigation as it sunk in only 60 feet of water. Therefore it was necessary to blow the ship up using dynamite. The engine and boilers can still be seen and offer a high enough relief to be used as landmarks for underwater navigation.
Visibility ranges from a few feet to an incredible 40 feet or more if the conditions are right. Broken sections of the wreck provide hiding places for many fish. Summer Flounder (Fluke) can be found in abundance and individuals of over 14 inches are not uncommon. Spearfishing is allowed and divers must check with the boat captain on the seasons and size limits for any species. Tautog, Black Sea Bass, Flounder, Toadfish and Porgy can be found hiding amongst the debris. The warm water can also bring in a visitor that always creates mixed emotions. Sand Tiger Sharks are nocturnal feeders and are very docile during the day. Reporting that a five foot shark is patrolling the wreck causes either excitement among photographers or a bit of doubt with new comers to diving. After all who wants to get in the water when you see a shark? Nowadays, everyone does! The shark is usually inquisitive and will come in for a close look or have nothing to do with the divers. Following the shark around the wreck usually causes them to move off, however spear fishing divers occasionally have a “friend” shadowing them looking for a free meal.
Diving the Santore wreck is a different experience. The wreck has been completely broken up by the Coast Guard Cutter Gentian during the war. The Santore was on its way to Chile with as load of coal. Mines had been placed by the U-701 and the two vessels had been damaged but not sunk. Naval forces cleared whatever mines could be found. Unfortunately the Santore was holed by one remaining mine; damage was so severe that the ship sank in less than three minutes. The wreck settled on its port side and owing to the shallow depth of the water the starboard side was awash but not completely submerged. One vessel mistook the wreck for a submarine and actually rammed the Santore. One can only imagine the embarrassment of the crew after returning to port severely damaged after trying to sink a shipwreck.
There is very little relief off the bottom and the site can be difficult to navigate. Use of a wreck reel is a relatively common technique utilized by experienced divers. The low relief and numerous hiding spaces provide homes for lobster, eels and triggerfish. The wreck is very colorful owing to the large amount of sponges that cover much of the wreck. Soft corals and gorgonians also provide color and character to the Santore. Look out in the sand for skates and flounder.
In general shallow water wrecks in this area tend to get flattened by the acts of weather or man. On occasion some shipwrecks retain the classic “shipshape”. The Gulf Hustler is a trawler that sank in rough weather in 1974. The vessel is upright and has high relief off the bottom. Divers can venture through what is left of the wheelhouse and the “A” frame stands sturdily upright on the stern. The high relief attracts schools of baitfish and spadefish. The “Hustler” is arguably the most photogenic of the shallow water wrecks. Doorways and window frames lend to colorful photo opportunities. The wreck is usually covered with mussels that can be collected and make a great meal! The depth is approx 75 feet to the sand and the top of the “A: frame is roughly 50 feet. Other intact wrecks include the Winthrop, depth 60 feet upright, the Hanks and Ricks are in 70 and 80 feet respectively but lie on their sides. Interestingly the Gulf Hustler, Margaret Hanks and Captain Ricks are all from the same fishing fleet.
Although not a wreck per se the Chesapeake Light Tower is a popular site. This is a “Texas Tower” style structure that marks the opening to the Chesapeake Bay. Located 14.5 miles from the Cape Henry lighthouse the tower was erected in 1965. In order to keep the structure sturdy the legs have been driven 180 feet into the sea floor. Dive stores commonly use this site for checkout dives and if macro photography is on the agenda, this is the place to be. The depth at the base of the tower is approx. 40 feet and the Tower legs are covered with everything from mussels to sea anemones. Small octopus can be found hidden in some of the rubble at the tower base. Schools of Amberjack, Spadefish and other pelagic pass by the tower. Since this is a very popular fishing site occasionally there are simply too many boats to get close to the tower. Dive Boats are aware of a number of barges that have been sunk as part of the reef program. These are just as profuse in terms of marine life for the photographer as the spear fisherman.
This is just a partial list of sites in this area and many more wreck dives await the traveling diver. Diving is done all year round weather permitting off Virginia Beach – so come over and dive!