For more than 400 years, ships have found their final resting place in the waters off North Carolina. Casualties of war, victims of nature's frenzy and navigational mishaps are strewn along the ocean floor, each with its own unique story and charm. While many wrecks lie undiscovered or beyond the limits of sport diving, along the coast are dozens of strategically located sites regularly visited by dive shops and charter boats. Not surprisingly, many divers return year after year to continue their explorations of these wrecks. Winter storms and hurricanes often uncover a new wreck or expose a yet unexplored area of an established site, so each visit holds the possibility of a totally fresh dive experience. But it's more than just shipwreck adventure that lures divers to this area. North Carolina is also blessed with the blue god: Nowhere else, except Florida, do the turquoise Gulf Stream and its Caribbean-like conditions come so close to U.S. shores. During the summer, water temperatures often extend into the 80s, visibility can exceed 100 feet, and wrecks teem with marine life. HATTERAS The barrier islands of North Carolina's Outer Banks form a thin, elbow-shaped ribbon of sand 175 miles long. At the tip of this elbow lie Cape Hatteras and its underwater continuation, Diamond Shoals. Here, a region known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, Gulf Stream waters converge with the colder Labrador Current, storms are spawned, and many ships are lost. It was war, not nature, that created some of the area's most spectacular shipwrecks. During World War II, numerous merchant vessels fell prey to the German U-boat fleet that hunted these waters. Today, these casualties of war provide divers some of the finest wreck diving North America has to offer. North from Hatteras Inlet lies the scattered wreckage of the torpedoed freighter Kassandra Louloudis, decorated with a thick covering of colorful coral at a depth of 70 feet. The pretty freighter Hesperides also sits on the shoals in only 35 feet of water and is visible from the surface. Both sites are home to a wonderful array of marine life, but visibility can be hazy and diving difficult if there's a lot of wave action. More regularly visited war wrecks lie south of Hatteras Inlet. In 1942, the 468-foot tanker Dixie Arrow was set on fire by three torpedoes from the U-71. The wreck sits upright in about 90 feet of water, the bow rising some 25 feet from the bottom. Nearby lies the F.S. Abrams, a tanker that lost its way and accidentally sailed into a U.S. minefield. The ship's boilers and engine, sitting in 90 feet of water, provide some relief among the low-lying wreckage that lies broken in two sections. Visibility can drop quickly if the soft, silty bottom is stirred up, but because the wreck is home to a wide range of invertebrates and small marine life, the Abrams is a good site for macrophotography. A nearby victim of human error rather than war is the passenger liner Proteus, which collided with the S.S. Cushing in 1918 and now sits listing to port in 120 feet of clear blue water. Visibility averages 70 feet or more, and the wreck is covered with coral and fish life, including colorful tropicals. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a sea turtle gliding by. Other favorite dive sites include the U.S. submarine Tarpon, which lies in 140 feet of water and is known for the schools of sand tiger sharks which sometimes visit the site. Broken into three large sections, the freighter Manuela is an impressive sight as it lies on its starboard side in 155 feet of water. For years, this U-boat victim was confused with the Malchace, another freighter sunk the same year. The matter was settled when diver Gary Gentile located and retrieved the Manuela's bell. Deeper still, and possibly one of the most visually impressive wrecks in the area, is the tanker E.M. Clark. This relatively intact war victim lies on its port side in 240 feet of water, swept by strong currents and beyond the reach of the average diver.THE CRYSTAL COAST Morehead City and Beaufort are both active dive centers located on what is called the Crystal Coast. Divers come here from across the country to dive the U-352. The sub was located and positively identified two decades ago by George Purifoy of the Olympus Dive Center, who has well over 1,500 dives on the sub. Purifoy's shop is part dive center, part museum. Artifacts and photographs are everywhere and cabinets are filled with the treasures he has brought up from various wrecks over the years. In 1992, as the 50th anniversary of the U-boat's sinking approached, members of the German crew were reunited with crew members of the Icarus at a series of commemorative events organized by the Purifoys. Two months prior to the sinking of U-352, the freighter Caribsea fell victim to U-158 and sank in about 80 feet of water. Most of the hull of this ship is broken open, creating a filigree of wreckage. The bow rises to about 45 feet and is particularly pretty. Diving this site, which is home to an array of colorful marine life ranging from corals and invertebrates to massive schools of grunts, is like swimming inside a huge aquarium. Visibility averages 50-60 feet on this enchanting little freighter. Part of the Caribsea's allure is what happened after its encounter with the U-boat. On board the Caribsea when she sank was James B. Gaskell, a native of nearby Ocracoke Island. Several days after the sinking, though weeks before the official announcement, the Caribsea's nameplate washed ashore on Ocracoke and Gaskell's family knew that their son had been lost. The wooden nameplate now hangs in the Park Service station at the Ocracoke ferry dock, and a cross constructed in Gaskell's memory from a piece of the wreckage sits on the altar of the Ocracoke Methodist Church. Sunk by U-124 in March 1942, the tanker Papoose lies upside down in 125-130 feet of water. Turtled wrecks can be boring, but not this one. The wreck's hull has settled to port so the starboard side is slightly elevated, giving divers some room to explore. Additionally, there are several large breaks in the mostly intact hull, which comes up about 30 feet off the bottom. Visibility is excellent, as is the plentiful fish life, including large grouper and jack. Originally a German gunboat (the Geier), the USS Schurz's short 1917 career as a U.S. Navy vessel ended in a collision that sank her in 110 feet of water. Recent storms have uncovered more artifacts amid the jumble of wreckage. Massive schools of fish gather here and can sometimes be so thick that the wreck is momentarily blocked from view as divers descend the anchor line. Even with all the historical wrecks in the area, two of the more popular dive sites are artificial reefs. The Aeolus was sunk in August 1988 in 100 feet of water. Recently, the 409-foot-long wreck was broken into three sections due to heavy storm action, but fortunately, the site has made the transition from sunken ship to reef. Moray eels, arrow crabs, shrimp, octopus, goby and a host of other marine life inhabit the wreck. The Indra became part of the artificial reef system in 1992. Large openings were cut into the sides and decks of the ship prior to sinking, but the 316-foot-long ship is otherwise intact. Located inshore, this is a good place to get your feet wet before venturing to offshore wrecks. Visibility averages only 30-40 feet, but can extend from 60 to 70 on a good day. But then again, every day you get to dive in North Carolina is a good day, and I've never known anyone for whom one trip is sufficient. Once you're hooked, it's a hard habit to break.
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