By Ryan Masters
Struggling to maintain my balance on the pitching dive boat's deck, I wonder if this was what it was like for Blackbeard and his men nearly three centuries ago. Our boat is moored inside North Carolina's Beaufort Inlet, floating 22 feet above the sandbar where the infamous pirate scuttled his doomed flagship Queen Anne's Revenge to avoid capture by the British in 1718. A late summer thunderstorm is kicking up swells, and as I gear up, it's easy to imagine the pirate crew racing against time to offload their booty as their ship foundered and shook, stranded on the very shoals we're about to dive.
Conditions are less than ideal by recreational diving standards--the water is green, and just a few miles behind us, lightning rends the thick, humid afternoon air--but I feel incredibly fortunate to be here, joining the ranks of the very few divers who will ever be allowed to explore the scattered ruins of the pirate vessel in its natural state.
Because of the wreck's fragility, the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch is allowing only 36 to 48 recreational divers per year to explore the Queen Anne's Revenge before it's completely excavated by 2010 or 2011. Access to the site is offered exclusively through Dive Down, a weekend-long instructional seminar which includes lessons on coastal geology, marine ecology, wreck diving techniques, maritime history and underwater archaeology. Attending a detailed briefing on the Queen Anne's Revenge, touring the Blackbeard exhibit at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, N.C., and completing a training dive on the Theodore Parker, a popular artificial reef site, are also included in Dive Down. And the moment we arrive--at last--at the Queen Anne's Revenge site, we discover that the education was well worth it.
Edward Teach, aka the pirate Blackbeard, and his crew took as much from the ship as they could, but the wreck site, which has been under study by the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch since 1996, has yielded thousands of artifacts. Although no one has officially identified this as Blackbeard's flagship, the archaeologists insist, with little doubt, that it is.
"All of the pieces fit when you look at the historical documents and the archaeological evidence as a whole," says Chief Archaeologist and Field Supervisor Chris Southerly. "We have tight date ranges which predate the sinking or grounding and there's little other reason for a ship of this size with this kind of armament to be in these waters at this time."
After a brief descent through murky green water, we follow a single white guideline to "The Pile." It's a 25-foot-wide sculpture of fused cannons, ship planks, barrel hoops, ship's rigging and anchors. Close inspection reveals a cannonball, deadeyes (oval, doughnut-looking devices used to guide rigging lines), strops and various other unidentifiable items. The Pile is also littered with spiny black urchins. A few curious triggerfish swirl by and a sheephead searches for something to crack open with its teeth. Varieties of coralline algae, encrusting bryozoans, sponges, corals, barnacles or oysters encrust every exposed inch of the wreck. We've been warned of a moody oyster toadfish who lives in pile debris. It will bite.
Visibility is limited to a few feet, but thanks to the comprehensive pre-dive seminar, we can visualize the surrounding area of the wreck--even if we can't see it. Swimming to the south, we count eight intact cannons in various states of exposure on the shifting sands. A guideline from the pile leads us 25 feet into the green water and to the wreck's most obvious feature: a large anchor that rises out of the sand like a ghostly grave marker. In fact, the wreck is like an unofficial underwater monument to Blackbeard--one of the most intriguing and terrifying personalities in early American history. And if you're as equally fortunate as I was, you'll also bear witness to the haunting imagery of maritime history.
Getting There: Morehead City and Beaufort Inlet are located on North Carolina's Crystal Coast, about a three-hour, 180-mile drive southeast of the Raleigh-Durham area. Take I-40 East to Route 53 East and Route 24 East.
Conditions: Although the visibility off North Carolina's Outer Banks is excellent, the vis is extremely limited at the Queen Anne's Revenge, between only two and 10 feet. No dives are made if visibility is less than two feet. Also, expect heavy surge.
Dive Drill: Visit www.qaronline.org or contact Dive Down Project Coordinator Lauren Hermley, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (252) 528-0026 for more information. The 2008 Dive Down programs are scheduled for June 7-8; July 19-20 and Aug. 16-17. Cost is $500 per diver, and an advanced open-water scuba certification is required.