For centuries, the often-treacherous waters off the Outer Banks of North Carolina have claimed hundreds of seagoing vessels. Today, wreck-loving scuba divers can reap the benefits on dozens of sites that are well preserved, accessible and packed with marine life, from thick schools of fish to scores of sand tiger sharks. Very few have more experience in the region that dive boat captain and underwater photographer, Michael Gerken, and he shares his picks for the region’s top 10 wreck dives, along with a few shots of his favorite local critters, in this gallery. To view more of Gerken’s work, visit evolutionunderwater.com.
Top Ten Wrecks
1 — U-352 Without a doubt, one of the biggest draws to the Outer Banks is the opportunity to dive on this historic World War II German U-boat. On May 9, 1942, the U-352 was cruising close to the North Carolina coast in search of enemy targets when she picked a fight with the wrong ship. The scrappy USCG Cutter Icarus was on her game that day when the U-352 opened fired with torpedoes and missed. In retaliation, the Icarus launched depth charges and sunk the U-352 in 110 feet of water, 28 nautical miles south of Morehead City. Thirteen men perished in the attack while 33 survivors were picked up by the Icarus and retuned to Charleston where they spent the rest of the war as prisoners. Sitting with a 45-degree list to starboard and her conning tower intact, the U-352 fascinates divers and strikes at their imagination when they get a glimpse of a this amazing piece of WWII history.
2 — Papoose The wreck of the Papoose has a convoluted history since in actuality it is the wreck W.E. Hutton. During the early stages of WWII, German U-boats wreaked havoc along the Eastern seaboard sinking numerous Allied merchant ships. In the confusion, the wreck of the W.E. Hutton was misidentified by the United States Navy and thought to be the wreck of the Papoose. Even though this mystery has been solved, most still refer to the ‘Hutton’ as the Papoose. Sitting upside down in 120 feet of water, the 435-foot tanker is a favorite to many divers who come to see the plethora of marine life that includes the sand tiger sharks that are seen here with regularity. With the Papoose resting nearly 36 nautical miles from shore, its popularity is increased due to the clear waters of the Gulf Stream; 100 foot of visibility is not unheard of on the Papoose aka W.E. Hutton.
3 — USCG Cutter Spar Not all the wrecks of North Carolina met their end due to tragic events. The USCG Cutter Spar is one of the many wrecks sent to the bottom as part of the North Carolina artificial reef project. The 180-foot buoy tender sits in 110 feet of water with a strong list to port. It has become a very popular dive because it’s fully intact, easily navigable and a favorite hangout for sand tiger sharks, schools of Atlantic spadefish and the occasional giant southern stingray. Amazingly, the Spar was moved 200 feet from her original location and rolled over on her port side when Hurricane Irene struck the coast in August 2011. She weathered the storm intact, though — a tough little ship.
4 — USS Schurz The captured World War I German gunship, the USS Schurz, is a classic North Carolina wreck dive. The 255-foot ship was sunk June 21, 1918, 30 nautical miles south of Beaufort Inlet, after colliding with the SS_ Florida_ while sailing at night. When discovered in the 1980s it was a popular dive for those seeking to reclaim artifacts and take home a small piece of history. Brass portholes, crew personal effects and weapons were some of the many items removed. Today, it is illegal to take artifacts from the Schurz and most are content to see the beautiful reef system this wreck site has become. Colorful sea fans, abundant marine life, dense schools of baitfish and the occasional shark keep divers returning year after year to this treasure trove of a dive site.
5 — Caribsea One of my personal favorites, the wreck of the Caribsea is one of those hit and miss dive sites. Notorious for low visibility conditions as well as large schools of sand tiger sharks, this dive can be a top shelf experience when the blue water pushes in on rare days, exposing up to 100 sand tiger sharks in one spot. Sunk on March 11, 1942, by a German U-boat attack, this 251-foot freighter sits in 90 feet of water on the east side of Cape Lookout Shoals. Scientists believe the sand tiger sharks gather here during the summer months to mate.
6 — Aeolus The Aeolus is another one of North Carolina’s popular wrecks that was sunk as part of the artificial reef program and only a few hundred feet from the wreck of the Spar. This 400-foot wreck sits in 110 feet of water and was split in two during a powerful hurricane that swept through the region in the 1990s. During the 2012 dive season, the Aeolus became home to approximately a dozen sand tiger sharks that took up residence inside the wreck. Divers returned day after day to swim right amongst the sharks in what became known as ‘Club Aeolus,’ North Carolina’s coolest shark lounge.
7 — Proteous No top ten list for North Carolina would be complete without including this gem of a wreck. The 390-foot luxury steam liner, Proteous sunk on August 19, 1918, in a collision with the SS Cushing approximately 20 nautical miles south of Cape Hatteras. Mostly a low-lying debris field, with the exception of the prominent stern and propeller, she was popular dive for artifact hunters during the 80s and 90s. Today, it is a hot spot for shark sightings, vast numbers of grouper and big pelagic life, such as African Pompano, giant amberjacks and barracudas. The added feature of the regular appearance of clear warm Gulf Stream water makes it an impressive dive.
8— Atlas Another victim of a German U-boat attack, the 430-foot Atlas tanker was sunk on April 9, 1942, only a few miles from the wreck of the Caribsea in 115 feet of water. Like the Caribsea, the visibility on the Atlas can sometimes be less than 20 feet, but when the blue water rolls in this wreck site is a showstopper. Enormous sand tiger sharks at a whopping 10 feet in length can be seen patrolling the wreck by the dozen. The marine life is thick on this wreck and an opportunity to dive it should not be missed.
9 — USS Indra The wreck of the USS Indra has many humorous aliases, such as the Indra Maru after the famed Japanese wrecks of Truk Lagoon, or the Indra Doria after the Mount Everest of wreck dives, the_ Andrea Doria._ This 330-foot landing craft was sunk in 60 feet of water only 10 miles from Beaufort Inlet as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program. Since the 1990s she has been visited by more divers probably then any other wreck off the Outer Banks. Because she is partially intact, sitting upright and within close proximity to Morehead City, she attracts both novice and advanced divers, alike. Whatever you call the ”Indra,” she is a legendary wreck site in her own right.
10 — Naeco On March 23, 1942, the 411-foot Naeco went down in a fiery mess at the hands of yet another German U-boat attack in World War II. Today, the ship sits in two distinct pieces about a mile apart some 38 nautical miles due south of Morehead City. This wreck, which sits in an average of 140 feet, is as far offshore as dive boats will venture. With clear, warm Gulf Stream water being the standard conditions here, it appeals to those divers who don’t mind the deeper depths.