The forecast for the weekend was for one good day and one windy day. At first the windy day was Saturday, then Sunday. It didn't much matter as Hurricane Bonnie was off Florida and I knew we'd get more than our tolerance of ground swells. As Capt. Billy Birch said once, "those ground swells get them (the seasick prone charter) every time." What's worse they stir up the bottom. It did not look like a good weekend for diving in Carolina.
Ron, Matt, Penny and I loaded the horse trailer and motorhome and headed south Friday afternoon pulling into Teach's Lair marina at midnight. Karen had followed us in a BIG borrowed pickup truck loaded with 5 days of gear ready for a fine week of diving on the monitor. We met Jim Meenen at the boat waiting for the hotel RV. After a fair nights sleep and breakfast at the yuppie marina, we loaded Arties boat carefully taking only the basic equipment as there were nine of us and we have been known to get Artie going on what we bring. Mike Boyle, Brian and Terry completed the list of 9.
We had a brief discussion of where to go. Someone heard that the Proteus only had 15 feet the day before. That is an indicator that everything may be poor, but there was NO wind. For several days the Diamond Shoals light tower had been reporting 1 to 7 knots. A rare situation in Hatteras. What the hell, let's dive the Gem (Empire Gem). It had been a long time, maybe two years for me - I might even have suggested it. I thought that we could do that first and the Australia second. Artie was not excited about the idea, but we headed to the Gem on the "prettiest kind of day". Three or four even rode the bow most of the way. It was just one of those days. The water was slick with a fine powder on it, an occasional moth laying spread wing and baby flying fish the size of bumble bees taking off for there first flight of a foot or so.
If everything was so great, why did Artie and Dillon have trouble hooking the stern? Finally Dillion jumped in after the anchor while Artie hovered over the wreck. There was only a light current, but the water looked great - not pretty blue, but clear. We were anchored in the stern aft of the boiler and the vis was poor. It would not bother most of us as we knew the wreck well. Just forward of the boiler is a monster diesel engine and always one of my favorite thing to look at. The vis soon got worse for divers swimming around stirring up the layer of silt that powered everything. It was a weird summer in that area. A big push of cold water came across the shoals in mid May (see the report and satellite imagery). The south bound Labrador current ends at Diamond Shoals where it gets pinched off by the strong Northeast bound Gulf stream current. As a result the Labrador current dumps all it's silt around the shoals and when there is a strong push of cold water across the shoals it brings along a lot of the bottom silt. It seems to take forever and a strong inshore blue Gulf stream current to clear it out of the area between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout when it does. This year the blue warm current rudely stayed off shore. There were a lot of cool green dives there this year compared to most years.
I finally decided to go over the side and down around the bottom of the hull and look for big fish around the propeller and along the side. It was very dark down there and no fish. I slowly headed up the side of the wreck for the top. I saw the light coming over the edge of the port side as I got within a few feet of it. All of a sudden there was a large pectoral fin obscuring my left vision very quickly followed by a bump on my head. A violent activity followed. I was greatful my mask was still on. I had come up under a fair sized shark and hit him in the chest between his pectorals. We both reflexed very fast - him more so than me do to his ability and not my desire. I never saw anything more than the fin which seemed to be somewhere between 18 inches and very big! Later on the boat Brian said, "did you see that shark?" Yea, I saw about 18 inches of him and it was a view that I'd never had seen before. I got to look at it r-e-a-l close, but not for very long. From the way he reacted, I scared the crap out of the beast. The feeling was mutual. I guess it's good to have mutual feeling with the sharks if you are going to have personal contact.
That was the second time the Gem gave me a good shark scare. A few years ago I swam out of an opening in the stern (very close to this location) and came face-to-face with a Sand Tiger heading toward me. Before reaching me he turned and I let my guard down. The turn continued a full 360 at the speed of light. I had my UK-1200 with lanyard around my wrist, in my right hand in front of me. He nailed it so fast I did not have time to get my crowbar, which was in my left hand, up for defense. The word "fast" fails to describe the situation. I was sure my hand was in his mouth with the light and I pulled back releasing the light which was thrashing from left to right violently. He was gone in a flash and so was the front of my light. I never did have time to use the crowbar. Cringing in the overhang I watched as the shark came flying past several times with his mouth propped open and the front of my light in his mouth! He looked like a F-100 with a nose scoop! I looked up to see Peter Feuerle, the great white hunter, stuffing fish in a bag. I pointed the shark out to Peter and he gave me one of those "yea, I know" nods. The shark continued to zoom past about every 30 seconds. Later, on the boat, Peter expressed concern that he had caused the situation. I asked how and he said the shark got aggressive demanding Peter's fish. Finally Peter hit him in the head - hard. Peter said, "I guess that's when he went for you!"
Silt and sharks were left on the Gem as Dillion pulled the anchor and we headed for the Hesperides. It seemed a good day for the shoals as the swell was small and the wind had been calm for days. No disappointment with that decision. The last time we were on it was before divers dove it and it was solid fish. It was the only time I'd ever seen big sheeps head and there were literally hundreds of them. Roger would not let us spear fish - he wanted to protect the wreck. It was a once in a life dive then, but now there have been many spear guns on the wreck. I rolled over the side with my new spear gun as soon as the anchor took up leaving the "jerry" line for others to deploy. The wreck is so shallow that many times my computer went into the wierd "--" mode that it selects when in less than 30 feet. It was set for 30% O2 to match my EAN 30 in doubles. This was going to be a nice dive and I hoped Artie would not give up and leave us.
There was a surge on the bottom, but the vis was GREAT and plenty of light at 30 feet. However, it was a far cry from the way it looked last time we were there. A real case in point of what divers and fishermen can do to an accessible wreck. The Hatteras Light was visible from the boat and so was the wreck. The engine and stern come very close to the surface. I picked out one sheeps head as I'd never had one. The wreck was covered in spade fish and a few tautogs and trigger fish. Schools of bait fish came by from time to time. One school was a very long fish that I'd never seen before; there were millions of them. I looked for flounder, but saw none. I picked up some of the iron ore that had spilled out of the wreck everywhere from the old freighter that sunk in 1897. The chunks were noticeably heavy under water.
Finally I had a large stringer of fish as I had plenty of time to be selective. The jerry line lay across the bottom with the weight in the condenser where we were anchored. I took it out and followed the line across the bottom to make sure it was not fouled in some wreck. There was the hang line with the weight laying in the sand and a bunch of line laying in a heap. I went back to the wreck and took another trip to the stern where Jim Meenen was lurking in hole around the propeller and rudder swaying in the surge waiting for a fish to come out. On my last trip past there I found a large loggerhead turtle sleeping under a chunk of wreck. He did not like my company and swam off while I stood there watching and in no hurry. It was days like this that God created wrecks and scuba.
I swam the entire length of the 286 foot wreck inside the walls of the hull, past the huge engine to the bow and never saw a soul. Returning to the anchor I got another trigger fish and still no one. I looked at my bottom time, for the first time - "88". At first I thought it was the depth, but no, it was my bottom time. With almost half of my gas left it seemed absurd to go up. Last time I saw my computer calculate my no decompression time remaining it was something like 167 minutes. I assumed we had run out Arties tolerance and I surfaced after a token 2 minute hang. It was a beautiful day and fun out on the water.
On the way in Artie began to grumble about how heavy all our stuff was. Gee, I thought we were traveling light - as light as ever. More than half of us were diving singles and the back deck was as uncluttered as I'd ever seen it. So what gives? Art and Penny B. had a few words while he kept looking at the calculated speed on the GPS. Finally he suggested that maybe we should leave the hang line off the boat next time. I left as it seemed like a very strange conversation and I had no clue what was Artie's problem. Last thing I heard him say was, "it feels like there is 500 pounds of water in this boat". Back at the dock Art looked over the stern of the boat and lifted the rear hatch. Low and behold, there was about 18 inches of water in the stern and alot further forward too, I assumed. He turned on the pump and soon the boat was ridding 3 inches higher. I think the 500 pounds was a bit of an understatement. An apology to Penny followed. We all felt better.
Sunday was just as pretty, but more swell. We made an error and went to the City of Atlanta on the East side of the shoals. Again the water was clear and pretty, not a ripple. The shoals however were getting some swells across them. The wreck was a cloud of silt in the bottom surge. Some of the divers power stroking around didn't help either. Maybe there is something to be said for learning the cave kick, as strange as it looks. Poor Ron, lost another spear gun. We saw it sink from the stern of the Margie II while Ron was on the ladder. Well, he almost got it back on the boat.
The trip back was fantastic. By the time we got to the shoals it was something to look at. The swells from the hurricane were breaking in big rollers - not at all like it had been a couple of hours before. Artie drove us in close to look as we were on the forming side of the breakers with the Hatteras light house in the background and calm water where we were. I crossed my finger and hoped the engine kept running. Kinda scary actually, but not as scary as the inlet. By now there were some good rollers and we surfed through between a couple. An hour later we watched the MAC go out with an afternoon charter to see nothing and puke. One of the charter boats that came through with us said he thought the inlet would be hell in another four hours. We were glad we'd skipped the second dive. The whole weekend was beautiful to be out on the boat. It just couldn't be beat.