Flying into Raleigh on Friday 23rd, we picked up our rental car for week, ate some NC bbq, and then spent the night at a hotel near the airport. In the morning we checked out and drove the 3 hours down to Morehead City. The drive was easy, though the city bypass roads are not always marked well. Regardless, we still made the trek in under 3 hours. Our first stop was at Olympus Diving, with whom we had booked 3 days of diving.
Our trip to North Carolina was two-fold. First, we wanted to dive the wrecks of the "Graveyard of the Atlantic". During WWII, German submarines patrolled the waters up and down the eastern seaboard, taking down ships of all sizes. The coast of North Carolina has many of these ships within recreational dive depths and the dive operations in Morehead City visit some of them on a regular basis. There is also a true diving treasure, the wreck of the U-352, a German u-boat which was sunk 26 miles off the coast and recently discovered. More information on this sub is found here: The U-352 The second reason for our trip was to visit my family for a day, up in Greensboro. I hadn't seen most of them in many years as we have been living out West and our dive travels have never brought us to this region.
Windy conditions had plagued the NC coastal areas for most of the month of July, so dive boats had not been going out every day. When we arrived Saturday afternoon, many boats were all sitting at the dock, a sign that diving had been cancelled for the day. We went inside Olympus Dive Shop, filled out the paperwork, and chatted with the staff. The prospects of going out for diving on Sunday, our first scheduled day, did not look promising. Weather forcasts still showed high winds, which meant waves, big waves, too big to dive safely. We were instructed to meet in the morning on the dock at 6am where the boat Capt would make the call.
After visiting Olympus Dive Shop, we decided to drive to the other dive shops in the area, check out their boats and stores, etc. First on the agenda was to find our hotel, Quality Inn, located on the main drag through town. After checking into our hotel and a quick lunch at Panera Bread, yum! our next stop was Discovery Diving in Beaufort, a 5 minute drive from Olympus. As expected, their boats were also sitting at the dock, so we went inside and checked out the store. It is a nice sized dive shop and they own 3 boats, 2 larger and a 6-pack. We had been given good reports about this dive op and would definitely consider using them. We then drove over to Atlantic Beach area to visit the beach which was hopping, despite the wind. People were sunning, splashing in the ocean, and playing volleyball. On the causeway between Atlantic Beach and Morehead City, we found DiverDown's Dive shop and boat dock. The shop was closed and the boat was not docked there so we headed back to our hotel to unpack and start assembling camera gear. Olympus had told us that we were welcome to go ahead and bring over our gear and place it on the boat for the night, so we packed up two mesh bags containing our fins, masks, and BCs and headed back to the Olympus shop. We were scheduled to be on their smaller boat, the Midnight Express, so we put the mesh bags under the seats and left. Since no food is provided on any of these all-day diving charters, we stopped at a gocery store to pick up sandwiches, sodas, water, and snacks to put in a small collapsable cooler for the boat. Our hotel had a refrigerator in the room which worked out nicely for week. Morehead city has a large number of restaurants, both local seafood places and the usual chain restaurants. We opted for Ruddy Duck, an oceanfront restaurant/bar for dinner then returned to hotel to crash for the night.
At 4:30am our alarm clock went off, we dressed and walked down to the "free breakfast" at the hotel lobby starting at 5am. There was another group staying at the hotel that had requested breakfast early (normal service start is 6am). Cereals, milk, yogurt, a waffle-making setup, various rolls and bread and fruit were all out as promised. After eating breakfast, we packed up the cooler with our lunch and drinks, our camera gear and regulators, and drove to the Olympus dock. We had not gotten our tanks yet as they wanted to wait to check weather reports. We stood around on the dock with a few dozen other divers waiting for the call - and at 6am Bobby came out and said it was a "No Go" for the day. Since it was the last dive day for many of the divers, they started unloading the boat and packing up gear in their vehicles. We headed back to hotel to crash for an hour and decide on our plan for the day.
After a nap, we both decided that we should make the drive down to Wilmington, 2 hours away. The reason? The USS North Carolina, of course! Since our goal was to dive some WWII wrecks there on the NC coast, it was a good idea to see a battleship that was still intact, open to public to explore. We arrived at the battleship around 11am and it was already hot. Luckily, not too many people had arrived yet so parking lot was nearly empty. Entry charge is $12 for adults, $10 for military. The battleship is a self-tour, you just walk around at your leasure, following the arrows. First thing you enter is the museum with scale models of all the US North Carolina ships dating back to 1800s, through the current submarine by that name. Artifacts, timelines describing the ships mission, and photos are there for each individual ship. It was very interesting! Next you walk up the walkway to the WWII battleship. Most of the ship is open to public and there are plaques and displays explaining everything about each room - kitchen, bakery, bunkrooms for sailors and officers, bathrooms, engine rooms, turrets and guns, etc. We spent only an hour and a half walking around but we could have spent much more! The heat was really stiffling, especially down inside the ship, plus we wanted to get back to Morehead City before dinnertime. It was a very enjoyable day. At the end of the tour, you can go into the gift shop and purchase all types of items related to the battleship or you can tour the museum again.
We arrived back in Morehead City mid-afternoon and stopped by the Olympus shop again to check in. The two boats were almost empty as most of the divers had left. We were informed that the next day, Monday, only the Olympus, the big boat was going out, so we could move our gear over to it. After a bit of strolling around at the waterfront shops, we found the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Wow, what a great museum. Displays of all types of wildlife, fish, and historic information for the area is laid out in a 2 story building. Admission is free but donations are accepted. It was 4:30pm when we arrived, with closing time on Sunday's at 5pm so we did not have nearly enough time to explore all the displays. We will have to go back another day. Afterwards, we decided to go to Rap's Grill & Bar for dinner, right in downtown Morehead City (really good choice!), then to grocery store to pick up food for our boat trip the next day.
We arrived at the dock at 6am along with 20 other divers, several of them Olympus staff who were diving with students or diving on their day off. (Gotta love a dive shop where all the staff dives!) Bobby came out and said that the wind was expected to shift, so we should all meet back at the dock at 8am.
At 7:30am we returned, signed in, got our tanks and analyzed them, 30% nitrox, then put them on the boat and setup our gear. Other divers arrived shortly afterwards and did the same. Only a few divers were using air, most using nitrox, several divers had doubles, several divers using 100s or 120s. By 8am everyone was onboard and we pulled away from dock. Woo Hoo! Seas were still a bit rough, expected to be 3-5' out at the deep wrecks, so Bobby opted for 2 in-shore wrecks.
Complete lists of the wrecks in the area:
Olympus Diving area wrecks information and Discovery Diving area wrecks information
Dive 1: The Titan
The boat pulled away from the docks just after 8am, seas looking 1-3' for the ride of an hour plus. Many people finished setting up gear, others napped downstairs or up on sundeck area. The crew gave a 15 minute warning as we approached the wreck and everyone began to gear up. At the dive site, one of the DMs dressed including a full-face mask with communication device and grabbed the anchor, then jumped in. Once he had secured the anchor line to the wreck, he then ran a wreck reel with orange line from the anchor across and down the wreck for navigation purposes for everyone. He then communicated with Bobby, the boat captain who gave the dive briefing complete with a diagram of the wreck. He explained the NC rigging system, how to find the wreck (never leave the line all the way down or back up), and the hangbar safety stop system under the boat. He also told us that the DM told him that the current was running from bow to stern of wreck, and with the anchor at the stern, that meant that at end of dive we could just drift back to anchor line easily. He also relayed to us that the vis was only about 20' at best, but there was a nice sized baitball on the wreck.
We were one of the first divers in the water. Ron had his Dslr camera, which the DM handed down to him after he did the giant stride off the side of the boat, and I had my video rig. Water temp at the surface was a lovely 80 degrees but we hit a thermocline just above the wreck. The Titan is a tugboat, sunk in 2004 as part of their artificial reef system on NC coastline. It is 105' long approx, and already completely encased in marine growth. We found the current a bit strong on the port side of the wreck but we managed to flip up onto the deck and reach the bow after a few minutes. More than one baitball swirled around the ship, each containing different species of fish. One baitball was definitely small damselfish of some sort, another baitball seemed to be small silvery fish, possibly scad or herring. Inside the wreck we found lots of fish, also, including a dozen or so spadefish, various snapper and damselfish. Jellyfish, both large and small were everywhere and most were being eaten by groups of small fish. Some large concrete pipe sections are also strewn along the seabed in the area and we ventured away from the wreck to examine a few of them before returning to the wreck. To our amazement, there were a couple of sharks on this dive! We had read that the Titan rarely has sharks, but on our descent down the rope we saw one large one in mid-water (too far away to identify species) and then a smaller sand tiger shark was on the main deck area, swimming back and forth. I was able to get some footage of this cute little guy.
Since this was our first dive of the trip, we played it a bit more conservative and when we reached 1000psi we headed for the anchor line to do a slow, long ascent. Shortly after we started up, more divers began to follow, some even passed us on the line heading straight for the 15' hangbar area. We took our time and did a nice long trip up. Max depth 61', 39 minutes bottom time, 30% nitrox.
Back on the boat, we swapped out tanks, rinsed off the camera gear, then headed to the bathroom. ~smile~ Gotta love a boat with a head. Afterwards, we grabbed the sunscreen, t-shirts and hats and headed up top to sit and eat our lunches. A few other divers joined us up there, a few divers spent the SI at the rails feeding the fish. The seas were still a bit rocky, definitely 1-3' seas, and the boat did rock but it was not a problem for either of us. After everyone was onboard, the other DM jumped in the water to retrieve the anchor and all lines and hangbars. The boat then moved to the next dive site.
Dive 2: The Indra
At this dive site the process repeated, the DM jumped in and set the anchor and lines, a very good dive briefing was given and we jumped into the water with about an hour and half surface interval.
The Indra is a much bigger ship than the Titan at 328' long. It was a Landing Craft Repair Ship and was sunk in 1992 as part of the artificial reef system. Once again, there was some current which the DM reported was moving across the wreck at an angle but a bit stronger than the previous dive. Vis was again reported to be only 20'. We geared up and jumped in. Wow, this wreck was big, and with the low vis it seemed to go on and on forever. Ron and I both opted to leave cameras on the boat and we were regretting it immediately. The current was there, but nothing too difficult for us, so we just toured around the wreck and enjoyed all the fishlife. Once again, tons of fish, I mean thousands of fish, really huge schools. At some points it was hard to even see the wreck from all the fish! There were numerous penetration points on this wreck and we stuck our heads into various rooms to check them out. Inside we saw dozens of spadefish again, and on the main deck we were lucky enough to see a free-swimming spotted toadfish, most likely an oyster toadfish. We also saw a few large sharks circling the wreck off in distance though we could not identify which species. This was an excellent dive site, I could imagine how great it would be with better vis. It would also be a great wreck for training as there was so much to see and all the penetration points appeared to give easy entry and exit with light always visible. I wished I had the video rig with me, even with the current and low vis!
Once again, we headed up the rope and did a nice long ascent. Max depth 60', 48 minutes bottom time, 30% nitrox.
We arrived back at the Olympus Dive Shop dock around 4pm, unloaded tanks and left most of the gear on the boat for the next day, hoping for better weather. Our wetsuits were rinsed at the dock rinse tanks and then we left them hanging overnight on the boat to dry. We took the cameras and regulators back to the hotel. After showering and soaking the cameras, we headed out to dinner. Raps Bar & Grill was recommended on the Olympus website it turned out to be our favorite as we enjoyed the food, service, and atmosphere. After dinner we headed to grocery store to pick up the lunch foods for the next day, then back to hotel to crash early.
We arrived at the dock at 5:45am, checked in and analyzed our tanks. Bobby appeared at 6am and said things looked good for the outer wrecks. He had a report from a fishing boat that the current was ripping at the sub, so he planned for us to go up to the Caribsea instead. Yeah, a WWII wreck!! The boat pulled away from the dock at 7am with some new divers and some from the previous day. The seas were much calmer than the day before! Bobby told all the divers about the conditions and reports, and we headed out of the harbor. Some divers began to grumble about going to the Caribsea instead of the Sub and as soon as we passed the lighthouse and headed southeast I knew plans had changed. (the Caribsea would be northeast). I headed into the wheelhouse and asked what was our destination. The grumbling of the natives had been reported so Bobby had radioed boats out in the area to get a report. A boat told him that the seas were not bad, so he decided to attempt the U-352 sub. After a 2 hour run, we arrived in the area of the sub but seas were 3-5'. Definitely didn't look good, currrent seemed to be ripping, so Bobby turned to boat and headed for the Spar instead.
Dive 3: The Spar
The USCG Spar was a Coast Guard Cutter sunk in 2004, just like the Titan, but in deeper depth. At 110' depth and 185' long, it had become the home of many sand tiger sharks and a favorite dive site of all the dive ops in Morehead City area. We arrived there joining 3 other dive boats. Since they had arrived before us, we took our time hooking up to wreck, hoping they would be done and leaving soon. Our DMs report was that vis was bad, 20-30' again which is unusual for these deeper wrecks this time of year, and there was a strong current, but the good news was that sharks were everywhere. Woo hoo! I decided once again to leave the video camera on the boat (yes, wrong decision once again). Large sharks circled the line all the way down to the wreck and once on the deck we were greeted with several sand tigers who acted like we weren't even there. I hovered inches off the deck, out of the currrent, and 3 sharks swirled around me, first coming straight at my face, then turning at the last minute. It was awesome! One shark was so close I could have pet him, stroking his back as he slowly glided by less than a foot from my face. I restrained myself, but I was tempted!
At 1000psi, we headed for the anchor and did a nice slow ascent again. On the line the current was ripping and especially at the 15' hangbar line divers looked like flags flapping in the breeze. One by one we would let go and swim like crazy back to the ladders. It was rough getting back on boat as it was really bucking but we made it back onboard without injury. Max depth 99', 35 minutes bottom time, 30% nitrox.
Instead of staying in the area for the second dive, the boat was moved to the Indra again. When we arrived we found the other 3 boats were also arriving.
Dive 4: The Indra
Back at the Indra, I was determined to take the video camera in for this dive. The DM reported 20' vis again,
just like the day before, but I didn't care. We were in the water quickly and down the line. Once again, we were
greeted by huge schools of fish, though having so many divers on the same site was a bit annoying.
Max depth 57', 50 minutes bottom time, 30% nitrox.
It was our last day of diving, so when the boat returned to the dock just before 4pm, we unloaded and washed the gear in the rinse tanks and took everything back to the hotel. We set out all the gear to dry, then headed back to dive shop to buy a few mommentos, then out to dinner again.
In the morning we ate breakfast then packed up all the dive gear in our SUV and headed back to Raleigh. We stopped for lunch at The Pit which we HIGHLY recommend if you are in the area. Great Carolina style BBQ, great service, great prices. It is downtown Raleigh but only about 10-15 minutes from out hotel near the airport. We checked into the hotel at noon, spread all the dive gear out to finish drying, then called my family in Greensboro and told them we were on the way. We spent the afternoon visiting with my elderly mother, then met my sister and her husband, their two daughters and two young granddaughers for dinner at a local restaurant. It was a fun afternoon and evening with family, discussing our vacation and the diving with sharks which really fascinated the kids. We arrived back in Raleigh at our hotel around 9pm.
Our flight home was not until 3:30pm, so we spent the morning walking around at UNC Chapel Hill and relaxing. The flight home was uneventful for us, but their were weather related cancellations for many flights so the airport was full of unhappy people at both Raleigh and Chicago (where we changed planes).
We really enjoyed our trip to North Carolina! The diving was fantastic, though we only got out 2 days and didn't get to see any of the infamous WWII wrecks or the U-352 sub. We enjoyed the diving so much we are planning a return trip soon but for a full week of diving. Thanks to Olympus Diving, we found everyone to be knowledgeable and professional. Weather is something you can not predict, especially the area of these wrecks. For that reason, I recommend anyone coming plan to spend a week and to keep in mind that days may get cancelled. There are plenty of topside activities to keep you interested if you are stuck on land for a day, also. The battleship NC in Wilmington is worth the visit and $12 admission price. The NC Maritime Museum is also worth several hours of your time and is located in Beafort. There are also beaches and outer island tours, lighthouses and Blackbeard the Pirate. Divers with non-diving family members can definitely plan a trip to the area and everyone have a great vacation.
If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to bring appropriate meds, the boats do rock and you are on the boat all day long. Also, boats do not provide any food, so bring a small cooler or food to go in the boat's coolers with your choice of snacks, drinks, and sandwiches, etc. There are toaster ovens and a microwave on the Olympus boats, not sure about other area boats. The diving in NC is great, but not necessarily the best for newer divers or those who have concerns about current, deep diving, or diving in low visibility. Though 100' vis can be found on the deeper wrecks some months of the year, we did not see better than 30-40' at any site due to rough weather. Also, be sure to take all safety gear in case you need to surface off the line, SMB and mirror are highly recommended. Though it did not happen to us, another boat had a "lost diver" incident while we were there. He was found after a large search was launched by all the dive boats in area. He did NOT have proper safety equipment, so he was lucky to be found in such rough seas that day.
Olympus Dive Center, Morehead City, NC
Discovery Diving, Beaufort, NC
Diver Down Scuba, Morehead City, NC
USS Battleship North Carolina
NC Maritime Museum