New York Wreck Diving
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In 1524, a European explorer named Giovanni da Varrazzano discovered a protected harbor that he named New Angoulême. Though he would later meet a grizzly fate in the Caribbean at the hands of cannibals, his discovery would go on to become New York City. At the time of this writing, New York Harbor has been a transatlantic shipping destination for 492 years. During that time, it has steadily grown to become one of the busiest ports in the history of mankind. As I write this article, I’m sitting outside a restaurant at City Pier A, overlooking the entrance to New York Harbor. To my right are Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty; ahead are the Varrazzano Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean. These sites are well known even to the average tourist; however, ask even a local about the sites that lie beneath the water in the harbor and it’s a different story.
Whenever I tell a local that I own a dive boat based out of the south shore of Long Island, 90% of the time the next question is, “Is there even anything to see?” My canned response is generally something like, “Shipwrecks. This has been the highway that connects the world to New York for almost 500 years. Until very recently, there was no GPS and no radar. For almost 500 years, ships have crashed into each other right off our coast. Add in two World Wars, endless fog, and the harsh winter sea and we’ve got more shipwrecks than you could imagine.”
New York City grew in part due to its protected deep water ports and close proximity to European ocean routes. From the iconic images of ships loaded with immigrants bound for a better life to the terror induced by the German U-boats of both great wars, New York owes its status as one of the greatest cities mankind has ever seen to the countless sailors whose lives upon which it was built.
The diving in the waters of New York and New Jersey is unique, but the region is often overlooked as a dive destination by those who don’t live here. However, it’s an area where the divers, dive boats, and those who have crewed them have been the topics of best-selling novels and documentaries for years, where history extends from the shipwrecks on the bottom to the boats above them in a spectacularly rare way. A late friend once tried to capture this when he wrote, “Forget the fact that these guys possess legendary diving skills and experiences; they also possess legendary wit and remorseless humor.”
But why dive here? What makes these cold, dark, distant shipwrecks so captivating? In a word: history. In every diver there is an innate desire for exploration, to see or touch something long- lost. This is still possible in the waters of the Northeast. Although 500 years of history and an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 ships lie on the bottom, very few remain diveable. There are no high- masted ships of the line lying perfectly preserved, no 200-year-old bow carvings pointing silently in the darkness. In the shallow, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic United States, the ocean’s claim over these ships starts at their sinking. Every year the wrecks we have come to
love are weathered and battered more and more. Once-familiar landmarks slowly erode into the sands beneath them. The ship’s history - and so our history, - disappears with it.
It is with this in mind that a unique culture has developed: a collection of divers whose hearts are more simpatico with the likes of Indiana Jones than that of Cousteau. While they may be union tradesmen, financiers, lawyers, doctors, opticians, watchmakers, plumbers, firemen, and policemen by the weekday, they are historians and archeologists by weekend. Make no assumptions; these men and women often know more about the history of the ships they dive than even the most learned historian.
Despite the historical archives just a boat ride away, it baffles me at times to think that our area is often only known for the wreck of the Andrea Doria. The harrowing tales of life and death involving divers on this wreck are known the world over. I, however, would like to focus on two other shipwrecks, ships that, in my opinion, have histories just as fascinating, but which are significantly more accessible than the Andrea Doria. These wrecks are the USS San Diego and the RMS Oregon.
USS San Diego
One of the most-visited shipwrecks in the Northeast is the USS San Diego. At a commanding 503 ft in length, the “Diego,” as she’s often known, was the only major warship lost by the United States during WWI. She is a time capsule of the Great War. Though the circumstances of her sinking have been argued since her demise in 1918, it is now believed that she was sunk by a mine laid by the German submarine U-156.
The wreck itself is on the National Register of Historic Places and the taking of artifacts is expressly prohibited. However, this was not always the case, and the real old-timers have some absolutely amazing artifacts in their collections. The wreck itself provides a whole world of possible dives. For those not trained in overhead diving, the mostly-intact exterior still features many of the side-mounted armaments. For wreck penetration, there are few ships that have such a vast interior to explore. It should be mentioned, however, that the wreck is in an advanced state of deterioration and great care should be exercised while touring inside. The wreck itself lies upside down in 110 ft of water, and the top of the wreck now begins around 80 ft since her internal decks are collapsing at an increasing rate. It’s amazing that she has lasted this long; her thick, armored hull has certainly given her the strength to weather a century of North Atlantic seas. This is all the more reason to get out and see her while she’s mostly in one piece.
Switching gears from military ships, our second most-dived site is the wreck of the Oregon. A former Cunard line steamship that stretched to an astonishing 521 ft in length, this ship represents the finest in 19th century transatlantic travel. After a night time collision with an unknown ship in 1886, the Oregon sank to the bottom, where she now sits upright in 125 ft of water. The ship itself is slowly being claimed by the ocean, but several prominent pieces are still clearly visible. These include her massive boilers, a large steering quadrant, propeller, bow
section, and of course, her gargantuan triple-expansion steam engine, so large a diver can actually swim through it.