“Wreck diving drew me in through its connection to history,” Dave Sommers began. “When you can add in an abundance of sea life, it’s hard to beat. Cape Hatteras gives you both—plus a great diversity of species. We get marine life that comes south from the North Atlantic with the Labrador Current, and Caribbean species that are brought north with the Gulf Stream. All of this tremendous sea life gathers around the wrecks. You never know what you’re going to find off Cape Hatteras, and I guess that’s why it continues to hold my attention.”
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras is part of the barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks. It’s the most eastern point in the state of North Carolina—and for that matter, the most eastern point below the Mason-Dixon Line. The confluence of the Labrador and Gulf Stream currents off Cape Hatteras has over time created an obstacle called Diamond Shoals, which reaches some miles to sea. The shallowness of the shoals, combined with the frequency and fury of storms that lash the coast hereabouts, have made Cape Hatteras the site of countless shipwrecks. The first recorded wreck was in 1585, a ship called the Tyger, part of England’s second expedition to North America. Perhaps the most famous was the USS Monitor, one of the US Navy’s first ironclad warships. The Monitor engaged the USS Merrimack (renamed the Virginia by the Confederates) in March of 1862 in Hampton Roads, and the battle was considered a draw, though a victory for the concept of ironclad ships. It foundered near the Diamond Shoals in December of that year in a storm. (Storms and shoals weren’t the only hazards facing ships plying the Gulf Stream off Hatteras; German U-boats claimed a number of ships during both world wars.)
Cape Hatteras. Processes Driving
There are scores of wrecks off Cape Hatteras that dive-charter operators frequent; inshore, there are a host of artificial reef/wrecks that are of less interest to seasoned divers. When pressed to name a favorite, Dave was quick to reply: “The one I’m on today! Each one has its own special flavor. Some are fascinating junk piles, some have consistently good visibility. Others almost always have great fish life. Two wrecks that are among the most popular are the Proteus and the Tarpon.” The Proteus was a passenger freighter that sunk in 1918 while attempting to round the cape without running lights to avoid German subs; it collided with a tanker, the Cushing. The site of the Proteus generally offers clear water, and is an excellent spot to find sharks, sea turtles, and occasionally mantas. “People who come out to dive want to see sharks,” Dave continued, “and I can almost guarantee that experience around a wreck like the Proteus—especially sand tigers. I’ve been in the water with 200 or 300 at a time.” Sand tigers—also known as ragged-tooth sharks—have an impressive array of teeth and menacing yellow eyes, making for a perfect picture of shark malice, though in the waters off Cape Hatteras they are not considered dangerous.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Remains
The Tarpon was a US Navy submarine that had served in the Pacific theater in World War II. It had a somewhat ignominious end in 1956, when it sunk off the cape as it was being towed to a scrap yard. The Tarpon rests at nearly 150 feet, but those able to make the dive will be able to access the control room and torpedo hatches. “The Tarpon is a great spot to find lionfish,” Dave continued. “And you never know what pelagics might show up—that goes for the Tarpon, and many of the other wrecks. I’ve encountered nurse sharks, lemon sharks, tiger sharks, oceanic white-tip, silkies, makos, and bull sharks; four kinds of rays; three species of tuna; loggerhead and leatherback turtles; in short, everything from tropical blennies to goliath groupers. We’ve had pilot whales, and even whale sharks. Visitors should know that most of the diving is pretty advanced, using anchor lines. There’s a strong current, a lot of deeper dives, and often rough seas. It’s a little wild out there, but perhaps because of that, there’s less people pressure.”
Toward the end of the 2007 season, Dave and his wife had an experience that encapsulates the best of wreck diving, and the best of what Cape Hatteras has to offer. “My wife and I were diving out on the Kassandra [the Kassandra Louloudis, a Greek freighter that was torpedoed by a German sub in March of 1942 as it came to the aid of a torpedoed American oil tanker, the Acme],” Dave recounted. “We had seen some dishware in the sand, and we were digging the dishes out. Suddenly it became very dark. At first we couldn’t tell why, and then we realized it was a massive animal body blocking the light. I thought it was a large shark, but then the animal turned and came toward us—it was a manta ray. It stopped an arm’s length away and looked at us. We were so close, we could see the eye rotating. It then slowly hovered up, like a spaceship, and went out of sight. We gathered up the dishes we’d found and put them in our goody bag, and struck out after the manta … and sure enough, we found it again before it was time to surface.”
If You Go:
Getting There: The closest major airport to Cape Hatteras is in Norfolk, Virginia, which is roughly three and a half hours away; Norfolk is served by many major carriers.
Best Time to Visit: The diving season is May to October. Visibility can vary depending on ocean conditions.
Accommodations: Hatteras City and Buxton are the main points of departure for Cape Hatteras diving expeditions. The Dive Hatteras Website has an extensive list of accommodations at www.divehatteras.com/areainfo.htm.
Dive Shops/Guides: There are a number of charter outfits serving Hatteras wreck-diving enthusiasts, including Dive Hatteras (703-818-1850; www.divehatteras.com) and Outer Banks Diving (252-986-1056; www.outerbanksdiving.com).
Recommended by Dave Sommers