June 29, 2011 - The U-352 or Bust!

To all newcomers to my dive blog report please see my previous postings to get the gist of this blog.
The Olympus Dive Center, Morehead City, NC.
This past weekend the Midnight Express had many divers joining us including a group from Columbia SCUBA in Maryland who drove down for two days of diving on Saturday and Sundays charters.  Unfortunately, on Saturday, Mother Nature had a different agenda for these folks other than diving.  She blew her winds pretty hard forcing all the boats to stay at the dock (see last weeks blog).  Everyone looking to spend a day on the ocean and underneath it with Olympus Dive Center would have to use there imaginations and find other attractions in the area to preoccupy their time.  Some went to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, others might have walked the beaches while some wandered around the dive shop with hands in their pockets. You see, dive shops are much more than a place to get dive training, purchase equipment and sign up for dive charters.  They are places where some go to socialize, find old friends, make new ones and tell a few dive stories while they wait for the weather to improve so they can GO DIVING!  
The Olympus Dive Center, the crux of all diving
activities on the Carolina Coast.  (Notice the cool photos on the wall ;)
Saturday was such a scene.  Divers could be seen lurking in the T-Shirt section staring at the same shirts over and over again while others sat slouched at the table with rueful looks on their faces but with optimistic attitudes.  Various conversations popped up amongst different circles of people about the best diving, the best regulator or the best place for a slice of Pizza in Morehead City (which happens to be Luigi's).  I do love the dive shop environment.  There are few places where I can go to share my love for diving. One such place to find this type of camaraderie that is better than the dive shop would be on my dive boat the Midnight Express doing 17 knots due south on  flat calm day heading for the wreck of the Spar, the U-352, the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose, or any of a dozen stellar dive sights off the Carolina Coast.
The T-shirt section of Olympus Dive Center where many a diver
wander aimlessly on 'blow days'.
Sunday morning I awoke at the usual hour of about 0445 and stumbled across my townhome in to my office and flipped open my Mac and powered her up.  The intense light from the computer screen causes me to groan and hide my face as though I'm some sort of vampire.  After my eyes adjust to the sting the first web site I head to is the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration buoy reports.  These ocean buoys positioned in many places around the globe report information such as water temperature, salinity content, currents, and most importantly to us wave height and wind speed.  After a precursory glance I deemed the conditions to be much improved than the prior day with a good chance of making offshore to our desired dive locations.  The rest of my morning is spent packing up some food, inhaling breakfast, throwing on a crew shirt and heading out to the dive shop (yes, I also put shorts on).

I arrived at the shop and life is abuzz again with word spreading that we are a go for the days diving.  Tanks are loaded and equipment stowed on board. My group from Columbia Divers heads up the roster while an assortment from other destinations rounds it up to 18 divers on the Midnight Express.  I already knew from the day before that the vast majority of passengers want to dive the infamous German U-Boat, the wreck of the U-352.  I said I would do all that I can do within the realm of safe boating and diving to make it happen.  Once all were on board my crew cast off the lines and we headed out towards Beaufort Inlet.
The U-352 during WWII.
After getting out past the criss crossed choppy currents of the inlet we head south directly in to a fairly large ocean swell but with ample space between the waves where I could make decent headway but not without feeling like you were on a low budget amusement park ride.  Uuuuuup and dooooown, uuuuuup and dooooown.  We make it to our destination in a timely fashion and dive mate, John Thompson, would be the one to tie us in to the wreck.  
John dons his flaming pink weight belt and layers up with a mere 3mm neoprene sleeveless vest and his board shorts, grabs the anchor and leaps over the side on my orders holding a very expensive well insured SLR housed camera in his free hand. John is a man of many contrasts indeed.  After about a half a minute I get a pleasant call up from John on the headset.  "About 50 foot of visibility with a Giant Southern Stingray and a Loggerhead Sea Turtle within eye shot" he reports. Very cool.  This had the potential for a good dive.

I head to the back deck and immediately assess that some of the divers were looking a little green in the gills due to the pitching and yawing of the vessel from the large swell left over from the rough seas the day before.  A quick but thorough briefing was in order for this dive.  "190' long tube with a conning tower in the middle, starboard list, 110 feet max depth, no current and 50 foot of visibility now lets go diving!" I say.  Of course I also went through the safety routines as well but, today I would have to spare them though the details of the in depth and fascinating history of this wreck and get them all on there way to the bottom.
Mate,  John Thompson making the perfect 'jump' with mate, Mike Phillips assisting.
Notice the SLR housed camera in hand.  An insured SLR camera that is.
Photo courtesy of Chris Walker www.chriswalkerphotos.com.
After a few minutes nearly all of the divers made a drop over the side of the boat, drained some air from their buoyancy compensators and disappeared down the anchor line heading for the U-352. New readers to my blog can  peruse previous postings and find lots of information on the U-352.  Plus I will be posting a story I wrote on the wreck that is to be published in a European dive magazine.  In the mean while I will skip to the end of the dive.  Once all the divers were back on board it was no surprise that all enjoyed the U-352 emphatically.  Many even wanted to stay for a second dive on this epic wreck but it was my suggestion to get the vessel underway as soon as possible due to the prevalent seasickness on board.  A moving boat at slow speeds is a better remedy than sitting at anchor bobbing up and down, back and forth.  It was decided to head over to the USCG Cutter Spar for our second dive.

In short, the Spar proved to be a worthy dive on this day and all were very pleased that we managed to salvage the weekend and get offshore for some diving amongst adverse weather conditions.  As the day progressed, the seas diminished some and the ride home with a following sea was considerably more comfortable then the ride out.  Once back at the dock I said thank you all for diving with Olympus and we hope to see you again.  I then gave advice to the many hungry divers on board where to grab a good cheeseburger and a cold beer.  Most had not eaten a thing all day and once back on to the stable platform of the dock the ill began to rise back to life with powerful appetites and not to mention a few awesome dive stories.
The stern of the Midnight Express with Josh on
the leftCapt. Mike Gerken in the middle and mate,
Mike Phillips on lower right.  Photo courtesy of Chris Walker

The balance of the week was pretty quiet for myself and the crew of the Midnight Express in preparation for the 4th of July weekend that is fast approaching.  As of press time the weather forecast is promising and the schedule looking good as well.  In my next blog I hope to have lots of new photos, a video clip or two and a few funny anecdotes to share as well.  The hour is getting late for me right now and I have a charter tomorrow Thursday, June 30th and I will have to cut this short.  My alarm is already set for 0445 once again.  I'll see you around the dive shop.

Happy Diving!

-Mike Gerken

See below for the shameless self promotion section of this blog!

Please visit my web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to see video excerpts from my documentary films and a complete underwater photographic portfolio of my work.  Purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films here as well.

If you wish to go dive Graveyard of the Atlantic contact Olympus Dive Center for more information.

Also, follow me on Facebook at Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken)

June 20, 2011 - To Dive North Carolina

What it Takes to Dive NC

     Some divers visiting the Crystal Coast of North Carolina to dive the wrecks of the Graveyard of the Atlantic are instantly gratified on there first visits with perfect weather, top dive conditions and memorable marine life encounters with Sharks, Rays, Jacks, Turtles, 'Cudas' and rarer sightings such as Manta Rays and Mola Mola's. 

Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola.  Photo taken in
Bali, Indonesia.  (Stock Photo)
     Other divers are sometimes not as fortunate and encounter more adverse conditions such as low visibility, strong currents and rough seas; all of which are endemic to diving in the open ocean here. A worst case scenario is the divers who travel from afar to dive and never leave the dock due to strong winds high seas making it too dangerous to dive.  For these unfortunate divers I can only say that patience is required.  Many veterans of North Carolina offshore wreck diving will tell you the same thing.  If you try and try again your odds of chalking up a 'top ten' most memorable dive here are very good.  

     A large percentage of Olympus Dive Centers business is comprised of repeat customers who are the divers who put forth the extra effort in the search of the 'perfect dive'.  They know from experience how great the diving here in North Carolina can be.  I have been very fortunate over the years to live and work in the dive industry in such places as Vanuatu, Truk Lagoon and Mozambique and experience some amazing diving, but some of my top dives ever have been on the wrecks of the Outer Banks. 

     For example, my first Manta Ray encounter was on the wreck of the Keshena off of Cape Hatteras, NC with a second encounter with three of them on the wreck of the Caribsea.  I have seen more Shark species here than any other location such as hammer heads, nurse, bulls, gray reefs, sand tigers, sand bars and a great white shark.  Yes, that's right a great white shark.  

     In July of 2001, while crewing for Captain Robert on the Midnight ExpressI went in the water to do a bit of free diving and spearfishing while on surface interval after a dive on the wreck of the Caribsea.  I wasn't in the water but a minute or two when this beautiful 15 foot Great White Shark passed within 20 feet of me on the surface.  Needless to say I was in a bit of a shock.  Not so much because I saw what some call a 'man eater' swim by me but seeing such a rare shark for these waters.  I decided being back on the boat was probably a better bet. As I climbed the ladder in a hasty fashion many of the passengers asked me, "why are you back so soon". I replied with a hurried voice "There's a great white shark in the water". The next thing I heard were mocks of disbelief.  "Ya right there's no great white" said one person tauntingly (and you know who you are because I know your reading this right now). Before the skeptics could finish there disparaging remarks a huge dorsal fin cut through the water around the stern of the boat but 20 feet away. The next things I heard were "oh my God", "holy #@!&^," and a few gasps and oohs and ahhhs.  Of course I was obligated by all laws of good sense to retort at once "see I told you there was a Great White Shark".  If anyone accuses me of gloating at this precise moment they are absolutely correct.  

     What most didn't realize, but Captain Robert did, was that we had two divers in the water on a dive.  Robert wrote a message on a slate that said "Great White Shark No Joke", and attached it to a five foot long speargun and slid it down the anchor line so that the divers would hopefully see this, abort there dive and use the speargun as defense if needed.  We did not want to harm the shark if at all possible.  Us divers are shark lovers.  The gun was more to be used as a poker if the shark got to close.  Before the two divers read this message they had already seen this behemoth pass by them within a few feet and immediately began there ascent without the spear gun.  When asked later "why did you leave the gun" the diver answered, "I saw the size of the shark and then the size of the gun and figured the gun was useless". After a few more passes by the Shark the divers scrambled up the ladder safe and sound.  It was apparent that the Shark had no interest in making these foreign looking critters in to a meal.  Which by the way is the case with most shark encounters. It is a rare exception where you will hear about a shark eating a human.  

     Most often humans are mistaken for the sharks natural prey and are bitten accidentally.  Unfortunately the damage is already done for those rare few who have been bitten.  Curiosity was the only inspiration for this Great White Shark on this day. Needless to say the boat was abuzz with stories while everyones, including my own, adrenaline levels returned to normal.  A day or two later a story appeared in the Carteret County News-Times paper giving the highlights of the days events where I was merely called 'the divemaster' in the story while Captain Robert actually had his name printed.  Oh well my fifteen minutes of fame would have to come another day. The point of this story, if I may get back to it, is if you dive North Carolina waters long enough I guarantee you will have dives that will go down in your personal log as 'Top Ten'.  You just have to persevere the 'not so great days'.

The original Carteret County newspaper that published the story on August 1, 2001

Sand Tiger Shark on the wreck of the Spar.  (Stock Photo)
     This past weekend at Olympus Dive Center had been a little trying for the some of the divers traveling from as far away as Rhode Island to try there hand at the wreck diving here.  On Friday June 17 we had  what we call a 'blow day' or in other words trip cancellations due to high winds and seas.  

     On Saturday however the wind laid down long enough for both the Midnight Express and the Olympus to make it out to the inshore wrecks for a fine day of diving.  The inshore wrecks are closer to land and lay in shallower water of approximately 60 feet.  Although the diving here can be fantastic with great viz and big critters the conditions generally are not as good as the offshore wrecks closer to the Gulf Stream.  We had a group from the Kalipso Dive Shop in Rhode Island diving with the 'Midnight" who were interested in seeing some Sand Tiger Sharks. 
      As luck would have it my mate, John spotted several rather large sand tigers after tying in to the wreck of the Suloideour second dive of the day.  The Suloide accidentally sank after colliding with the wreck of the Ario which was sunk by a German U-Boat during WWII.  The Suloide today is a scattered debris field due to the government depth charging and wire dragging the wreck because of the obvious navigational hazard that it was.  Some of the divers reported seeing a shark or two and someone even said they saw a large Nurse Shark hiding under a piece of hull plating.  Another rare and really nice find.  Overall the dive was a success and even though we didn't get offshore most seemed to be happy to get out for a dive no matter what.

     On Sunday the 19th the winds once again picked up and continued reports of strong currents by the fishing boats came in to us via the VHF radio.  Both the Olympus and the Midnight would play it safe and make way once again for the inshore wrecks.  This time a group of divers from Waterworld Dive Shop in Raleigh, NC would join Kalipso Divers for the day. 

     Today though the trip out was slightly more challenging with large swells and a confused sea making the trip a little longer than usual. We arrived at the wreck of the Indra with the morale of most of the divers appearing to be high after tolerating a bumpy trip out. All were briefed with safety tips for entering and exiting the water on rough days and one after the other all the divers made the splash and headed down to play on the Indra which sits in only 60 feet of water and was sporting about 20 feet of visibility this day.  

     Judging by the long 45-60 minute dive times of most of the divers I would say they were having a decent enough time to keep them down there. Not before long there heads began surfacing in to the rough ocean seas.  Everyone handled the ladders like a pro and safely made it back up to the deck of the 'Midnight'.  Once all were back on board it was decided that the second dive would be cancelled due to the winds and seas building.  We would quit while we were ahead and make way for Morehead City.  The 'Midnight' would surf the swells back home with a steady wind pushing us along in a comfortable and timely fashion.

     Once back to the dock everyone began packing up there vehicles to head back to wherever they came from.  I spoke to a few and encouraged them to come back again and try there hand at diving in the Atlantic Ocean once again.   As I often say, you can go to Disney World and ride on Space Mountain for some fun but that ride gets predictable each time you go.  That's not the case with diving here in the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic'.  Part of the excitement is never knowing what your going to get.  For added proof, if your a first time reader to my blog please see some of my previous postings with photos and video shorts of some of the dives we have had so far this year.
A school of Atlantic Spade Fish seeking cover under the muzzle of a 5 inch
51 caliper canon on the wreck of the USS Schurz.

     This last week wasn't all wind and bad weather though.  On Thursday June 16th we took a charter out to the wreck of the popular WWI wreck site, the USS Schurz. We had calm seas, 60+ foot of visibility and 75 degree water top to bottom. 
      She was about as pretty as I've seen her with thick bait balls darting about and a resident Sand Tiger Shark hovering on the outskirts keeping an eye on things.  I brought my camera in on this dive with no real plan other than trying to find a few handsome wide angle shots of the wreck to capture her beauty. The Sand Tiger Shark was not cooperative at all but I did find a small school of Atlantic Spade Fish who were schooling under the muzzle of one of the Schurz 5 inch 51 caliper canons. Getting low and shooting high with the gun pointing up across the shot I managed to capture a decent looking image of these somewhat innocuous looking fish and a retired weapon of war. 

     After taking a few more shots I allowed the slight current to deliver me back towards the bow of the wreck where we were tied off but not before firing more images of the ships boilers in the background with some stunning purple sea fans and bait fish highlighting the foreground. These two photos I felt captured the essence of this wreck and offer a simple visual of what one can expect when the dive conditions are optimal on the USS Schurz. I hope you like them as well.

One of four 5 inch 51 caliper canons on the wreck of the USS Schurz.
Sea Fans and Fish with the wreck of the Schurz boilers in the background.

     On another note a dive magazine in Poland is going to publish a story that I have written on the German U-Boat the U-352 and include many of my photos along with it.  I am making an effort to break in to publishing and hopefully this will not be my last story.  Right now it is being translated in to Polish and should be in print next issue whenever that is.  I'll post this story once it is released.

Just a reminder that anyone seeking to take UW Photo lessons with me may do so by contacting mike@evolutionunderwater.com.

Please visit my web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to see a complete portfolio of my work including video excerpts from my documentary films "The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge" and "The Wreck of Truk Lagoon".  Fine art prints are available for purchase there as well as DVD's of the films.

If you want more information on how to dive the wrecks of North Carolina visit www.olympusdiving.com or call 252-726-9432.

Follow me on Facebook at Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken).  Don't forget to click 'like'.


June 14, 2011 - The Coolest Job

Please refer to my previous postings to familiarize yourself with the theme of this blog.
The Morehead Waterfront at sunrise.  
Over the weekend, on a single tank half day charter, an enthusiastic young man said to me after his first or one of his first ocean dives on the wreck of the USS Indra "you have the 'coolest' job in the world!".  I was a little taken aback at first and didn't know how to respond until I merely said something like, "Thanks, yes I do enjoy my work".  I walked up to the wheel house and mulled over what he had just said to me.  Every once in a while I need to be reminded of how lucky I am to be able to do what I do and earn a living doing it.  He was right.  I do have a 'cool' job.  I get to take people diving and use all my powers to show them a good time.  Luckily, more times than not my crew and I are successful with plenty of great stories to be passed around at the end of a day. I should also however add that every so often a diver will say to me "you have an awesome job it's like your are on permanent vacation".  I politely correct the individual and respond "don't be mistaken, this is a job.  An exciting, fun and fulfilling one albeit but a job all the same".  So in short, thank you to the young newly certified diver who reminded me in his excited way that I do have a very 'cool' job.  
The Wreck of the USS Indra.  (Stock)
This past weekend contained some fantastic diving once again with Olympus Dive Center.  The "Midnight Express" was host to an assortment of divers from all over with a first time visit by instructor and group leader Miko Chavchavadze of Patriot SCUBA in Northern Virginia.
I first met Miko on board the Truk Odyssey back when I was the captain in 2007-2008 (I will be writing about my experiences in Truk in future blogs).  Miko had heard I was captain of the "Midnight Express" with Olympus and figured the diving must be pretty good so he grabbed a bunch of divers and headed on down to check it out.  His group was here for only two days so it was in the order of priorities to hit the 'must dive' wreck while the weather was cooperating and head out to dive the German WWII submarine, the U-352.

The wreck of the USS Schurz. (Stock)
But before diving the sub we dived the wreck of the USS Schurz on Saturday since it is a few miles further offshore.  The Schurz had not disappointed a few weeks ago and odds were in our favor that another great dive was to be had.  Sure enough we had at least 40-50' of visibility and 72 degrees on the bottom with a few Sand Tiger Sharks to be found amongst the dense fish population down there.  All the divers seemed to agree whole heartedly that the Schurz was a top dive.  Since all the planets were aligned and the weather was nice I decided I would do a dive here and take some photos underwater of this stunning wreck.  Over the years I have gotten in to a 'fail safe' routine in making sure my housing that contains my Nikon SLR was water tight and fully functional.  I test fire the strobes and checked that my controls are all working.  I did nothing different today and was handed my camera by Mike, the mate on the 'Midnight', and headed down to the wreck.  I slowly swam about the Schurz looking for a worthy subject.  After about 4 minutes I came across what seemed like a very cooperative Sand Tiger Shark.  I got my strobes set up, my exposure settings adjusted and framed a nice close up of this shark with a bait ball swirling around him.  I squeezed the trigger and whammo!  Nada, zilch, nothing.  No strobes fired.  I tried again and again.  Zippo.  @!#%^ I colorfully mumbled in to my regulator.  I'm at 110 feet and my camera malfunctioned and was useless.  An underwater photographer without a functioning camera is like a painter without a brush.  I quickly ascertained that water probably seeped in to the strobe cable shorting out the wiring.  I couldn't even stay down to merely enjoy the dive.  I had to ascend immediately and check out the gear.  The camera nearly always takes priority.  It just costs too much darn money to ignore.  So I got up to the boat, got my happy face on and went about my business.  "Stuff happens" I said in not those exact words.  It's that simple.  I soon ascertained that the camera had no major damage and the day on the ocean was a beautiful one so no sense in whining.  There will be other dives.
The wreck of the German U-Bpat the U352. (Stock)
As soon as the boat was ready we headed over to the U352 so everyone could get there first glimpse of this incredible historical WWII artifact.  The visibility was about 30-40 feet with temps in the low seventies.  Not the best viz but certainly far from the worst.  Once the divers began returning I started to hear the same pleasant superlatives that I hear most every time.  "Awesome", "incredible", interesting" were a few of the words used to describe the 'Sub'.  One diver even approached me and asked if we could go to the U-352 again tomorrow.  I said $100 cash in my back pocket and I will take you anywhere.  Of course I'm only joking.  I said "if you can get the consensus to go back I will try to get you there.  No problem."  Unfortunately for this guy the group had bigger plans for the following day.  With my camera still drying off and suffering from a bad dive I turned the 'Midnight' for home and headed back with a boat load of contented divers.
Enjoying the ride on the deck of the "Midnight Express".
Divers Jennifer and Bill at the stern of the "Midnight Express"
soaking in a few rays on a calm day.

Sunday June 13, 2011
Today Miko and his band of Patriot Divers wanted to see the wreck of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose.  If I haven't already explained this name I will do so again.  There were numerous ships sunk off the coast of North Carolina during the war.  With much of the unfortunate chaos going on not all of the wrecks names had been identified correctly.  In short, the wreck of the Papoose was actually the W.E. Hutton.  The wreck of the W.E. Hutton was actually the Ario.  Get it?  Since the Papoose was called the Papoose for so many years it is hard for everyone to agree on saying the proper name.  Too much confusion ensues.  But since I am somewhat of a history buff I prefer to state the facts when ever possible.  So I call the Papoose the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose in the name of historical accuracy. I think I may write more about this in a future blog.  In the mean time lets move on.  

Looking out of the hold of the over turned
wreck of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. (Stock)
The wind and seas once again were beautiful.  Not flat calm but very close to it.  We made great time navigating out to the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose in about 2 hours and fifteen minutes.  Inevitably, one or two guys always poke there heads up in the the wheelhouse during the long journey and ask like a couple of kids on a family outing from the back of the station wagon "we almost there yet".  I smile and say "yes we are almost there".  I really do love this job.

I sent my mate Mike in to tie up and he quickly reported that we had about 60+ foot of viz and 73 degrees or better on the bottom.  Mother nature seemed to offer us a great dive opportunity on this day.  As it would be the mother ship of Olympus Dive Center, the M/V Olympus captained by Robert Purifoy arrived a few minutes before us and would be tied up about 150' away.  We would both be privy to some great diving.  Soon enough we began getting the excited divers in to the water one after the other and watch them slip beneath the waves on there way down to the wreck.  Now the crew and I needed only to enjoy the sun and calm seas and wait for the divers to return.  After about 25 minutes the first diver clambered up the dive ladder and began to give a very positive report about the dive.  
You all know I like smilin' divers.
"Sand Tiger Sharks aplenty, tons of fish and great viz" they would say as each returned.  As the divers were returning I looked over to the Olympus and noticed Captain Robert suiting up for a dive.  I yelled across to him "you heading in?"  I quickly realized that was dumb question.  What was he getting his wetsuit on to relax on the sun deck?  Anyway, I saw a great opportunity to go diving with Robert and this coincidence does not occur every day.  The odds of both captains getting to dive at the same time only happens a few times a year.
Zach's back!  'Peace out' Zach.
Since my still camera was in the hospital I would break out my UW video rig and shoot some video with Robert and the Sand Tigers.  Just before I jumped Robert yelled over "one of our divers shot some video of a 'school' of Gray Reef Sharks.  "a school", I said.  "Hmmm, it was on", I murmured.  Gray Reefs are not unheard of but are rare all the same here on the wrecks in NC.  To see multiple sharks at once does not happen often. I grabbed my faithful oldie but a goodie Sony VX2000 and leaped over the side.  As I headed down the anchor line the wreck very quickly started coming in to focus 70-80 feet beneath me.  I spotted Robert milling about under the rudder and slowly dropped in to the sand to shoot the entire upside down stern section with dozens of Groupers eyeing me from the fringe of my view.  After swimming around the inside of the wreck with Robert and shooting the dense bait fish my video lights crapped out on me and I headed outside the wreck to shoot with ambient light.  No need to abort the dive without lights.  There was plenty of sunlight to shoot with down there today.  I managed to get a few shots of Robert videoing the Sand Tigers and then I ventured out in to the sand a little to see if the Gray Reefs were about.  Sure enough I spotted one in the distance and then another.  
A Gray Reef Shark taken in Truk Lagoon Micronesia.  (Stock)
After waiting patiently for a minute or two and breathing very slowly and quietly a Gray Reef came in closer for a look at the funny looking fish with the big metal things and bubbles pouring out of his face.  I managed to get a few decent video shots of the Gray Reefs before turning my attention to the multitudes of large Groupers swimming about the sand as well as the Sand Tiger Sharks.  My video camera was rolling steady now.  At last I focused my camera on the enormous school of Amberjacks terrorizing the dense school of bait fish.  The school of Jacks would attack in large numbers and chase the bait in to tight bait balls within the cracks and crevices of the wreck.  Many of the bait fish sought refuge within the wreck.  At one point as I was filming suddenly everything got dark and there were bait fish completely surrounding me.  Visibility dropped to a few inches.  I kept the camera rolling and waited for the swarm to dissipate. As it did the Jacks came in to focus as they swam aggressively about me.  It was a stunning site to watch over and over again the Jacks dive down like German 'Stuka' dive bombers creating a deluge of fear on the bait and then climb hard and fast upwards until disappearing from sight.  Nature is amazing in that it is both beautiful and serene yet hostile and brutal all at the same time.  She never ceases to amaze me.  
Check out this link to my web site below where you can watch the edited video short of this wonderful dive on the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose.

Link to Video W.E. Hutton aka Papoose June 12, 2011

Dustin with his Canon SLR and Subal housing.
I regretfully returned to the "Midnight Express" and began preparing the boat to get underway and looked over to the Olympus and merely shrugged my shoulders at Robert as though words could not describe the dive we just experienced.  We both mumbled something at each other over the short stretch of ocean probably not understanding what either of us said but getting the point all the same and merely went about our business.

The Olympus decided to stay on the Papoose for a second dive while we made way for the USCG Cutter Spar.  Miko's gang wanted to check out another wreck site since they only had two days to dive with us and I was happy to oblige.  The Spar was indeed a nice dive but the legendary horde of Sand Tigers inhabiting the wreck the years past has been somewhat absent so far in this 2011 season.  There were a few Sharks on the wreck and a plentitude of other fish species with about 40' of visibility.  The wreck all the same seemed to be a hit with the divers due to its shallower depths and intact structure making it suitable for a longer dive that is easier to navigate and penetrate within it.  It looked like Miko had been performing some training dives with his students and the Spar is certainly ideal for that.  
Miko pondering his dive.

All in all it was a very successful day of diving and the crew got the 'Midnight' underway and headed towards home with a calm sea and a slight tail wind making the trip all the easier.  Once at the dock hands were shaken, business cards exchanged and hopes of return trips back to Olympus and the Wrecks of North Carolina were made.  Thanks a million to Miko and his band of divers from Patriot SCUBA and also to Jennifer, Bill, John, Bud, George and all the others whose names  regrettably slipped my mind.
In the mean time I am patiently waiting for some parts to repair my camera housing with and I hope to be up and shooting stills by the weekend.  I will admit, I have been enjoying shooting video once again this past few weeks.  I haven't shot much of it since leaving Truk Lagoon in 2008.  I wanted to focus all my attention on still photography these past few years instead.  I don't have a favorite medium to work in its just that sometimes it is hard to do both really well when you have limited time underwater.  If I had another one of me at my disposal I would be shooting both video and stills.  It looks like I may have to upgrade to an SLR camera that shoots quality stills as well as HD video such as the Nikon D7000.  Lots to think about.  
This is how divers catch a few zzz's on
surface interval.

Many thanks to Fred Dion of Backscatter East for getting my camera housing parts out to me as quickly as he did and for always giving solid advice.  Backscatter Photo and Video specializes in underwater photo and video systems and has stores on both the East and West Coast of the USA.  There services to this small specialty industry are enormous.  Thanks Fred! 

Please visit my web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to see a complete portfolio of my still photography and video excerpts from my documentary films.

Also, follow me at my Facebook company page, Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken) for latest updates and dive reports.

Contact www.olympusdiving.com to find out more information on how to dive the Graveyard of the Atlantic with Olympus Dive Center.
The Olympus tying up at the dock.
"Good catch Bud!"

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

June 8, 2011 - Keeps Getting Better

Newcomers, feel free to peruse a few of the previous postings to get the gist of my blog dive report.

The M/V Olympus heading out to sea through
 the Morehead City Waterfront.
This past weekend continued to produce some fine diving conditions on the wrecks of the Carolina Coast with Olympus Dive Center on board the M/V Midnight Express.  After a few days off from the Memorial Day weekends mad dive rush we ran full day charters only on Saturday the 4th and Monday the 6th with a half day on Sunday. This lull in the action is only temporary since many school systems in the south and on the East Coast have yet to let out.  We are anticipating running seven days a week soon enough and we are geared up for it.  In fact this weekend coming will be jammed for me and my crew with full day and half days trips Friday through Sunday.  Let me quickly explain the difference between a full day and a half day charter.  If you already know the difference then skip to the next paragraph.  A full day charter leaves the dock at 7AM with the intention of diving two dives while the half day trip departs at 4PM and is a single tank dive on an inshore wreck with a maximum depth of 60 feet.  These half day trips are great for new divers looking to get there feet wet before heading out to the deeper wrecks or who can't fit a full day of diving in to there schedule.

John Thompson returning to the
"Midnight Express" for the 2011
season.  Welcome back John!
I wanted to announce the return of first mate, John Thompson to the "Midnight Express".  John had previously worked as first mate for the "Midnight" a few years back and after traveling around the Caribbean and working in the dive business he decided he needed a fix on Outer Banks wreck diving.  John will be offering his great level of expertise and his 'special' brand of humor to the operation of the "Midnight Express".  John also has the distinct honor of being the founder and president of a non for profit organization, Soldiers Undertaking Disabled SCUBA(SUDS) at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and Ft. Belvoir, VA is designed to help improve the lives of injured veterans returning from Iraq & Afghanistan. By training the warriors in a challenging & rewarding activity it can help facilitate the rehabilitation process & promote mobility. Offering this venue provides the soldier with a sport they can enjoy throughout their life.which specializes in training our wounded war veterans how to dive with disabilities incurred while defending our country.  I will be writing a special blog later in the season when the SUDS divers will be joining us for some wreck diving.  Please stay tuned for much more on this.  Otherwise, welcome back John to the Olympus team!

A few of the ECU dive clan.
This past Saturday the "Midnight" had a mixed bag of divers from various locals. We had the usual crowd of rambunctious divers from Eastern Carolina University.  I may have to hire a third crew member to act as bouncer for when these guys get out of hand.  Seriously, it's always a pleasure to have the ECU crowd on board. I'm sure I'll be seeing more of you soon enough.

Once again we were blessed with great weather and it was decided by the group that the wreck of the U-352 followed by a second dive on the USCG Cutter Spar was the order of the day.  The visibility on the sub was about 30-40 feet with a temperature on the bottom about 70 degrees from 70 feet to the bottom at 110' with a toasty temp of about 78-79 degrees F from 70 feet to the surface.  These temperature differences known as thermoclines are not uncommon occurrences in the ocean waters of the Outer Banks.  It is here where the cooler northern waters of the Labrador Current collide with the warmer tropical/sub-tropical waters of the Gulf Stream creating these temperature gradients.  It is also not unheard of having 'reverse' thermoclines occur here where the denser heavier cool water sits on top while a warmer lighter layer sits beneath it.  How exactly this happens is unknown to me but I have seen it happen or should I say felt it on numerous dives in my career diving the Outer Banks.  Generally, in the summer months it is the Gulf Stream that wins over the Labrador creating temperatures from top to bottom in the low eighties with blue water diving to be had.

After all the divers enjoyed themselves to the fullest on the U352 it was time to let them get a taste of the 'Spar' but not before I got to jump in on her first. Once the 'Midnight' was hooked in to the wreck I jumped in with camera in hand to snap a few pics and just chill out for a few minutes.  Anytime I feel a little stressed out at the 'office', I go for a dive and within the first few seconds of being submersed all of the wrinkles get ironed out.  Having this type of therapy at sea is a perk of working in the business.  Prior to making the diving business a full time career for me in 1998, I was employed in the financial printing industry in New York City.  "The financial printing what?" your saying to yourself right now.  Let me just say it was a hectic and boring existence for me and leave it at that.  The job just never felt right on me and since leaving my wing tips and commuter pass behind I have never looked back.  Today my worst day at sea is been better then the best day at the office.  The expression "swimming with the sharks" relates to the struggle to compete up the corporate ladder.  From my own experiences I can say this is a fitting metaphor but the irony today is I swim with the sharks for real and love every minute of it.
Another Sand Tiger Shark.  Do I get tired of
shooting these critters?  No way. (Stock Photo)
Speaking of sharks after ascending down to the Spar it became apparent that the population of Sand Tiger Sharks, usually so prevalent here, has dissipated somewhat.  I found maybe three different sharks milling about but that was all. The dive was still a stunning one with an abundance of other marine life to be had.  I took a few photos of the wreck and decided to call it a dive and head back up.  After briefing the passengers that I only saw a handful of Sharks the divers eagerly began to don there equipment all the same.  It then occurred to me that maybe I was a little jaded.  "Only two or three Sharks" I said laughingly to myself.  For many divers this is all it takes to have a great dive and as well it should be.  The Atlas dive last week (see previous blog 'Sand Tiger Shark invasion') certainly was trippy due to the dozens upon dozens of sharks seen there but not every dive will yield such results.  One must put things in perspective and have a good time regardless of the conditions.  Half the fun of diving is the searching for the unexpected.

By the smile on her face it can be said
she had a great dive.
Once the divers began to return from the Spar, sure enough, most if not all of them enjoyed themselves to the fullest.  One man even showed me a tooth that may have been from a Sand Bar Shark although identifying sharks teeth is not my specialty.  He indicated that the tooth was embedded in the steel hand railing of the wreck.  This shark evidently was gnawing on the rail to purposely lose a few teeth.  Whatever the case may be the shark tooth was a nice find and I'm sure a great memento to the diver.

'Red' and his works of art on display.
Monday June 6, 2011
The "Midnight Express" on Monday had the good fortune of hosting the Giant Stride Dive Shop from Rhode Island who have been diving with Olympus Dive Center since Friday of last week.  Headed up by the owner of Giant Stride, 'Red' Goodin the Rhode Island 'boys' wanted to dive the wreck of the Hutton aka Papoose since they got here and today was to be there last chance for 2011.  So without fail I pointed the bow of the 'Midnight' due south to the Hutton at 0700 on Monday morning.  As you may have read in previous blogs, the Hutton is one of the further trips offshore but usually well worth the long haul and today would prove to be no exception to that rule.  After about two hours and fifteen minutes we arrived at the wreck on a calm and clear day. My mate, Mike got us secured to the wreck and reported at least 60 feet of visibility and plenty of sharks wandering around on the bottom.  All the ingredients for a stunning dive were in place.  I went to the dive deck at the back of the boat and gave all the divers the 'skinny' on the dive to come and stressed that the max depth was about 120' and to use caution on this deep dive.  After giving a few other safety pointers I started to notice the divers eyes beginning to glaze over with there minds inevitably focused on the dive that was to come if I would ever finish the briefing.  So without further adieu I dropped the chains that prevent passengers from falling over board while underway and began throwing them overboard.  Well maybe not throwing them but guiding them in to the water.
'Red' and the 'Boys' from Giant Stride Divers.
See you next year!
Soon after the divers began to return one by one and all seem to have another fantastic dive.  Some couldn't stop talking about the enormous Groupers they spotted peering out from behind wreckage with there big bulbous eyes.  Others of course commented on the prevalent Sand Tigers.  Some divers merely liked exploring and having a swim around inside the wreckage.  Whatever they all did it seemed to be a dive for the log book with four stars scribed at the header.

Zach sporting some brand new
dive gear by SCUBA pro.
Once all were back on board it was my turn to see what all the hoopla was and try my hand at some photography.  When diving in such deeper depths you don't have as much bottom time so you have to work steady but quickly.  Devise a plan for your shoot and stick to that plan.  My plan was to head to the stern section of the wreck.  The Hutton today rests upside down and the keel juts upwards ending at the rudder post making it one of the more prominent parts of the wreck.  I wanted to find a spot down low and shoot this section of the stern with sharks and bait fish swimming about it.  Simple plan right?  Now I just need to get the sharks where I want them.  Not so simple right?  Patients is key when trying to get 'the shot'.  At first I set myself up on the back side of the wreck but noticed there were only a few sharks in the area and none where I wanted them to be.  So I quietly swam around to the other side and found a bit more action over there.  I hung in one spot and simply waited.  Sure enough one medium size shark swam up along the wreck with a healthy bait ball swirling around him and I managed to squeeze off a few shots that went in to the keeper category in the back of my head as soon as I took them.  Sometimes you just know when you got a decent photo.  The composition of these shots was not exactly what I wanted but nice all the same.  I waited a few more minutes to see if anything else would develop but with no luck.  It was time to head up.  
As a photographer, if you can come back
to the boat with one decent picture then
the dive was a success. (New)
Even though the dive at the bottom was over in no way was the dive or the photo shoot over.  You never know what will swim out of the blue on your way to the surface.  One's eyes should always be diverted up and down, left and right.  Something interesting will swim by you such as a turtle, dolphins or today a very large school of Barracuda.  As I swam under the boat to head up I saw them down current a little ways and decided to trail back to get a few shot.  There were so many Cuda's I couldn't count them.  Luckily I was able to get close enough to the school and snap a few photos without loosing site of the "Midnight".  Once I had what I wanted I swam back to the ladder, climbed up and said "hey there are a bunch of Barracuda under the boat".  If I had a nickel for every diver that climbed the ladder and said the same thing I would be the owner of brand new Nikon D3. I could only chuckle at myself.

Just a few Barracuda on the wreck of the
Hutton aka Papoose. (New)
Sand Tiger Shark on the wreck of the
WE Hutton aka Papoose.  Not the shot
I wanted but I was happy with it.  (New)  

A diver making the splash with a pair of doubles.

For the second dive we headed a fewmiles closer to shore and dived the Spar once again.  She is a great second dive wreck since the upper portions of her sit in around 75 feet of water with a max depth of 110 feet which will yield longer bottom times.  The Spar had the same conditions as two days prior and all seem to enjoy it as usual.  The weather held out nicely making for a nice ride home especially when a few dolphins came swimming up to us to play and ride our bow.  I slowed down some and got the attention of the passengers and invited them up on to the bow to watch them.  For several minutes they darted in front of the 'Midnight' before disappearing from site just as I had my camera in hand and readied to take a shot.  Oh well.  I'm sure I will have another opportunity soon enough.  Another perk of the job I guess.

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Also visit my web site http://www.evolutionunderwater.com/ for additional photos for this blog plus see a complete portfolio of my photography and video excerpts from my documentary films.

To dive the wrecks of North Carolina with www.olympusdiving.com please contact us for more information.

Happy Diving!
Mike Gerken