July 25, 2011 - Summer Diving Heats Up!

To all those who are new to my blog to get the gist of it please read "Welcome Aboard"  from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports. Visit www.evolutionunderwater.com to see video shorts from the 2011 season at Olympus Dive Center and click here for more info about myself.

Photo of the Week.  A large school of Atlantic Spade Fish cooperating
for the camera on the wreck of the USS Schurz. (New)
Up until this past weekend we were having top notch weather and dive conditions on the wrecks of the Graveyard of the Atlantic on board the boat I captain, the Midnight Express at Olympus Dive Center.  Unfortunately, we have had a few heavy blow days the last couple of days canceling some charters but, I'm not going to dwell on the negatives and will report only the great dives we had since last Tuesday, July 19th.

After coming down from a high of having one of my personal top ten North Carolina dives on Monday July 18 (See last weeks Dive Blog Report "The Year of the Shark"), we headed back offshore with a new group of divers from various locations with the award for the furthest travelled going to Lazlo and Dorothya from Hungary.  This couple however did not get dive together. The first day, Lazlo joined us and in conversation it was revealed that he was from Hungary. The second day, Dorothya dived with us and I asked "where are you from" where she answered, "Hungary", once again.  I quickly said, "wow, we just had someone on board yesterday from Hungary, what a coincidence", where she then educated me that it was her husband that I met. She explained that they have children at home and were taking turns diving while the other watched the children. I was impressed by their commitment and ingenuity that allowed them to continue to dive even with little ones at home and also flattered that they would travel from so far and take the time to discover the great diving the Outer Banks has to offer.  I hope we see the two of you again with many of your friends. PS: I know plenty of baby sitters I could put you in touch with.
Lazlo all the way from Hungary, watches the sharks while his
wife, Dorothya watches the kids.  Don't worry ladies she got
her chance to swim with the fishes the next day.
The USS Schurz.
Anyway, back to the dives. With the weather cooperating and the offshore dive conditions excellent I headed the 'Midnight" due south to the WWI wreck of the USS Schurz for dive number one of the day.  The ride out was uneventful in a good way.  After my mate secured us to the wreck he radioed up to me from 110 feet that there was little to no current, water in the mid to upper seventies and visibility better than 50 feet on the bottom with clearer 'viz' higher up in the water column.  It sounded like the recipe for a good dive.  Without delay all of the divers geared up and headed down to the wreck for a dip.  As they returned I began to get positive reports from the divers. "Beautiful", seemed to be the word most often used and that doesn't surprise me for the Schurz is a stunning wreck.  She went down in 1917 and has been exposed to all the environmental elements nature has to throw at her the last 94 years on the ocean floor.  There is not much left, without a trained eye and a steep imagination, to indicate that the Schurz was the hansom fighting ship of her day. However, she has been transformed in to something all together different but still hansom.  She is a stunning and prolific marine ecosystem that has dismayed many a diver over the years who have been fortunate to have dived on her. For example, it is not unusual for the bait fish to be so thick that it reduces the 'viz' to a mere few feet. Divers would have to ascend 10-20 feet and hover over the wreck to be able to find their way again. Majestic Giant Southern Stingrays with hapless Cobia following behind like court jesters are spotted here regularly as well.  Shark species are no stranger to this wreck either.  Sand Bars, Bulls, Reefs and Sand Tiger Sharks are spotted from time to time and the list goes on and on.
A spearhead of Atlantic Spade Fish.  Shot while hovering over the wreck
of the USS Schurz. (New)

On this day my first mate, John Thompson returned from his dive with his camera housing in hand and indicated that there was a large and well formed school of Atlantic Spade Fish swimming in mid water that had caught his cameras eye. Some would say "when you've seen one Spade Fish you've seen them all". Not quite, I say.  When you see hundreds of Spade Fish huddled together in formation, sometimes chaotic and sometimes balletic it is rousing or even poetry in motion.  Confused and bewildered Spades are even comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way.  Regardless, they can be very entertaining depending on how you perceive them. I stowed the visual that John gave me in the back of my head while we finished collecting all the divers. With everyone back on board, I loaded my camera housing with my Nikon D300 and 12-24mm lens and jumped over the side with it and headed down to the Schurz. Sure enough the first thing that caught my attention was the school of Spade Fish. Without even making it to the bottom I went to work on this school of fish shooting with vengeance. I snapped shots of these fish by the dozen.  Some with strobes, some without, some from the side and some from the bottom.  In the end I think I had about 125 shots in total at times firing 3 frames per second.

More Spade Fish on the 'Schurz'. (New)
A famous underwater photographer, Jim Church, once said in not these exact words "throw enough mud on the wall and some of it will stick". And so it is with photography. The more images you take the better the chances for success. Following the school around in mid water upside down most of the time started to make me dizzy so I had to take a break and finally headed down to the wreck. As I swam halfway down the length of the wreck I saw a school of fish neatly hovering under an arch which was once one of the lifeboat davits on the Schurz deck.  The curved shape made for a nice backdrop for the school so I fired off a few shots while alleviating the vertigo I got from the Spade Fish.  Once finished and my wits returning and not feeling like I nailed the shot, I went back to the Spade Fish and interrogated them with my strobes some more.  This time the entire school of fish surrounded and absorbed me within them with some bumping into my dome port. I fired off a few dozen more shots not even looking at the display. Pretty soon with my head spinning again it was time to ascend. In the end I was pretty happy with the results but never really feeling like I got what I wanted.  But then again, this is how I feel most of the time which inspires me to go back and do it again and to do it better the next time or the next.
One of the lifeboat davits on the USS Schurz. (New)
Once the hook was pulled from the Schurz it was time to mosey over to the USCG Cutter Spar for dive two but, not before dropping my mate, Mike Phillips, on to a rock ledge to have his try at spearing a healthy grouper for his birthday.  Some people send cards or gifts while I have different ideas for celebrating a birthday. The rock ledges are a nice diversion to the wrecks to those who dive wrecks all the time such as, the crew. Today we had two passengers who also brought their spearguns with them along with dive guide, Clint Etheridge, who in his spare time is the head of Eastern Carolina Universities (ECU) Dive Training Program.  I can't remember his exact title but I'm sure it's something cool like, "Chief of Student SCUBA Divers". Clint in the summer season when school is out can be seen around the dive shop filling in for mates or guiding dives such as today. Many of his students past and present can be seen on the Olympus dive boats during the season. Overall the quality of the divers coming out of ECU is of a high caliper and it is always a pleasure to have them on board. (No, this is not a paid advertisement).
Standing on the bow of the Midnight Express,
First Mate, John Thompson and ECU Dive Training Exec,
Clint Etheridge on the right.
Diver, Welby Lloyd and his dinner.
I pulled up to an unknown waypoint on the GPS titled 'sweetness' and figured that it must have been a good spot.  When I passed over the top the bottom contour dropped off indicating a steep ledge of about 10-15 feet in height while fish finder started showing some promise. With a yell I told all the divers to jump and head straight to the bottom. With calm seas and little current, eyeing the divers bubbles and thus keeping track of them was easy work.  On rough days there is little hope that I would conduct a dive of this sort at all. The added fact that there was a hired guide in the water set me at ease as well. After about 20 minutes the divers emerged each with a nice Grouper and one with a Tautog or what we call up north, a Blackfish. Mike was the only one who had not bagged a fish but it made no matter to him. The season was young and there would be other opportunities.  

Without further delay we would finish the second dive on the Spar. The Spar delivered another great dive for everyone with a handful of Sand Tiger Sharks adding company to the divers. The calm seas, clear skies, great viz and the fish laying on ice in the cooler made for a near perfect day. I myself was a happy camper that I got to take a few pics and get my hair wet (or what's left of it).

Diver with is Go Pro Vid camera.
Jorge knows I like happy divers.
Diver, Robert Puerifoy (no relation to Robert
Purifoy), after his dive.

On Wednesday, the weather continued to hold out very nicely so we headed straight for the W.E. Hutton; aka Papoose to revisit the scene of July 18th's dive with the Caribbean Reef Sharks (check out the video HERE). Sure enough most of the divers on this dive saw at least one if not numerous Reef Sharks on the Papoose not to mention a few Sand Tiger Sharks to boot.  Judging by the buzz on the dive deck after the dive I would conclude that it was a successful dive for most everyone. Dive number two on the wreck of the Aeolus would also prove to be a great dive with yet another detour to a rock ledge for some spearfishing where more fish were landed. The week just keeps getting better! Sadly (insert frown face here), I would not go diving today since I felt the effects of a nasty cold coming on and did not want to make it worse by stressing my body out by diving. I learned my lesson years ago when I was younger and dumber (oh those wonderful days) when I used to guide dives when I could not stop hacking in to my regulator while toting a 100+ degree fever. The colds would last three times as long and were probably twice as bad because I didn't slow down.  Today, I would only be able to hear the cool dive stories from the passengers (insert another frown face here).

Anne Slough and her dive buddy Annette.
When Thursday morning rolled around I was once again very pleased by the weather report and excited to get to work.  Showing people a good time when the seas are flat and the dive conditions excellent is a breeze. It's when it is rough and dirty where it gets challenging but, I said earlier I wasn't going to dwell on the negatives. Today, I would have a small group of passengers along with my friend Anne Slough joining us. She was very happy when a last minute furlough was issued by her children that allowed her to sneak in one day of diving at Olympus. One day and only one day before returning to Super Mom status. My girlfriend Annette would join her for a fun dive on her day off and take a break from posing in front of my lens. The long short of this day was that it went off without a hitch. 
Nate prepped for the jump.

Conditions continued to please divers, the seas were still fairly calm and there may have been a rainbow with synchronized jumping dolphins beneath it. The only problem was I was sicker than the day before (yet another frown face here).  If I had known I was going to feel this crummy I would have sure as hell went diving on the Papoose. As soon as the boat got back, I packed my bags, hugged Anne (with face turned away) and sped home were I consumed a gallon of herbal tea, a few thousand milligrams of vitamin C and crashed out on the couch for the next 48 hours (are you feeling any pity yet?). Annette put up with my Grizzly Bear attitude while I went in to recovery and kept my eye on the NOAA web site.

Another satisfied customer.
The 'deer in headlights look'.

Ever since Thursday, the weather has held us back from diving while my health has slowly improved. As of Tuesday night the winds continue to blow and the hope that Mother Nature will grant us a reprieve from her repressive weather and allow us to head back out stays fresh in everyones mind.

I just wanted to thank all of the readers out there who have been enjoying this Dive Blog Report. I have a good time putting these together and am pleased at the positive feedback I have been getting. Keep in mind I accept and appreciate all comments if you care to leave any. I'll catch you all next week or on Facebook.

Mike's Underwater Photography Tip of the Week

This weeks blog I'm going to start something different with the "Photo Tip of the Week" for those inspiring U/W photog's. I hope that any information I give can be of help in achieving great photos.

One of the first things I teach my students, who sign up for a photo course, is to become a good listener. Wether you come across a beginner or an expert photographer in the field there is always something you can learn from that person. In other words pay attention to what anyone has to say about photography. A photographer whose images you feel are below your par may be able to show you something about Photoshop or similar post photo processes. Those who are savvy in the technological advances of the latest greatest cameras and lenses can impart some great wisdom upon you in that area. One man in particular taught me a lot about workflow and file management which has nothing to do with the quality of the photo but is extremely important all the same. Try not to dismiss someone based on there lack of notoriety as well.  Just because they are not famous or published does not mean they do not have great knowledge to pass on. Hear everyone's opinion on how to get great shots and weed out what doesn't work for you later.

When I first started shooting photography on board the Truk Aggressor II in Micronesia I had very little experience.  Being isolated on this boat with little to no internet time or even access to a phone, I soaked up whatever knowledge I could from the guests on board my boat who passed through on a weekly basis. This way I had a constant stream of data coming at me. Some of it very valuable and some of it not so much but most of it useful in adding to my formula for taking great images.

Next week I will discuss the use of external strobe units for lighting your subjects.  Until then...

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 and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.

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

Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
Also, follow me on Facebook at Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken) and click like to receive the latest updates.
Mike Gerken

July 18, 2011 - The Year of the Shark

To all those who are new to my blog to get the gist of it please read "Welcome Aboard"  from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports. Click here for more info about myself.
Photo of the week.
Annette swimming wit da fishes. 
If you Google "The Year of the Shark", the results are numerous and mixed.  You will find news media sites claiming that years past and present were and are "The Year of the Shark" due to the unfortunate shark bite occurrences at the beaches each summer (but they don't mention how rare these attacks are) or you will find environmental groups claiming that the Sharks year is this year or some say last year or the year before in order to promote the conservation and protection of sharks (which I am wholeheartedly for).  I'm not sure when the official "Year of the Shark" is though.  All I can say is, this is my year of the shark, here diving on the wrecks of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I am continually impressed by the shear numbers and variety of shark species that I am seeing with my own eyes this season and I'm loving every minute of it.  There are few marine species that get my attention like the top of the food chain dwellers.  I just completed a dive today, on board my vessel the Midnight Express out of Olympus Dive Center, on the wreck of the W.E Hutton a.k.a. Papoose some 33 nautical miles south of Beaufort Inlet.  It was stunning and adrenaline pumping to say the least.  My charter was a group from Canada that trekked all the way down to Morehead City to check out the diving.  On their first day they get 5-10 knot winds, calm seas and a smooth ride all the way out to the Hutton a.k.a. Papoose.  When your lucky your lucky.
Annette on the wreck of the
USCG Cutter Spar. (New)

My first mate, John Thompson, was on deck to set the hook today once we arrived on site.  He reported up to me on the com that there was a hazy 40-50 foot of visibility with a mild current running down the length of the wreck. He also confirmed yet another report of many this season that there were Caribbean Reef Sharks in multitudes swimming in mid-water. Due to the moderate viz it was hard to determine the quantity of these sharks. There were of course the usual Sand Tiger Shark residents wandering around the wreck as well but when the much rarer Caribbean Reef Shark shows up the Sand Tigers suddenly take a back seat.   My divers in a timely fashion began to take to the water like seals from a floating dock.  One by one they slipped in to the water from the deck of the 'Midnight'.  As divers return, I always ask them "how was your dive?"  For one, I want to make sure all went well from a safety standpoint and that no problems arose.  Secondly I want to know if they are enjoying themselves for when they do have a good time I feel a higher level of satisfaction in a job well done.  Lastly, I'm scoping out ideas for photo or video shoots.  In other words, I want to know what's hot and what's not on the bottom.  Today my ears perk up every time someone mentions they saw some sharks that weren't Sand Tigers.
Annette outside the pilot house on the Spar. (New)

Once everyone is back on board, I decide that with the hazy viz and the chance of seeing numerous Caribbean Reef Sharks that video might be the best way to capture this exciting dive.  So I load up my old faithful video camera and jump in to the water for a dive on the 'Papoosie'.  My descent down was fairly uneventful. The usual Barracudas loitering around under the boat made their presence known as well as the passerby Jacks and schools of bait fish. After a few minutes I finally see a Caribbean Reef Shark off in the distance in mid water of depths of around 80-90 feet.  Then I see another and another.  Of course the video camera is rolling.  Then I try an old trick from the days of when I used to conduct shark dives in Truk Lagoon.  I would take a dive knife and tap it hard on my dive tank producing a clanging noise.  As I did that today on the Papoose the sound was like a dinner bell to Cowhands on a cattle drive.  The sharks suddenly came in from all angles swimming directly at me until the last second before turning away realizing that all that racket was not a meal but an obnoxious SCUBA diver banging his tank.  In the back I could see a dozen more cruising by on all levels.  Some were above me and others below.  I had never in my life seen so many Caribbean Reef Sharks accumulate in one spot even when there was chum in the water. There were so many around me I could not begin to count them and I could only see 40-50 feet away.  How many more were lurking outside of my range of vision?

The maximum depth on this dive was 120 feet and I was drifting at around 80 feet.  As long as I could see the wreck below I could find my way back to the anchor line.  What I had to try to avoid was drifting off the wreck in to the sand while in awe of the Sharks and not be able to navigate back to my boat.  As I started my swim back up current I noticed the shark population dwindling.  I tried rapping on my tank again to bring them back in to me but they are smarter than you think.  They didn't fall for that prank again.  After a few minutes I barely noticed a single Caribbean Reef Shark.  I took a glance at my dive computer and realized it was time to ascend.  I climbed back up on to the boat and took a deep breath and chalked up this dive as one of my top ten North Carolina dive experiences.  You will now have to click on the link below to see the video short of this dive.  Seeing is believing.

Click HERE for a link to my web site and the "Year of the Shark" video.  It will be the first thumbnail in gallery.

The past three day weekend produced some great diving as well.  On Friday, Saturday and Sunday another group from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, "The Dive Shop" came a calling to Olympus Dive Center headed up by part owner/operator, Arin Centrone.  My first impression at 0600 in the morning on Friday was that I was in for another zany weekend of Jersey divers based on the high decibel sound level coming from the dive deck.  Well, I was right, it was zany but in a great way.  The entire group from "The Dive Shop" conducted themselves professionally and with superb dive skills.  When I had to tell them the first day that weather conditions mandated that we stay closer to shore in shallower water to avoid rough seas, they didn't blink an eye.  They merely said "we just want to go diving".  My favorite kind of customer.  So we headed over to my ace in the whole spot and made a pair of dives on the USS Indra.  Depending on who you talk to depends on how good a dive the Indra is.  Some love it while others tolerate it.  All my divers from Cherry Hill seem to have loved it or, at the very least, liked it a lot. Needless to say even though we were inshore diving the winds were strong enough that the 'Midnight' was pitching and yawing pretty hard but these Jersey pros had no trouble with the sea state.
Some of "The Dive Shop" divers gearing up.
The next morning proved yet again to be much the same weather as the day before meaning we would have to stay close to shore yet again and dive the wreck of the Ario and the Suloide back to back.  Both of these wrecks were sunk in WWII and were depth charged by the US government due to their being a navigational hazard thus creating 400 foot long debris fields.  For the second day in a row the Jersey team made the dives in 20-30 feet of viz with smiles on there faces and had a great time even though they had not yet made it offshore.

Day three, Sunday July 17 however, would yield different results.  The winds would lay down allowing us to make the milk run offshore to the USCG Cutter Spar.  With warm water in the mid to upper seventies and the viz ranging from 40-60 feet (depending on who you speak to) the dive would go so well that they decided they wanted a second shot at the Spar.  I was happy to oblige and very relieved that we managed to get out to one of the 'must dives' of the Outer Banks.  My underwater model and girlfriend, Annette joined me for diving on her day off until I put her to work posing for me on the Spar with the Sharks and massive school of Spade Fish.  I managed to get a few decent photos rounding out the day on a high note.

A few more of the guys from "The Dive Shop".

Surface interval on the sundeck with the Olympus in the background.

Diver preparing to make the jump.

Once we made it back to the dock Arin and her dive team would have to pack up and drive all the way back to Jersey that evening.  I was very pleased to have taken such a well trained and easy going bunch of divers out for three days.  I hope they all return again next year.  It was good fun.

The hour is running late so forgive me for rushing and leaving behind a few typos and brief stories in the process. The Midnight Express and Olympus have very busy schedules this week with outstanding conditions.  I have but a few hours left to eat and sleep before heading back out tomorrow. I will have another blog posting early next week so stay tuned.

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 and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.

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

Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
Also, follow me on Facebook at Evolution Underwater Imaging (by Mike Gerken) and click like to receive the latest updates.
Mike Gerken

July 12, 2011 - SUDS & Subs

To all those who are new to my blog to get the gist of it please read "Welcome Aboard"  from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports. Click here for more info about myself.

Sand Tiger Shark inside the wreck of the Aeolus. (New)
This past week at Olympus Dive Center had a few ups and downs but, in the end, the ups made it all worth while.  The boat that I captain, the Midnight Express, had a few days off in the mid week with a break in the lull on Thursday, July 7 with a trip to the wrecks of the Atlas Tanker and the Caribsea. The action on both of these sites was up to par for the season with around 30 foot of visibility, water temps on the bottom climbing in to the mid-seventies and the usual Sand Tiger Sharks gathering in mass on both sites. (See photos and video from the Atlas in last weeks Blog, "Joisey Divers".)  Many of the passengers on board had experienced some adverse weather during the week and were extremely pleased that we made it out to these wreck sites and to swim with the sharks.  With this successful day under our belts the next two days would not prove to be so fruitful.  On Friday and Saturday Mother Nature landed another one-two punch to our nether regions in the form of 20-25 knot winds and seas building as high as eight feet thus grounding the Olympus fleet from diving activities.  Everyone was, to say the least, a little vexed with this weather set back including the men from SUDS.
SUDS divers from left to right Joe Yantz, Shane Heath, John Doherty, Matt
White, Tyler Anderson and Dave McRaney. (photo courtesy of Danny Fachiola)
SUDS or Soldiers Undertaking Disabled SCUBA is a 501(c) 3 non-for-profit organization and chapter of the Wounded Warrior / Disabled Sports Project founded by the Midnight Express's very own first mate, John Thompson, in Feb 2007.  Based out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, SUDS is designed to train our wounded war veterans from Irag and Afghanistan to participate in SCUBA diving offering them a fulfilling and challenging activity that can help facilitate the rehabilitation process, promote mobility and not to mention offer an opportunity for some fun while their at it.  If anyone deserves to have a good time, it's these men, who made untold sacrifices in the defense of their country.
Midnight Express first mate
and founder of SUDS,  John Thompson.
In 2007, John Thompson, while volunteering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was deeply moved by the men and women he saw healing from horrific wounds sustained in battle.  Feeling an overwhelming sense of duty to help them in what ever way he could, John decided to do what he knew best and that was teach them to dive with their disabilities.  With a staff of more than a dozen men and women volunteers John set up the SUDS program which to date has certified more than 300 men and women to dive in locations such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, St. John, Curacao, South Florida, Puerto Rico and of course the Outer Banks of North Carolina with Olympus Dive Center.
The dive boat Olympus of Olympus Dive Center.

This weekend past, Olympus Dive Center would be host to six men from SUDS on board the company flag ship, M/V Olympus captained by Robert Purifoy but, as I just mentioned the first two days of their three day excursion were 'blown out' due to foul weather.  That didn't stop these men from doing what they came here to do and that was to train and dive.  On Friday and Saturday the SUDS guys went to a nearby quarry where SUDS member John Doherty performed his open water check out dives and passed with flying colors.  Welcome to the club John!  The other SUDS guys Joe Yantz, Matt White, Tyler Anderson and Dave McRaney took part in a wreck diver specialty course with Olympus instructor Jon Belasario and by all accounts they exceeded expectations once again.
The SUDS Team training at the quarry.

Mean while, veteran SUDS diver, Shane Heath stood by and supported the others in their training as part of his Divemaster program, which he is currently enrolled in. Most instructors, including myself, who have trained military personnel agree that it is always a pleasure to teach them for the simple fact that they are apt at listening and carrying out instructions with precision.  It's apparent they are a product of outstanding training in the military and it carries over to their civilian lives as well.  Over all the trip to the quarry was a very productive one for them all even though they did not make it offshore to dive the wrecks the first two days.
Celebrity guest mate on board the "Midnight",
Gavin Vollmer of the Olympus.

However, the entire weekend was not a wash out for offshore diving for the SUDS men.  Mother Nature granted us a reprieve from the high winds and seas allowing us a dive day on Sunday July 10th.  Although the ocean was still a bumpy mess with 3-4 foot ground swells leftover from the previous 48 hours of blustery weather, it was safe and manageable enough to make it out to the wrecks of the USCG Cutter Spar with the SUDS men on board the Olympus.  John wanting to be there for the guys traded places with Olympus mate, Gavin Vollmer for the day.  Unfortunately, I would not have the honor of taking these men out diving on the 'Midnight' but I did received a full report at the end of the day.

Secretary of SUDS and Olympus employee,
Danny Facciola.

As told by SUDS secretary, Danny Facciola the day offshore for the men went without a tangle in every way but one.  Many of the guys apparently were feeling a little under the weather due to the unsettled seas and their defiant attitude towards Mother Ocean by staying out late the night before and not getting enough rest.  She has a way of humbling even the toughest 'salt'  and these military vets were no exception.   When the guys were done hanging their heads over the rail, they sucked it up and donned their gear on the swim deck and made a forward roll in to the water. All the men met on the hang lines under the boat and performed 'bubble checks' on each other looking for any gas leaks from their gear.  With everyone passing this test four of the guys Joe, Matt, Tyler and Dave accompanied Jon Belasario for wreck diver specialty skills down on to the Spar.  The visibility was around 40 feet and there was a slight current that would test these men a little more.  Jon would drill them on gear configuration and the utilization of wreck reels, which is a spool of string that is used for navigation in and around wrecks.  Gear configuration is very important in diving.  Knowing where your gear is and how to access it quickly at all times is critical.  For some of these men these skills are made more difficult when having to use prosthetics.  The word has it that all four did marvelously on the dive.  While these guys were off getting tested, newly certified diver John Doherty stayed close with divemaster candidate, Shane Heath and instructor Danny Facciola and swam around the wreck checking out the schools of Atlantic Spade Fish and Sand Tiger Sharks on the wreck.
"Someone stop the boat from moving"

The SUDS divers hangin' out.
On dive two on the Spar the wreck diver candidates penetrated in to the wreck as part of the course training.  Entering a dive environment that has no immediate exit over head can be a little tricky but, with the correct training and use of underwater lighting systems and wreck reels it can be exciting good fun.  All of the guys did great and even when Matt White dropped his light he handled the situation like a pro and managed to deal with the problem and find his way out safely with the team.  By all accounts the guys had a blast and learned a lot at the same time.

I wish I had the opportunity to dive with the SUDS team but my schedule on the 'Midnight' did not allow for this.  At least Danny and John had some good stories for me.  For example, the other night over dinner at a local restaurant John, the SUDS guys and Danny were approached by the waitress after she brought their meals and said, "are you missing anything?" Without delay one guy humbly says, "well, I'm missing a leg", while another indicates, "I'm missing several fingers" and so on.  The waitress immediately turned crimson red and ran back to the kitchen not knowing how to retort.  She had just become another victim of a group of men whose desire to have one of many needed laughs, at their own expense, was more important then not embarrassing the waitress.  You gotta love their sense of humor.  I personally am pleased that the SUDS guys squeezed off a couple of successful dives on Monday and completed some courses in the down time.  I truly hope that SCUBA diving will continue to be a part of each of their lives and become as important to them as it is to me.

The SUDS Team posing in front of Olympus Dive Centers statue of Neptune.

The only down side to Sunday's diving was losing my first mate, John to the Olympus.  You see, the only way I can safely and legally go diving from the boat that I am captaining is if there is another qualified and licensed captain on board while I'm diving.  John happens to be a licensed captain and my ticket to dive as well.  With him gone I was stuck being a bubble watcher from the surface.  Missing a day of diving is no big deal.  I knew I would have plenty of dive opportunities ahead of me this season and giving up a dive is the least I could do for SUDS.  It was for a good cause.
A Few of the gang from "The Dive Shop" readying for
a dive on board the Midnight Express.

Along for the ride on the 'Midnight' on Sunday was a group from "The Dive Shop" visiting us from Fairfax, VA with first timers to the Outer Banks dive experience.  We also had on board with us a group representing Venturing Crew, a Boy Scouts of America(BSA) program you can read all about in this link provided.  Headed up by 17 year old Rachel Eddowes this group of four individuals would certainly be doing some 'venturing' today wreck diving in the Atlantic Ocean.  The dive conditions for the Spar were as described above with all divers indicating they had a great time and were relieved that the weather cooperated so we could get out to enjoy the day of diving.  Once the Spar was crossed off the hit list we pulled anchor and got underway for the arduous journey over to the wreck of the Aeolus 400 feet away while the Olympus kept their parking spot on the Spar.  Both wrecks were sunk as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program around twelve years or so apart.  When the powers to be sunk the Spar it was feared that is fell atop the Aeolus.  As luck would have it that did not occur.  They are two distinct wreck sites in close proximity to each other that are both great dives.  The Aeolus in actuality is two different dives.
"The Dive Shop" instructor, and group leader,
Martin L'Heureux.

Barbie taking Barbie for a dive.
SCUBA Barbie wearing the
latest in dive fashion.

Sand Tiger Shark within the wreck
of the Aeolus.  (New)
More than ten years ago a massive hurricane swept through the region and ripped the ship in to two large pieces with many smaller ones separating the bow section from the stern section across a 150 foot debris field that is difficult to navigate across.  We would be diving the bow section today.  I briefed everyone on the wreck and asked them to please not get lost while trying to reach the stern section since making free ascents away from the dive boat in the open ocean is a dangerous undertaking when currents can sweep divers away.  On this very calm day it would be less dangerous but very inconvenient for my crew who would have to swim out several hundred feet of tag line and tow them back to the boat. Everyone made it in to the water for their dive without incident and when all divers who explored the Aeolus returned they reported a great great dive with multitudes of marine life in clear warm water.  I would have to take their word for it today and wait until tomorrow to get to see the Aeolus with my own eyes.

Surface interval with Venture Crew and "The Dive Shop" divers
on the sundeck of the 'Midnight' on a calm day.
On a brief note, after the full day passengers were dropped off at the dock, I took the Midnight Express back out for a single tank dive in the afternoon to the wreck of the USS Indra otherwise, jokingly known as the Indra Doria, after the famous luxury liner that sunk of the coast of New York in 1956 or the Indra Maru, after the outstanding Japanese wreck dives of Truk Lagoon, which are mostly merchant ships or Maru's.  The full boat was rounded out by the dive club Cape Cod Divers who are with us all week.  More on them in the next blog report.  The conditions were a respectable 20 feet of visibility and 77 degree water top to bottom.  Considering there were 6 foot seas rolling over this wreck the day before we were happy to find the conditions this good.
Cape Cod Divers Troy,  Bryan and Jodi.
Olympus Dive Instructor, notorious 'Aunt"
killer and my girlfriend, Annette Papa hamming
it up for the camera.

Monday, July 11
After crawling out of bed on Monday morning at 0445 I head to the kitchen to grab my equivalent of a cup of coffee, a large glass of orange juice and discover a marauding army of brown ants had taken over my galley.  There was a line of them traversing my ceiling right in to the cupboard as well as a swarm in the sink devouring the scraps of jam in a jar left there the day previous.  Now, I don't have a problem with insects and with my travel experience I am no stranger to them and even worse vermin.  They have a purpose in the grand scheme of things but, once they make the mistake of invading my home and space the gloves come off.   I wanted to start decimating them immediately but I had to get to work so I set off writing my girlfriend Annette a letter indicating the problem and what to do about it when she awoke. "Buy aunt poison and kill them all!" I write bold faced.  Annette must have been a little distraught as to why I wanted to poison her aunts but she figured out my typo in the nick of time.  Fast forwarding to the end of the day I come home and there is Annette armed to the teeth with ant traps, spray guns and even non-carcinogenic remedies she brewed up from recipes found on Google.  'Zap', she hits an unarmed ant on the window sill.  She had the look of a killer on her face who had just seen battle.  There were dead ants (not aunts thank goodness) everywhere.  I asked "did you spend your entire day off from work killing ants?" where she answered excitedly "they mess with the bull they get the horns".  That's my girl!
An office with a serious view.

While Annette was putting notches in her gun I was heading offshore to the wreck of the Aeolus once again but, this time to explore the other half of the ship, the stern section.  We had on board the group from "The Dive Shop" and the Cape Cod Divers as well.  The trip out was one of the nicest I have had all season.  With a gentle ground swell rolling out of the southwest and barely a puff of wind, the ride was more than comfortable but delightful.  First mate, John Thompson, found his way back on board the 'Midnight' and would have the honor of jumping in to tie us off to the upper section of the Aeolus.  Once he secures us to the wreck he informs me that the viz is a little better than yesterday and that there is a NST (non Sand Tiger) shark roaming about as well as a half dozen ST's as well.  I once again brief the divers and add on at the end that I want everyone to check and recheck everything before they head in to the water.  "It's the calm days where divers get lax and forget something so let's be on our toes today" I say.  Everyone agreed.

Venture Crew leader Rachel Eddowes enjoying a snorkel after her dive.

Perfect giant stride entry by ECU's finest Stephanie Harper.
Love those fins!
Stephanie, chalking up another awesome dive towards
her nitrox certification.

Notice the flat calm seas behind this returning diver.

Don't forget your fins.
Jodi, Bryan and Troy from Cape Cod Divers are sporting state of the art rebreather dive units and are the first ones ready to make the jump without delay in to the water.  David, also from the Cape, follows after them with a comfy dry suit and a standard open circuit SCUBA unit.  The other divers, some of which are novices, look at these crazy looking rebreather rigs and say "where are they going...outer space?".    "In a way, sure", I say to myself.  The rest of the gang waste little time and with the calm seas and the steady boat gearing up and entering the water is a piece of cake.  As the divers begin to return, all with smiles on there faces, I get reports of Sand Tiger Sharks milling around unconcerned inside the mid section of the wreck.  I immediately have a dive plan set in my head that includes snapping some pictures of these sharks within the wreck with ambient light shining in from the sides and ceiling.  All the divers make it back safe and sound each with positive things to say about their dive.  Finally, I can climb in to my gear, which has been collecting dry rot in the corner of the dive deck for the last week, and head down for a much needed dive on the Aeolus. 

Dale gearing up for a splash on the Aeolus.

As I swim down the anchor line, the first thing I see is what I believe to be a Gray Reef Shark or a Sand Bar Shark cruising by in mid water but, I was not sure which one due to it being too far away to tell.  I could have hovered around and waited for it to come back but, I had a dive plan in my head and I was going to stick to it.  I start off heading down the port side companionway in the hopes of seeing a shark swimming towards me and firing off a few shots.  As luck would have it I see one heading towards me but I notice from the distance that it was a newborn at no longer than 3 feet or so in length.  I squeeze off a shot or two but the little guy was barely noticeable in the frame so I moved on.  As I look to my right inside the remains of the wreck I can see shadows lurking around inside that were most likely Sand Tiger Sharks.
Sand Tiger Shark in the companionway. (New)
Another perfect pose from my fave model. (New)
Up close and personal with Carcharias Taurus. (New)
Getting shots of sharks inside the wreck to me is very desirable.  Sharks by themselves are interesting but, when you can combine them with another element such as a phenomenal ship wreck you can achieve an even more eye grabbing shot.  As I rounded the corner at the end of the companionway, I look inside and sure enough there are several sharks swimming about with little concern to my presence.  I set my strobes and my exposure and find a good spot with an interesting backdrop to start blazing away.  The repeated bright glare and flash from my strobes does not alarm them at all and they continue to swim around in circles offering perfect poses to my lens. "What luck", I say to myself.  "I can't find humans that can pose this well" After about 30 minutes my dive computer tells me it is time to go.  I could have easily sat there for another 30 minutes and shot more but duty called and it was time to return to the boat.  After climbing the ladders I had a great sense of accomplishment.  The dive was great, I nailed a few decent photos and everyone was having a great time on this calm day on the ocean.  This is what it is all about.  The rough weather, the greasy boat maintenance, the early rises etc.  It is all worth it.

"What! Paparazzi on the Midnight?" 

Sea fans such as you see on the bottom
add stunning color to the wreck of
the Aeolus. (New)

Our second dive this day was to be on the U-352.  Most had never been on this epic German WWII sub and those that had were more than happy to do it again.  The visibility was at least 50 feet while other reported 70 feet.  Bryan Burnham from Cape Cod Divers stated "to be able to see so much of the sub at once was great!" Similar comments continued to come in from the other divers as they returned to the deck. I love days like this but sadly, the days diving was over and it was time to head home once the last diver emerged. The ride in was beautiful. I had hoped that a pod of dolphins would join us and ride along our bow but I guess I was asking for too much on this already near perfect day. Dolphins would not do us the honor by showing up at my invite. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

To those whose names and photos did not appear in this Blog my humblest apologies.  Thanks for joining us on board the Midnight Express and I hope to see you back at Olympus Dive Center soon.

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Lunch time on the 'Midnight'.

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Mike Gerken