July 4th Weekend, 2011 - Joisey Divers


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 on Mike Gerken for more info about myself.
Photo of the Week
Sand Tiger Shark Extraordinaire.
     This past 4th of July weekend Olympus Dive Center was beset upon by a pack of irrepressible New Jersey divers from the renowned Ocean Explorers dive shop in Edison, NJ.  Owned and Operated by Jim Masters and Donna Gunn the 'Explorers' have been loyal repeat customers at Olympus and have been bringing very diverse, well trained and enthusiastic divers to experience the wrecks of the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic' of North Carolina for more than ten years.  I first met Jim and Donna around 1998 when I was instructing and part time crewing for the now defunct Diamond Shoals Dive Center located in Hatteras, North Carolina.  I clearly remember diving with them on board the M/V Gunsmoke, a 44' crew boat much like the boat I captain today, the Midnight Express.  Heading south out of Hatteras Inlet we would dive WWII casualty wrecks such as the Dixie Arrow, British Spendour and the F.W. Abrams as well as the late 19th century passenger liner, the Proteous.  Little did I know at the time that I would continue to dive with Jim & Donna and their dive groups several years later when I started crewing for Robert Purifoy at Olympus in 2001.  We had many great dives on the Atlas TankerW.E. Hutton; aka Papoose and the Caribsea. It was diving the Caribsea with the 'Explorers' where we had one of the most memorable dives when we encountered three large Manta Rays. (Read more about this in a future blog "My Top Ten Dives").


A resident of the Atlas Tanker. (new)
     In 2003 I left for Truk Lagoon, Micronesia to work on the dive liveaboards that operate there taking divers to see the famous Japanese wrecks from WWII (once again, more about my Truk days in future blogs).  During my first year in Truk I heard Jim & Donna would be coming there with one of their groups and sure enough while guiding a dive on the wreck of the Fujikawa Maru there was Donna swimming up to me on the foredeck at 80 feet and giving me a big hug with full SCUBA gear on while saying "hi sweety so nice to see you" she would murmur with endearing giggles attached.  Yes, she is very apt at speaking legible full sentences underwater and don't ask me how she does it.  I don't think I managed to see them above water on this trip but connecting underwater is the way we do things sometimes. Finally, in 2009, after returning to Olympus I would once again be diving with the Ocean Explorers but this time as there captain on the Midnight Express.  This past weekend July 2 thru 4, 2011 delivered yet again another memorable dive experience with the gang from 'Joisey'.  I have been host to this bunch for three years running with many of the same faces returning each year bringing their brand of 'northeast' humor and shenanigans with them.  


Annette Papa on board the Midnight Express.
     My first season back with Olympus was when I first met Ocean Explorer, Annette Papa who with her cheeky personality had caught my attention.  For some odd reason I caught her eye as well and here we are two years later living together and working at Olympus as a happy couple.  She is now a dive instructor with the dive center after making the 'great escape' from the rat race of New York City earlier this year.  I had warned her about all the negatives of the lifestyle such as double the work for less pay but also pointed out how fulfilling the work can be.  (see blog posting "The Coolest Job" dated June 14, 2011.)  She wanted a change and she got it and is loving every minute of it especially when her dive buddies from 'Joisey' come for a visit.


     They started to arrive early in the afternoon on Friday, July 1 while the bulk of the group got in later in the day.  Some like to beat the rush so they can get a good spot on the boat and irk those that didn't have the forethought to get there earlier.  There really isn't a 'best' spot on the boat though but, some divers have there 'fave' location on the bench and you can't tell them any different.  A few of these guys stand pretty tall so they can sit anywhere they want as far as I'm concerned as long as it isn't in my helm chair.  
A busy dive deck with Ocean Explorers from New Jersey.
     By the end of the day everyone arrived at the dock to take care of loading the equipment on to the boat.  They wisely know that getting this task out of the way the day before is the best way to do it.  Wake up, drive down to the boat, take care of a few odds and ends, grab your boarding pass and climb on to the boat and drink your coffee in peace while you wait for the boat to head out.   When I arrived at the dock at 0545 on Saturday the Midnight Express was loaded up neatly and efficiently as usual.  There were a few modifications to the tank arrangements and gear stowage but for the most part this group, as usual, showed that this isn't going to be their first rodeo.  Clearly they have done this before and those in the group that are new to the North Carolina dive experience are thoroughly trained by Jim & Donna and their instructors on the proper protocol of boat diving at Olympus.
Ocean Explorer, Rob,  loves to go diving.  Two thumbs up!


     After I go through my usual routine of prepping the boat and warming the engines up I sit and wait for the gang to arrive.  One after the other they begin to march down to the end of the dock.  The familiar faces Glen, Rob, Joe, Mark, Rich, Vu, Jay, Deborah and Karen appear and make their presence known.  Some newer faces Amanda, Cheryl, Hideki and Scott (My apologies to those I forgot to list) arrive as well with some of them wearing that look of "what am I getting myself into" written on their faces.  Not so much due to the unknown diving that lay so near ahead but from having to share a 48' long dive boat with the antics of the animated veteran NC divers from 'Joisey'.  She is a spacious boat but sometimes not spacious enough (and you guys know what I mean).  In a few hours they will have a clear answer to this question. All the hard work, travel, expenses and dealing with rambunctious passengers (I'm trying to be polite) become a non issue when your at 100' diving on a historic 475' long wreck with a 8'-10' Sand Tiger Shark swimming under your nose.  In fact on this day there would be dozens of Sand Tiger Sharks to be seen.

Just a few of the dozens of denizens of the Atlas Tanker, Outer Banks, NC. (new)


     Jim & Donna show up with a mental agenda that they know like the back of their hand.  They have been on this trip and many others around the world and are travel experts as well as dive experts.  Being organized is important step in adventure seeking and they know how to do it right. We talk a little on the dock about where to go diving today and I tell them the weather is looking very good with light winds and near flat seas.  "The ocean is our oyster" I indicate and I can take them to anywhere they want to go within range.  As Jim & Donna are thinking it over my crew and I prepare to get underway on schedule.  Roll call is made, last call is announced and dock lines are cast off.  Everyone, including myself, settles in for the beautiful ride out to Beaufort Inlet.  Before I get there it was decided by all that we would be going to the Atlas Tanker where the best shark action so far this year has been. (see previous blog dive report, "Sand Tiger Shark Invasion" from May 30th.)  Many of the group wanted to dive the German U-Boat the U-352 but since the weather forecast was very promising it was decided to hit that dive site the following day.

     We make good time today heading over to the east side of Lookout Shoals to the resting location of the Atlas Tanker.  The Atlas was sunk in WWII by a German U-Boat and now rests in 110' to 115' of water with the shallowest sections in around 90' of water.  We will anchor up to the highest section towards the bow since the visibility on this wreck tends to be better the shallower you go.  There always seems to be a layer of cooler, dirtier water the last 15 to 20'.  My mate John Thomson is on deck for today's tie in.  He grabs the hook and chain and makes his patented jump in to the water holding his SLR housed camera and heads straight down into shark infested waters.  (To us divers the more infested the better it is.)  Once he gets the boat tied in he radios up and indicates there is about 30' of visibility.  
Sand Tiger Shark on the Atlas.  (new)
     The sun at this time was playing hard to get and if it were sunny the viz would have been 20-30 percent better.  These conditions on this wreck are slightly above average and this is good news.  John also tells me that on the way down he has seen more sharks on the wreck then ever before.  I clearly remember when I used to mate for Robert Purifoy on the 'Midnight' years ago that some of the anchor rides down to this wreck were hairy good fun.  Sometimes there would be so many sharks below you that you would have to extend the hook and chain beneath you and rattle the chain to make a path through the mass of sharks.  Great adrenaline pumping fun it was.  
Yet another Sand Tiger Shark or do I keep seeing the same over and over? (New)
     Once the boat is secured I proceed to give the briefing to which many on board had heard many times before but still remained attentive and respectful while I tried to convey some important tips on diving with hordes of Sand Tigers to the newcomers.  Once the pool was officially opened it did not take much effort to get everyone safely in the water on their way down to the wreck.  As I said before, the Ocean Explorers have there s!*# together.  I love this group for that reason.  Now all the crew and I could do was sit, wait and try to fend off the throngs of small fishing boats that all seemed to want to troll on the same 50 feet of wreck that I was on with little regard for the other 400 feet of wreck that lie to my port side.  The dive flag means little to some I guess.  After a spell the 'Joisey' boys begin to return one after the other with text book attacks on the ladders.  One by one they climb aboard and settle there gear back in to the spot they started with being careful not to leave weight belts, fins and masks strewn about the deck or slam their heads on the canopy railing while stepping aboard (I told you these guys are big).  I had twenty divers in total on this day making it a full boat but you would have never know it.  If you ever want to score points with a dive boat captain then follow the lead of these guys.  
Instructor, Karen returning from a dive
with her trade mark smile.


     Pretty soon piles of Sand Tiger Sharks teeth that the divers recovered from the wreck and a handful of NST teeth (Non Sand Tiger) were out on display with tales of the dive.  There were plenty of great stories from the veterans and of course many of the new divers to NC were ecstatic and officially addicted to the diving and it only took one dive.  Mission accomplished. Now we can head over to our second dive site, the wreck of the Caribsea but, not before I got my shot at the Atlas.  Since the visibility was a little hazy and I had already shot some still images here but 48 hours ago (more on that later) I would take my trusty video camera in to get some more shark footage.  You can never have too much shark footage by the way.  I get to the top of the wreck and as expected there were numerous sharks milling about as well as large schools of Spade Fish, Amberjacks and Spanish Mackerel not to mention the usual masses of bait fish.  


Jay posing for a shot on the swim deck.
     The overcast conditions topside created an even more ominous feeling on this haunted wreck.  The lack of ambient light deemed it necessary and possible to use my video lights when in close range of the sharks.  I immediately began picking out targets and allowing them to approach me.  Some subjects proved to be easy to get close to while others shied away.  At one point an eight footer was but only a few feet away from my lens when my presence must have spooked him.  In a flash of an eye the shark turned tail and shot away but not before bumping into another enormous shark and startling it.  The concussion of water a second later knocked me and my camera around like a tub toy.  After around twenty minutes or so I figured I had enough footage to put together a nice video short that I would like to share with you for the first time at this link.  I hope you enjoy it.


VIDEO LINK HERE: Atlas Tanker July 2, 2011
A regular at Olympus Dive Center, Rich
returning from a dive.


     Our second dive of the day on the Caribsea also proved to be a big winner with the group even though the visibility was only around 20 feet and dirty.  These northeast divers who are used to diving in cold dirty dark water were not put off in the least and most everyone by my indication had expressed a great dive when they returned to the boat.  Some said they saw some sharks while others said they hadn't but there was plenty to see on this wreck and with a max depth of a mere 90 feet there was more bottom time to be had as well.  After the last diver was aboard it was time to make the run back to the dock.  All in all it was a very successful day.  I don't think there was as single diver who did not enjoy their self to the fullest.  Once all were satisfied the crew and I turned the Midnight for home.




Oodles of bait fish under the stern section of the W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose. (new)
     Sunday's diving would prove to be as much a success as Saturday. The seas were just a little steeper today but that did not deter me from heading out to the desired location the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose for the first dive.  The visibility was an easy 70 feet on the bottom with warm blue water.  The abundance of marine life and the ever presence of Sand Tiger Sharks supplied plenty of attractions to the divers.  This wreck rarely disappoints and today was no exception.


     With the conditions as they were there is no way I would miss this dive on the Papoose.  I would try my hand at some still photography today.  Although I had limited success I managed to get one decent photo of the bait fish crammed inside the stern section of the wreck.  Visibility at times was only a few feet due to the sheer numbers of fish and I wanted to capture an image that reflected this.  On my way up from the dive I hung on to the anchor line and gazed upon the wreck below me in the clear blue water with its rich marine ecosystem encircling it and fell into a state of bliss. The woes of the topside world no longer existed, I have no bills to worry about and the aches in my body are gone.  In moments like these all is right in the world.  Even after my head breaks the surface and I once again have the responsibility of 23 passengers and crew to be concerned about my mind is more level now and I can approach my job and my life in a more positive way.  Diving is the best therapy I know.
Mark sporting his chic hood from 'Joisey'.

Joe returning from another stellar dive.

Deborah showing us she got what it takes to dive NC.


     The 'Joisey' gang is to scratch off the U-352 from their bucket list today.  As you have heard me say before in previous blogs the U-Boat is a must do dive for anyone coming to NC.  The Midnight anchors up on the bow of the U-Boat and my mate radios up and says "there is dirty water and only 30 foot of viz down here".  "Oh well", I say, "Thirty foot is plenty to enjoy the sub experience".  As it would be, John dived down in to a pocket of brown dirty water which soon past over the wreck with the current and was replaced by the same beautiful blue water we just experienced on the Papoose.  Returning divers from the sub told stories of how they could see the conning tower from the bow 80 feet away!  This kind of viz on the U-boat is a bonus.  To be able to see large sections of this historic WWII wreck is fantastic.  Everyone including a diver or two who were sea sick participated in this dive and all spoke very highly of their experience on it.  
Glen climbing out of his gear after a dive
on the Caribsea.
     As divers entered the water I noted that the wind began to pick up and the seas began to build. By time the last divers surfaced the ladders on the stern of the boat were bucking like a bronco.  Caution was now required on ascending the ladders and all did very well with little mishap.  Once the last diver was back on board I figuratively wiped the sweat from my brow and said "lets go home".  The ride home proved to be a challenging one at that.  At first the wind and sea which was on my stern quarter offered no trouble in steering until the wind picked up yet again and again.  By time I got to the inlet an hour and thirty minutes later I was working hard at keeping a course while surfing down the face of a large swells.  At one point the Midnight took a roll from a wave that seemed to get the passengers attention as well as mine.  Not dangerous by any stretch, but an attention getter all the same.  Regardless, when I turned the corner in to Beaufort Inlet on to the lee of land I was glad to be back home again.  The weather is just one hurdle we face each day in order to dive these wrecks.  We at Olympus, like many of our customers, are seriously committed.
No shortage of smiles from Peter after
his dive.
     That night the entire Ocean Explorers group, there friends, families, myself and Annette included all attended Floyd's 1921 restaurant in Morehead City for a fantastic dinner.  Floyd's by far has some of the heartiest and tastiest foods in Carteret County, NC.  It is Olympus Dive Centers favorite eatery and many of our loyal customers become Floyd's customers as well.  If you sit in the front room to dine you will also be surrounded by some of my framed photographs that the owners Floyd and Shana Olmstead have graciously allow me to hang there.  The next time your in town try their food out and if you disagree with me then I would welcome your comments and maybe even challenge them.

The entire Ocean Explorers group from Edison, New Jersey dining at Floyd's 1921 in Morehead City,  NC.
Pardon the blurry photo I neglectfully left my camera at home and shot this with an iPhone.  
     Sadly, the winds did not lay down over night and continued to blow hot and heavy the next day.  We had no choice but to cancel the third day of diving but most were consoled by the fact that they managed to get two days of stunning diving in under there belt before the blow day.  On Monday morning the Ocean Explorers spent a few hours packing up gear, chatting around the shop and making plans for the next excursion to the Outer Banks.  It is always a pleasure to accommodate this group of 'Joisey divers' and I truly hope to see you back here again or maybe somewhere else in the world while diving.


     Lastly, the Midnight Express managed to get out for a dive on the Atlas Tanker and the Caribsea on Thursday June 30th with the same conditions as just described within this blog as well as a two tank inshore dive on Friday to the Titan Tug Boat and the USS Indra.  Both were 60 foot dives with about 20-30' of visibility and temps in the mid seventies.  Thank you to all those divers who ran with me on those days.  I hope you enjoyed yourself and will come back soon.  The season here is shaping up very nicely with blue water pushing closer and closer in and plenty of great diving to be had all over.  I'll see you all sooner than later.


Happy Diving!


Mike Gerken









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1 comment:

Ed Schwartz said...

Way to go Mike. See you in a couple of weeks. I am from New Joyssie toooo. Looking forward to your blogs always.

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