June 22, 2012 - The 'Naeco'

Photo of the Week
The Wreck of the Naeco; the stern. (New)


     Midweek charters on board the Midnight Express at Olympus Dive Center were a little slow these past five days, so I took advantage of the down time and stowed away on board the M/V Olympus on Wednesday June 20 to dive the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose for a pair of dives. It was a good day to play hooky from my desk jockey responsibilities and go diving. The seas were flat calm with visibility edging over 30 feet on the bottom but with much bluer water above that. 

     I also managed to go diving with my lovely girlfriend, Annette who was anxious to display some of her new underwater modeling tips she learned from professional photographer Chris Crumley. (Please visit his web site to learn more about Chris and the beautiful work he does). Annette drove all the way to Virginia a few weeks ago to take Chris's course and so far so good with her new poses.
     With the visibility a little on the low side getting close to subjects would be the name of the game to achieve any decent images. As Annette and I swam down the wreck we started to come across some very large sand tiger sharks, but none of them appeared to want to cooperate for a close encounter photo.

Annette Papa and a very friendly giant southern stingray. (New)
     Pretty soon we stumbled upon a large southern stingray with a pair of very large cobia swimming underneath it. Cobia are well known to follow stingrays and dart to and fro as if they were following a Pied Piper. This image of ray and cobia has been on my shot list for years now and I thought I might have a chance to nail it this time, but unfortunately neither party was interested in having their portrait taken and they swam off in to the blue green water with indifference to the eager photographer behind them.

     Suddenly Annette and I found yet another jumbo stingray laying partially buried in the sand and I decided this might suffice. Without having to so much as look at Annette, she maneuvered herself carefully in to position so not to startled the resting stingray for a photo. After a few test shots and a very cooperative ray, I managed to get a 'keeper' for the photo album and all thanks to Annette.

Ashton Allgood inside the wreck of
the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. (New)
     On our trip back to the boat, I practiced firing off some portraits for practice for the both of us. With her new talents as a UW model, hopefully, you will begin to see Annette in print more and more in the future. Don't tell her I said this, but I think she enjoys it as well.

    Dive two on the Papoose was another enjoyable portrait photo shoot with long time Olympus employee, Ashton Allgood. On this dive, Ashton and I swam through the internal remains of the Papoose to try to obtain a tone of deep, dark and mysterious in our photos. Considering this was Ashton's first time posing for me I'd have to say it went rather well. She hasn't seen any if these images as of press time so I will let her decide.

(Scroll down to the Photo Gallery)

     That night, after the Papoose dives, I received a phone call from Captain Bobby Edwards of the 'six pack' dive boat, Atlantis IV that operates out of Atlantic Beach. He asked me if I would like to dive the wreck of the Naeco the next day since I had the day off. The Naeco was sunk in WWII by a German U-boat approximately 41 miles due south of Beaufort Inlet. She lies in about 130-135' of water and is known to have fantastic visibility and warm waters from the Gulf Stream. I hadn't been to the Naeco in more than 10 years and I dared not turn down such a gracious invite. I told Bobby I would be happy to go.

Northeast divers on the Atlantis IV.
     That morning at the dock, as we were loading gear, I was introduced to the group of divers that had been chartering the Atlantis IV all week. One of the guys, by the name of Charlie, had looked awfully familiar to me, but I could not place the face. On the ride out to the dive site we got to talking and low and behold we discovered that we had dived together on several occasions in the north east some 15 plus years ago.  On one such trip, after diving the wreck of the USS Bass off of Block Island, RI, our dive vessel nearly sank in a wicked squall that swooned down unexpectedly upon us. The rain, wind and seas were powerful enough were we began donning our drysuits in the event we should sink. Believe me, it was hairy!

    Needless to say we did not sink and came through the storm much better than the S/S Minnow did. We pulled in to Block Island and sought out the nearest bar, sat out the second dive and opted for a cold beer to calm our rattled nerves. An event like this one sticks in your mind rather well and Charlie and I hugged and joked about almost perishing in that storm together. Thankfully we could laugh about this event since the alternative outcome was too grim to think about.

The Naeco steering quadrant in the background. (New)
     Once arriving at the Naeco the five divers on board jumped in for their dive as I followed slightly behind. My goal was to shoot some wide angle images with my Nikon D300. The visibility was an easy 70 feet and ideal for the type of shot I wanted to get. As I arrived at the bottom some 130' below I framed a shot and fired the shutter. The camera clicked, but the strobes did not fire. I knew that it could be a bad connection in my sync cord or just a tad bit of grease on the hot shoe. 

     Confronted with this problem before I decided to drop back even a little further than usual and shoot ambient light only rather than abort the dive. In the back of my head I knew that converting such photos to black and white would work well. So that is what I did and in the end I was pleased with the outcome, but I wish my strobes had fired all the same. Any photographer will tell you that if you can land one really nice 'keeper' image per dive your doing pretty well.

     The second dive of the day was on the  Wreck of the U-352. One of the divers on board had never been and the other four quickly agreed that it was a must dive for him to experience. The visibility however was a little on the low side at around 20-30 feet so I left my camera on the boat and took up a pole spear and caught a few black sea bass for my dinner table instead. Sea bass are in season now and abundant on the many wrecks. Many will tell you, including myself, that these modest sized fish are some of the tastiest in the ocean. Keep an eye out for my fish recipes in my next Dive & Photo Newsletter.

Blue water diving NC style. (New)
     At the end of the day, I shook hands with Charlie and all the guys, exchanged business cards and said, "see you out there again".  I have no doubt that we will see each other again. The diving industry is a small one and you never know who your going to bump in to on a dive boat in the middle of the Atlantic.

     I'll be back in action on the Midnight Express starting tomorrow and Sunday. The weather looks promising so we shall see. As of right now there is plenty of space on board for the following midweek dives so give us a call and book your dives. We would love to share with you what we already know is world class diving.

Thanks for following!


Photo Gallery
Instructor Bubba Flores on video shoot for the Military Channel
with his Go-Pro head cam. (New)
Annette Papa swimming the hull of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose.
Ashton Allgood inside the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. 
Ashton on the ascent.
Annette Papa hangin' out.

Rush hour on the ascent. 
Ashton and Annette stopping for a pose. 
Ashton Allgood, Annette Papa and Nema Triplett.

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June 13, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 1 - Where It Began

A Few Words First
     For those of you who have been following my blog series, Mike's Top 10 Dives, I have finally gotten around to finishing it up in this issue with my no. 1 most memorable dive. Some of you may have been thinking, it must be an exotic dive on one of the wrecks of Truk Lagoon or a deep dive on the SS President Coolidge or a encounter with a ferocious shark in North Carolina. The reality is the dive that takes the no. 1 position for me is much more modest than that. 
     This dive takes me back to where it all started; my open water check out dive off the beaches of Riverhead, New York in the Long Island Sound. I did not know at the time what diving and the ocean would mean to me in the future. I only knew that I loved diving. At the age of 13 that was all that mattered. Life was simpler back then and I didn't analyze the experience; I just reveled in it. 

     Enjoy this piece and thank you again for following.

Happy Diving!

-Mike Gerken

"Open Water Check Out Dive" - Northville, Long Island, NY

Here I am posing for a shot after completing
my check out dives for my
open water certification. July, 1981.
     My parents, grandparents and their parents before them have been vacationing on the eastern shores of Long Island, known as the North Fork, since the 1920's. Back then, the region was dominated by sprawling farm communities specializing in growing potato's. The owners of these farms had built beach bungalows along the north shore adjacent to their farm land in a hamlet called, Northville. They would use these modest homes for their own personal use in the summer months and as rentals for those who would venture out to the country from New York City to escape the oppressive heat. My great grandparents were such people. Swimming, fishing, boating and sun bathing on the beach were all favorite past times for the entire extended family.

     My grandparents eventually purchased one of the beach houses in Northville and introduced this life style to my father and in turn introduced it to my mother and myself as well as my siblings. My most memorable times growing up were those spent at the Gerken beach house where, like my ancestors before me, I would explore the waters of the Long Island Sound. From sun up till sun down I could be mostly found in the water, afloat on top of the water or at the waters edge engaged in some activity such as fishing, boating, swimming, snorkeling, water skiing and much later on, SCUBA diving.

     At the age of thirteen, my parents decided to enroll me in a scuba course at the 7- Z's dive center in Riverhead, NY. Since I had been an avid free diver and snorkeler since before I could remember, Mom and Dad believed that dive training would be the next logical step for their son, the 'water rat'. I was a very lucky child to have parents that encouraged me to try new things and to keep me stimulated and active. I might not have appreciated this at the time, but as an adult I certainly reflect back on this with gratitude.

Setting up my gear for the big dive off the beach in Northville
with my instructor. July 1981.
     After arriving at the 7-Z's I remember the excitement of seeing the dive equipment hanging on the walls. Mind you, this dive shop was not like the flash operations you see today with the numerous selections of gear displayed on the custom made displays. Nearly everything was black and you had a choice of two masks and two styles of fins. Pink wetsuits were definitely not an option. 

     My folks enrolled me in the course and handed me the text book and set up the schedule. I was to come two nights per week for the next three weeks to do the training.

     I remember having a grand time with the in water training skills in the on site pool. Back then we were required to do skills that have been long banned from training schools. One such skill was a breath hold circuit under water. Wearing only a weight belt, mask and fins we would swim from one scuba unit to another along the bottom of the pool. At each station we would take a breath or two and then swim to the next station to repeat the process. This would go on for a few revolutions until we all mastered it. Another notorious skill was called the 'ditch & don'. Standing at the foot of the pool at the deep end we would toss all of our gear in to the pool in a pile 10 feet beneath us. Wearing nothing but our swim shorts we would jump in, free swim to the bottom and start donning the gear. First the regulator in the mouth, then the weight belt, then the dive tank and backpack, then the mask and fins and then the buoyancy compensation device (BCD). Once all was secure we would do a controlled ascent to the surface. If a dive school was to perform such a drill today their lawyers would flip out. At some point years later, 'ditch and don' was gone for liability reasons I'm sure.

Setting up the equipment as my father
takes a few snapshots.
     Mastering the in water skills had proven to be much easier than the classroom training. Most of the material was easy enough, but the physics and dive tables proved to be trying on me and required a little extra attention. My dive instructors were very nice guys who were patient and knowledgeable. They helped me through it all and got me to pass my written exam. All that was left now was the open water check out dives; the moment of truth.

     For reasons I cannot recall, I was unable to attend the check out dives with my class mates and had to set up a private session with one of my instructors whose name was Carl. Carl drove out to my family beach house and conducted my training dives right in front of my home. As luck would have it, the water was calm for many days creating clear water with visibility at least 15 feet or more (this is pretty good for the LI Sound). 

     We splayed out blankets on the rocks and sand and began to set our gear up. The regulators and pressure gauge in those days did not have an alternate air source, but they did have power inflators for the BC's. A depth gauge was also not required and dive computers were in their infancy if available even at all.

Instructor Carl and I wading into the water to start our training dives.
     Carl and I then proceeded to help each other in to our gear and wade out in to the flat calm water. After a short surface swim Carl, looked at me and flashed the ok sign with his thumb and forefinger. Once I ok'ed him in return he then pointed his thumb down indicating it was time to descend. Once we got down to the bottom about 15 feet down I noticed all the same things I had seen many times before while breath hold diving; crabs, small fish, seaweed and rocks etc. This time though I did not have to he surface for air. I now had more time to explore. 

    Carl then proceeded to run me through the skills required for my certification. Out of air drills, buoyancy and mask clearing skills being but a few of them. He was very thorough and at the end of each training session we would swim off and simply have some fun. We came across a large set of rocks at one point and spotted an enormous black fish or Tautog swimming in and out of the crags. I only stood tall at about 5 foot and change in those days so I can't say for sure how big 'enormous' really was. All I can say is it was exciting. We also saw a few crabs and schools of smaller fish as well.

Exiting the water with Carl after my first SCUBA dive.
Needless to say I was pretty excited. 
     Once the first dive was complete we exited the water where Carl said, "that was a big blackfish wasn't it!" I agreed enthusiastically and by my reaction many would have thought I just saw a great white shark. In those days it did not take much to excite me.  Carl and I then changed out our tanks and repeated the process over again with a new set of skills this time. 

     The second dive was every bit as good as the first but it all came a little easier. My father all the while stood on the beach taking photos and made a point to stay out of the way and let Carl do his job. 

     Once we completed my final dive, Carl simply said, "congratulations you did a great job". I'm not sure what I said in return but I know I probably had a grin that stretched from ear to ear and then some. My Dad at this point intervened in the whole process and offered Carl a cold beer back at the house. To this day the tradition of a diver drinking a cold beer after a dive lives on strong. As an adult today, I can vouch for this. After a cold one or two and some small talk, Carl excused himself, got in his van and drove away. I never saw him again after that, but the memory of the day lives on strong. 

My PADI Junior Open Water certification card.
And yes....I had hair then.
   That week my Mom took me to the grocery store and sat me in the photo booth to get my mug shot taken for my PADI Junior Open Water certification card. A card I carried around religiously in my wallet for years and which I still possess to this day. As a young boy, I cannot stress how exciting it was to participate in scuba diving and become a member of the club. I for sure felt like the coolest kid on the block.

    Ironically, I recall making only one or two dives on scuba after my certification until the age of 24. Factors such as finding a buddy, allocating the time and of course finding the funds all came in to play and kept me away from SCUBA. I did however continue to enjoy the water and went freediving and spearfishing regularly during the summer months.

Instructor Carl after successfully training a
13 year old kid how to scuba dive.
     Eventually, after completing college and experiencing the rat race of New York City for a few years, I decided it was time to return to the ocean and seek the solitude and peace that it once offered me. 7-Z's had long gone out of business and a new operation sprang up in its place. The Hampton Dive Center, owned and operated by Randy Randazzo, went on to become one of Long Island's best dive operators. I signed up for my Open Water course with Randy in my mid twenties and got back on track. Besides returning to diving for the joy of it, I had a bigger plan to set in motion; a new career in diving. It would take seven years before I would venture out on this new path on a full time basis, but that's a story for another time.

-Mike Gerken

While writing this short story I decided to try to track down my instructor who helped me on my way to become the dive pro that I am today. After a brief search on Facebook and an email sent to Carl, he got back to me indicating I found the right guy. I merely wanted to say thanks and to let him know what diving for me had become and what it meant to me. He wrote back indicating he was pleased to have been a part of the process and to thank me for bringing back good memories of his days as a dive instructor. If your reading this Carl, "Thanks again for introducing me to diving".

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June 12, 2012 - Bottom Time

Photo of the Week
Barracuda residing on the wreck of the USCGC Spar. (New)

My home away from home, the Midnight
wheelhouse.  Photo by Annette Papa.
     This past week proved to be a good one for diving at Olympus Dive Center on board the Midnight Express. I ran charters Thursday June 7 thru Sunday June 10 with a reprieve for a few days this week. The conditions offshore have been great and bordering on super with flat calm seas over the weekend with visibility edging up to 60 feet at times; depending on where we were diving. A stiff north wind earlier in the week did manage to drop the water temps down a few degrees from 78-74 degrees but it is warming up again quickly.

     Although I did not get to dive for a few days due to obligations on board the boat, I did get in on Thursday and Sunday and finally got to see the wreck of the USCGC Spar in her new resting place since Hurricane Irene jostled her around last August. The Spar is still very much the awesome wreck dive she has always been, although now with a 45 degree list to her port side. Sand tiger sharks, although seen with regularity, have been few in numbers on the Spar. The W.E. Hutton aka Papoose on the other hand has had far more shark encounters so far this year not to mention a plethora of all the usual suspects. That wreck has always and continues to impress divers. As far as I can ascertain, most divers visiting with us have been enjoying themselves immensely including a more international crowd that I have beens seeing on board. This week the Midnight was host to some divers from England, Portugal, Mexico and Germany. Word has been getting out abroad at what we have to offer for diving and this could not please us more.

Editor & Chief of Wreck Diving Magazine,
Joe Porter hemmed in by Olympus Dive Center's
Robert Purifoy and Nema Triplett.
     Also, Joe Porter, the Editor & Chief of the renown Wreck Diving Magazine came up to Olympus for a quick getaway dive on Saturday before returning to his busy schedule at home. Word has it he had some great dives. It was nice to see him out enjoying the perfect weather conditions and we look forward to his return with his lovely wife Heidi in the near future.

     On the photo side of things, the addition of the Nikon D800 to my arsenal has been an exciting one thus far. Due to a very busy schedule I did not have the chance to do as much shooting with it yet. The housing for this camera will not be ready for a few more weeks so I am relegated to snapping some top side shots in the meanwhile. So far what I have seen has blown me away by the quality of the images this camera takes. The dynamic range of the images is impressive compared to my D200 and D300 cameras. No longer do I lose as much detail in the shadows when I expose to the highlights and vice versa. The sharpness and resolution is hard to top at 7360p x 4912p; a whopping 36 Mega Pixels! 
A test shot of the Midnight Express
with the full frame Nikon D800
and a 16mm Fisheye lens.

That is a lot of MP's for the average photographer, but you can never have too many I say, especially with the price tag this camera comes with. The body of the Nikon D800 runs $3,000 but when you consider that only 5-8 years ago a camera with this large a sensor ran as high as $25,000 or more. There is a lot of performance in the D800 for the price. Due to these large files this camera is not recommended for action/sports photography since the frames per second is hampered to a mere 4 per second at full frame. That speed suits my needs for underwater applications. So far I am pleased as punch with this unit, but I have a lot more experimentation to go. I will keep you all posted.

     Lastly, I will have my final Blog Report on my Top Ten Dives within a day or two. Stay tuned.

Happy diving!

-Mike Gerken

Photo Gallery
Some territorial barracudas on the Spar
made for great subject matter.
Taken with Nikon D300; 16mm fisheye lens.
Taken with Nikon D300; 16mm fisheye lens.
'Midnight' mate, Brian Moore making a
grand entry off the pulpit.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.

Crew hanging out on the bow on a
beautiful flat calm day.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.
Annette Papa and Anna Yeager of Olympus,
tag teamed a bunch of lionfish this weekend.
Those fish didn't stand a chance.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.

Flat calm day + great vis makes for some happy divers.
Taken with Nikon D800; 12-24DX lens.

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June 4, 2012 - Dive Drought Over

Photo of the Week
A sand tiger shark in the wreck of the W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. (New)
Copyright 2012©Mike Gerken

The dive season here in North Carolina with Olympus Dive Center has been underway for well over a month, but until this past week I have personally not been able to get in the water since Dec 2011! This was in part due to bad weather as well as a bad attitude. This past week changed all that. The weather improved as did my attitude and I am now able to deliver new photos and a condition report after making three dives this week.

     The conditions offshore have been stellar. Just take a look at the Photo of the Week up top that was taken only 24 hours ago and you will see what I mean. We did lose one day of diving on Wednesday due to a storm that flew threw here, but I will not dwell on that downer. We did dive on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday off the Midnight Express. Let me give you the run down.
The stern of the WWI gunship, the USS Schurz. (New)
     We had some great divers visit with us this week, all of which I do not have the space to mention in this blog report. Two men of note that I would like to mention are Matt White and Tyler Anderson who are part of the Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, also known as, SUDS. I wrote a piece on SUDS last year that you can read about at this link. This will give you some background as to the amazing work this organization is involved in.

SUDS diver Tyler Anderson being drilled by dive instructor, Bubba Flores. (New)
SUDS diver, Matt White emerging from
within the wreck of the W.E. Hutton
aka Papoose. (New)
     Matt and Tyler were here to do some dive training with Olympus instructors Bubba Flores and Danny Facciola and also to simply have some fun diving. I had the privilege to tag along with the four of them on a dive on the W.E. Hutton, aka Papoose and snap a few pics of them engaged in training. I'd have to say that this was inspirational watching these guys dive. They looked like pros down there. 

     After the dive was over, the training continued for Matt as he finished his surface skills towards his Rescue Diver certification. Bubba with the help of Olympus instructor Annette Papa simulated various distressed diver scenarios where Matt seemed to master all the skills and finish his course. It was impressive to watch. (See Photo Gallery below)

     SUDS weren't the only divers in town this week that I wanted to mention. The New York City dive club Sea Gypsies were here for most of the week to dive headed up by Mats Stahlkrantz and Renata Rojas. It is always a pleasure to have my NY kinfolk come down to dive with me at Olympus and this year went very well for them all. Well at least that is what they told me. They managed to dive the mainstay wrecks, the Papoose, U-352, Spar, and the Aeolus and have great dive conditions to boot. The optimal diving was a plus considering a tropical storm had barreled its way through here just last week with 35 knot winds and 10 foot seas.

2012 Sea Gypsies North Carolina
dive group. 
     All of the dives the Gypsies did yielded anywhere from 40 feet of visibility up to 80+ foot with 78 degrees on the bottom. Sand tiger sharks on the Spar are sporadic, but there was a population on the nearby wreck of the Aeolus and plenty to be seen on the Papoose. Many divers even reported seeing NST's (Non-Sand Tigers) on a few of the dives which leads me to think that the dusky sharks may be back this year. I'll keep you posted on that.

    As for myself, I managed to get in some diving this week on the Papoose and on the USS Schurz. The long diveless winter became a distant memory as I looked at my LCD at 120' after snapping some 'keeper' images. The feeling of finally getting back in the water and doing what I love the most was a relief. 

    For those of you contemplating coming diving, well now is the time to do it. The warm blue water is pushing in strong and there is loads of marine life out there to see. I for one am excited and optimistic for this 2012 season. 
A North Carolina lionfish.

    On a different note, I will be posting my final Dive Blog Report on my Top Ten Dives of all time within a few days. My last Blog was on my 2nd all time best dive with Manta Rays right here in North Carolina. My number 1 dive is the last to come and some of you may be surprised to read what it is.
Happy Diving!

-Mike Gerken

Photo Gallery

Carcharias taurus or the sand tiger shark.

I never tire of these amazing sharks.
Matt and Danny inside the Papoose right before
I temporarily blinded them with my strobes.
Tyler Anderson exploring the beautiful
W.E. Hutton aka Papoose. 
More drills for Tyler with Bubba.
Tyler receiving orders from Bubba. 
Matt White taking a tour of the Papoose.
Tyler and Bubba making an ascent.
Matt White looking like a pro.
SUDS secretary and Olympus instructor
& captain, Danny Facciola looking over Matt.
Tyler and Bubba taking a break.
The SUDS gang hangin' out.
Tyler performing surface rescue skills with Bubba and Annette. 
Perfect ring toss by Tyler.
Bubba getting a tow.
I'm diggin' those pink 'Chuck's' Renata!
Annette Papa looks to be having a good time.
A days catch. Yum yum.

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