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Deep Below the Surface

Jun 03, 2011 01:07PM ● Published by Anonymous

When people think of scuba diving, they often imagine oxygen-equipped divers in wetsuits plunging backwards into turquoise waters amidst pristine coral reefs and colorful fish in some tropical locale.

Rarely do the darker, murkier waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries come to mind. But that’s exactly where members of the Atlantis Rangers Skin and Scuba Diving Club, a nonprofit organization founded in 1959 and based in Greenbelt, Maryland, spend most of their time.

When it comes to scuba diving in the Chesapeake region, opportunities range from oyster and artifact diving in the bay to shipwreck diving in the Atlantic off Ocean City, and even trips inland to area quarries. Although it would be nice to be able dive in the waters of the Caribbean, “We can’t always do that,” says Robin Sparer, president of the Atlantis Rangers. “Fortunately, there are a number of places to dive within a one- or two-hour drive of this area.” Club member Brian Hughes adds, “If you know the right location, you can walk right off shore and dive in the bay.” Photo Credit: “Michael Eversmier ©2011”

Hunting for oysters, sharks’ teeth, or artifacts are all popular scuba diving activities in our region. Mike Nieman, owner of Chesapeake Underwater Sports in Annapolis, explains that it’s not unusual to find clay pipes, pottery, and, in the waters off Calvert Cliffs, you can find sharks’ teeth as big as your hand.

According to Atlantis Rangers-member Mike Gutterman, some unusual marine life on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay merit exploring. “There’s lots of little critters down there,” he says. “It’s a very focused dive due to limited visibility. Some even take a magnifying glass down there with them. But you don’t need a lot of visibility to see little worms along the bottom or even seahorses that live in the bay.”

History in Front of Your Eyes

Along with clay pipes, sharks’ teeth, and unusual worms, shipwrecks make for interesting diving in the region. Although wreck diving in the bay is somewhat limited due to visibility and strong currents, a number of wrecks off Ocean City are popular dive spots. One of the most famous wreck sites in the Chesapeake Bay is the German U-boat U-1105, nicknamed the Black Panther due to its black rubber skin—a top-secret design technology developed for avoiding sonar detection. After World War II, the boat was brought to this country so experts could research its rubber-tiled coating.

Sunk off Southern Maryland’s Piney Point in 1948 during explosives trials, the Black Panther was raised during salvage operations in the summer of 1949 before being sunk forever that September.

Long forgotten, a team of divers rediscovered it in 1985. The site was designated Maryland’s first historic shipwreck preserve in 1994 and has been federally protected and managed by the Maryland Historical Trust. Local divers who have visited the site say it’s a difficult dive because of low-visibility water, a heavy current, and old fishing line that is dangerously easy to become tangled in. Nieman says the dive requires a methodical, researched approach.

A number of wrecks off Ocean City, however—both natural and artificial—lie in waters much more conducive to diving. Jeremiah Kogon, who operates OC Dive Boat Scuba Charters in Ocean City, explains that although water visibility can range from two to 60 feet, often on the same day, average visibility is around 30 feet. “When it’s good, it’s really good,” he says. “The water temperature is a little colder here than what you’ll find in the Carolinas. Before July, you’ll need a dry suit. Once the water warms in July and August, that’s when the diving is the best.”

Unlike the Carolinas, where you might spend hours on a dive boat en route to dive spots, Kogon says good diving around Ocean City is within five to six miles of the shore. One of the most popular dives is the African Queen, a 590 foot oil tanker that ran aground and broke apart when it sank. The stern was salvaged, but the hull remains upside down in the sand at a depth of about 70 feet.

According to Kogon, the top of the wreck is only about 30 feet down so it’s a good spot for divers with various skill levels. “Divers with less experience can hang around near the top, while more advanced divers can explore the bottom of the wreck,” he says. “It’s a huge wreck with lots of lobsters and lots of fish.”

Experienced local divers are excited about the sinking of the USS Arthur W. Radford. The 563-foot Navy destroyer is slated to become the largest vessel ever sunk off the East Coast to serve as an artificial reef. It joins over 250 subway cars that already make up the Del-Jersey-Land Inshore Reef, which lies off the Delaware coast equidistant between Ocean City and Cape May, New Jersey. Photo Credit: “Michael Eversmier ©2011”

Although it will be a few years before marine life inhabits the ship, “It’s going to be a big, amazing wreck and it opens up a wide range of opportunities for divers in the Mid-Atlantic region,” says Kogon.

Spearfishing off Ocean City is also popular. Kogon says tautog, commonly called “tog,”—ugly yet delicious bottom fish—are the usual target but adds it’s not uncommon to catch flounder, sea bass,

lobster, and the occasional game fish. “Tog are a big, smart, fast fish and are a lot of fun to catch,” he remarks.

Mid-Atlantic divers often see a wide variety of sea life while diving off Ocean City. “You see a lot of stuff you wouldn’t see elsewhere, especially in late July and August,” says Kogon. He goes on to say

that last summer, two whales swam past a dive site and then one of them began circling the dive boat. According to Kogon, sunfish (which he describes as a giant fish head with a tail), blacktip sharks,

and sea turtles are among the more unusual, yet not uncommon, creatures divers may see off Ocean City.

Quarry Diving

Historic shipwrecks and marine life aren’t the only attractions in our region for divers. Inland, quarry diving is a popular scuba diving activity. Many of these quarries are the final resting place for school buses, dump trucks, boats, and other vehicles that are fun to explore underwater. A suspended helicopter is buried in the waters of one quarry.

Michael Rogers, a 20-plus year diver who teaches at the Maryland Scuba Center, says, “Novice divers are going to improve their skills in the local quarries and lakes. There are many from Pennsylvania

to Virginia to visit.”

These quarries are also excellent training spots for novice divers, and most have platforms built at various depths that aid in learning new skills and practicing new techniques.

Along with training and exploring, many enthusiasts like to dive in quarries just to spend time underwater. “The more you get into this, the more you just like being there,” says Nieman.

John Kiser, owner of Sea Colony Aqua Sports, has certified the most Professional Association of Dive

Instructors (PADI) divers in the world. Last year alone, he certified 583 divers, many of whom participate is quarry training with Kiser down at Lake Rawlings, Virginia. “The quarry is naturally flooded with very clear and warm conditions; 50-feet visibility and temps in the low-80s during the summer season,” he says. “We conduct many intermediate level course there and enjoy excellent camping

facilities, cookouts, and friendship.”

Kiser says that after acclimating to quarry dives, “Intermediate and advanced training involves night dives and wreck dives, then offshore trips in North Carolina out of Moorehead City to ship dives. Also Crystal River, Florida for manatee trips, then reefs in Bahamas.”

Getting Started

The Chesapeake region has a number of schools where you can train to become a certified scuba diver. Coursework is a combination of home study, classroom learning, and practice in a swimming pool. When the coursework is finished, students must complete four open-water dives demonstrating their skills. According to Rick Lager, owner of the Annapolis Scuba Center, the classroom training can be completed by most students in about four days. Thanks to a uniform certification process, once students complete their classroom training they’re free to do the open-water dives at another facility. Lager says many of his students have traveled to the Florida Keys or other warm locations for the open-water part of the certification process. Photo Credit: “Michael Eversmier ©2011”

Rogers agrees and adds, “Knowledge of the sport is learned in a classroom, or more commonly today, online. There is also pool work where all the skills are learned to a proficient level. Then come the real dives, where the instructor evaluates the students’ proficiency. The most common mistake is going positively buoyant.

New divers have not developed the fine skill of neutral buoyancy.

Much like driving a car with a standard transmission, there is a fine touch needed. A little too much air in the BC or a deep breath and one begins to rise, sometimes too much.”

Scuba Diving Chesapeake Style Local divers tend to agree that if you’re planning on diving in our area, it’s wise to do the open-water dives here. Scuba diving in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean requires different skills than diving in the Caribbean. Along with limited visibility, currents and

cold water are issues that often need to be reckoned with.

Annapolis Rangers member Hughes advises, “If you’re serious about diving, it’s good to learn to dive around here because you develop stronger skills. If you can meet the challenges of diving in the Chesapeake and Mid-Atlantic, a dive in Florida or the Caribbean will be much more enjoyable.” Echoing Lager’s sentiments about many people from this area choosing to complete their open-water training in Florida, Hughes takes it further and states, “When they come up here to dive, they can get a rude awakening.”

Guttermen agrees, saying, “If you’re used to diving in Florida, the one-foot visibility and a one-knot current [in our region’s waters] can really throw you off.”Kogon concurs, adding that people

who learn to dive in the Chesapeake region are among the best divers anywhere. “The low visibility and cold water of this area really boost your confidence and abilities,” he says. Kogon also recommends practicing diving in area quarries before trying to tackle the Atlantic Ocean. “It’s important to dive in a quarry first in a seven millimeter thick wetsuit with hood. Get used to clearing your mask

and other tasks while wearing a wetsuit in a quarry before going out into the ocean.” Kogon relates that the water temperatures and visibility in a quarry are comparable to the Atlantic Ocean, making them good spots for training before heading into open water.

One of the most important aspects of scuba training is to find an instructor with whom you’re comfortable. “It’s not the agency—it’s the instructor—that makes the difference,” Nieman says. “Interview instructors first to make sure they have your best interests in mind. Check out different dive shops and get a feel for the atmosphere. Make sure you are comfortable first.”

Many divers find once they receive their scuba diving certification, it can be hard to stick with the sport. Diving is not a solo sport, and it can be hard to get out for a dive without a friend or partner who is also a certified scuba diver. “Joining a dive club can help you continue diving,” remarks Hughes. “When you go to the dive shop and get your certification, you may never see the members of your class again. Some may not continue diving; then you’re kind of stuck because you need a buddy to go diving with. The dive clubs pick that up. They are the next step beyond. They pick up where the dive shops leave off. You get to know the people, their habits, and who you think you’ll be compatible diving with.”

“It’s also an educational thing,” says Sparer, “especially for the novice. When you join a club, you’re around people, some of whom may have been diving for years. There’s lots of things the dive shops don’t teach—simple things like points of convenience or technique. Many of the members of a dive club are experienced and even dive professionally. Part of the club experience is passing that information on, and that information is free. You’ve got the minimal expense of the membership dues, but there’s the sharing of information.”

Clubs also give you the opportunity to try out new equipment and find used gear—and most clubs take regular trips to a wide variety of dive spots throughout the region. Members of the Atlantis Rangers pointed out that scuba diving is a social sport. Most dives involve time spent driving to the location, on the dive boat between dives, and, most important, time spent underwater with a dive partner or buddy. A good scuba club can encourage social aspects of the sport, which can go a long way in keeping scuba divers active.

So, while diving the crystal clear waters of the Florida Keys or the Caribbean may seem appealing, most of us aren’t in a position to be able to travel there every weekend. Fortunately, there are enough dive opportunities in the Chesapeake region to keep scuba divers busy throughout the entire season.

 

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