The water off the North Carolina Coast is often referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” — and with good reason. Dating back to colonial days, the coastline has claimed more that 700 ships.
One could argue that other waters are proven equally perilous. The Great lakes can boast more wrecks than the Carolina Coast, with Lake Huron alone holding some 1,100 documented wrecks in its depths. What makes the wrecks off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, from Cape Hatteras south to Cape Fear so interesting is that while half were victims befallen to the whims of nature, the other half were sent to the bottom by human confrontations.
Wrecks of Torpedo Alley
During the early years of World War II, Germany’s submarine fleet —the U-boatwaffe — was the most feared and effective offensive weapon on the high seas, exacting a heavy toll on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. And only weeks after the United States entered the war in December of 1941, Germany brought the fight to the East Coast of America.
Under the command of Admiral Karl Donitz, Operation “Paukenschlag” (Drumbeat) five type IX class arrived in US territorial waters on December 27, 1941. By February 6th, 1942, the drumbeaters had sunk 25 ships. By the close of that same year, U-boat operations had swelled in rank along the U.S. continental shelf from Maine and the Florida Keys, registering some 100 kills while sustaining only 21 losses.
Today, divers can explore several victims of Germany’s U-boatwaffe that lie off the coast of North Carolina. Among these is the Caribsea, a 261-foot merchant class ore freighter loaded with manganese inbound for Norfolk, Virginia, which was torpedoed by the U-158 on March 11, 1942. Struck by two torpedoes mid-ship on the starboard side, the Caribsea sunk in under three minutes off the north side of Cape Lookout, in 90 feet of water. Unable to launch the ship’s lifeboats and forced into the water, only seven of her 28-man crew survived their 10-hour immersion before being rescued by a passing freighter, the SS Norlindo.
As if that wasn’t enough for the ill-fated Caribsea, twelve days later an anti-submarine patrol plane mistook the freighter’s mast for a U-boat periscope, precipitating a depth charge attack. Two years later the wreck was further demolished by a Navy Salvage Service to ensure there was a proper depth clearance of 40 feet to make the wreck non-hazardous to navigation.
The Navy’s work to render the wreck safe to shipping traffic was to say the least, thorough. Today, her hull is little more than an elongated pile of steel rubble punctuated by the steam engine, and two giant boilers along a portion of the bow section and windlass. What makes this wreck noteworthy is the often-high concentration of sand tiger sharks it attracts. Not only are these sharks more numerous than they are on other sites attainable from Moorhead City, they are also some of the biggest you will see in the region.
The only downside to diving the Caribsea is that due to its position due east of Cape Lookout Shoals, the wreck rarely benefits from the clear Gulf Stream waters that flow a bit farther offshore. Underwater visibility at the site fluctuates widely from 20 feet to 100 feet, but most days divers can expect visibility in the range of 30 and 60 feet.
Another popular causality of war is the wreck of the W.E. Hutton, which was formally known as the SS Papoose. Torpedoed by the German U-boat U-124 after rounding Cape Lookout on the night of March 18, 1942, the 435-foot tanker came to rest in 130 feet of water. When this wreck was first found some time in the 1960’s, it was sitting on its port side, but soon after rolled completely over, crushing the superstructure under the weight of the hull.
When descending the downline to the wreck, its appearance is like a monstrous sausage cracked open in several places, with the highest part of the wreck rising 30 feet off the bottom at the stern. The most iconic spot for photos used to be the wreck’s huge rudder until it broke off in 2014 and fell flat on the sandy bottom.
Moving forward towards the bow, the hull takes a step downturn at nearly every fracture point, leaving each large section lower than the previous piece. Entry into the hull is possible through several wide openings, though penetration should be left to only those properly equipped and highly experienced because to the unstable nature of the wreck’s interior.
By the time you reach the bow, the forward section stands alone laying in the sand with its anchors still in the hawse pipes. This huge wreck is another popular haunt for sand tiger sharks, which are most often found congregating at the ends of the wreck.
Fog of War
When his wreck was first discovered it was assumed to be the Papoose, a similar-size tanker measuring 412 feet in length with a near identical profile. And like the Hutton, it too was sunk by the same U-124, with the two ships suffering attacks just a half-hour apart. Adding to the mystery, the wreck everyone assumed to be the Papoose never gave up a single item to clearly prove its identity. It wasn’t until 2008 that the location to the remains of the SS Papoose was confirmed some 50 miles to the north after years of being miss-identified as the 463-foot tanker San Delfino; which to was sunk off Cape Hatteras eight days earlier by the U-203.
In following this scenario, the current hypothesis is that the former listing for the site of W.E. Hutton is really that of the Ario. As for the wreck of the San Delfino, it’s location is now believed to be that of the Mirlo, another large tanker sunk by the U-117 during World War I. As for the location of the actual Mirlo, that is yet to be answered.
As one might guess, the chaos these U-boats were able to deliver in sinking so many ships so relatively close to one another in a short span of time was impactful. As a result, a considerable number of ships were lost in the “fog of war,” shrouding the details to exactly where each went down. Only through a bit of sleuthing by determined underwater explorers is the record finally getting set straight.
A bit farther offshore from the Hutton lies the wreck of the Naeco, a 430-foot tanker that was torpedoed on the night of March 23, 1942 by the U-124. Catching fire from the attack, the Naeco broke apart with the bow and stern section coming rest two and a half miles apart, both in 140 feet of water. Most trips out to the Naeco target the stern section, as it the largest part of the wreck with a profile rising to approximately 90 feet from the surface.
What makes the Naeco wreck so interesting is that it is regarded as one of the most beautiful dives off the North Carolina Coast. Due to its closer proximity to the Gulf Stream, underwater visibility generally runs 90 to 100-foot plus. Gulf Stream waters also bring a greater diversity of marine life, from an array of tropical fish more commonly associated with South Florida to larger denizens like African pompano, amberjack, grey grouper and of course sand tiger sharks.
Dive a U-Boat
In addition to all the unfortunate ships lost to U-boat attacks, another of North Carolina’s signature wreck dives is one of those very same marauders: the U-352. The U-352 is a 218-foot long VIIC class U-boat that was sunk May 9th, 1942 after a failed attempt to sink the US Coast Guard Cutter Icarus. During the battle, the Icarus dropped several depth charges on the U-352, severely damaging the sub and forcing it to the surface. In the end, 17 of her crew were killed, with the rest taken into Charleston, SC as prisoners of war.
To read more about U-352 wreck here – The U-352: North Carolina’s German U-Boat Wreck
Through the years I’ve had the opportunity to dive a great number of wrecks, most victims of storms, collisions with reefs, and those sunk by German U-boats. However, being able to actually rest my hand on one of these predators resting on the sea floor was a unique experience.
What Else is There?
Not all of the popular wreck dives in North Carolina where casualties of WWII.
There is the USS Schurz, a 255-foot gunship built in 1894, a military vessel that originally flew under the German flag as the SMS Geier. In 1914 near the end of WWI, the United States Navy seized the ship and renamed it the USS Schurz. However, her service in the United States Navy was relatively short lived, as the vessel was involved in a collision with the Steamship SS Florida on the night of June 19th, 1918. The vessel sank to the bottom the following morning in the same area as both the U-352 and the Hutton.
The main attraction on the USS Schurz is the heavy concentration of marine life often found here.
Lying in 110 feet of water, the Schurz itself is not much to look at as it is completely broken up and sprawled across the seabed. Points of interest include the boilers, bow and stern deck guns, anchor, and rudder. To this day, ammunition and bullets from the wreck are still found by divers with a sharp eye. The main attraction is the heavy concentration of marine life often found here — from large, dense schools of baitfish, grouper, amberjack, and the occasional sand tiger to some of the biggest roughtail stingrays I have ever seen.
Other fan favorites include the 409-foot cable repair ship Aeolus and the 180-foot Coast Guard Cutter Spar that were put down as part of North Carolina’s artificial reef program.
The Aeolus was the first put down, sunk in August 1988 in 110 feet of water. When the Aeolus was originally sunk, she came to rest on her side. Hurricane actions in 1996 split the ship into three sections which were shifted to a partially upright position.
Sunk more recently in June 2004, the Spar sits in 100 feet of water, predominantly intact with a list of 45-degrees to port. This allows divers the opportunity to penetrate large portions of the wreck.
Both the Aeolus and the Spar are popular hang outs for sand tiger sharks. Over the past ten years the Aeolus has managed to become “the spot for sand tigers” southeast of Cape Lookout. If you can’t make it to the Caribsea, the Aeolus is your best go-to. And, if your eyes are sharp, you may come back with a few souvenir sharks’ teeth which are often found lying about the wreck.
What You Should Know
Most of my diving on the North Carolina coast has been with Olympus Dive Center, which is located on the waterfront of downtown Moorhead City. As dive operations go, they are an extremely well run, professional outfit with two top notch dive boats, the 25-passenger, 65-foot MV Olympus (lower right), which is largest dive boat in the region, and their 18-passenger, 48-foot MV Midnight Express.
From the dock to any one of the above-mentioned sites can take an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes, making these dives a full-day trip. Charters to wrecks even further offshore like the Naeco are reserved for only Extended Day Dive Trips, as the run time can take 2 hours each way.
The greatest influence on diving conditions on the North Carolina coast is the weather, which is a constant variable. One day may deliver prime conditions with flat seas and blue water, while the next day can turn foul with either strong winds and rough seas, or just plain grim visibility in the 10 to 30-foot range. Water temps in summer average in high 70’s, sometime rising into the 80’s. Water temperatures on the bottom can delve into the high 50’s in winter, but with occasional breaks into the low 70’s. Offshore where the Aeolus, U-352, USS Schurz and Hutton lie, the Gulf Stream can bring in both terrific visibility as well as enough current to make using a down line imperative.
One of the neat features of diving with Olympus is that the diver dispatched to tie into the wreck is equipped with underwater communication gear. From the bottom, the diver can advise the captain if he needs to move the boat or pay out more line, as well as give a detailed report of conditions from top to bottom. Once that task is done, the deck crew deploys one the slickest descent/deco line systems I’ve ever seen in a charter operation. From stern to amidships, four weighted down lines are set 20 feet below the surface, with a secondary connecting line running from the mooring line back to the stern, connecting each down line to create a weighted bridle 15 feet below the surface.
When a diver enters the water, they need only descend to the bridle, grab hold and follow it down instead of getting slapped against the hull, as is most often the case with traditional granny line set-ups. At the end of the dive, the same down lines provide a means for divers to spread out during their safety stop, rather than remaining on the anchor line like a cluster of grapes.
For more details, visit Olympus Dive Center’s website at www.olympusdiving.com.
Both Beaufort and Morehead City are located on the southern half of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This area is the center point for a large number of commercial fishing and charter boats, as well as several unique gift shops, hotels, resorts and restaurants. There is also the North Carolina Aquarium off of Pine Knoll Shores Highway that can be well worth a visit, should one of your dive days get weathered out.
To find your way in, I strongly advise using an app like Google Maps to find the best route across the North Carolina mainland. From Interstate 95, the drive to the southeast corner of the state will take approximately 3 to 4 hours to complete.