Our two July Georgia dive expeditions went off without a hitch despite the possible threat posed by hurricane BERTHA. As we started to load gear aboard the “REELEM IN” the hurricane was just 600 miles offshore and thankfully she and her associated high winds continued up the coast, which was bad news for our pals in NC and points north, as the long arms of the storm prevented diving there. Both expeditions were filled with old friends and a few new divers joined us, interested in seeing what Georgia wreck diving had to offer. I dare say no one was disappointed.
Some Canadian pals were on the roster along with a handful of hardcore north Florida "cave-men" which made for a diverse group aboard the “REEL EM IN”. The gear we had was pretty diverse as well and included a few standard doubles, two side-mount rigs,
three Evolution CCR’s and a Drager SCR unit.
Our first destination is still one of my favorites, the SS PECONIC and with good reason. No matter what you like about wreck diving; history, artifacts, or resident marine life, the SS PECONIC delivers in spades. The sea life on this wreck is awesome and never fails to awe anyone who dives it. Turtles, sharks, schools of amberjack, barracuda, grouper, red snapper and a 250 lb resident Jewfish make sure you to name a few. At times the bait fish are so thick it they almost block out the sun.
Of course the wreck also holds many wonderful artifacts and it wasn't long before the divers got into the goodies. Hand fanning in the jumble of debris landed Terry Whitlock a fork and the key to the wreck
Mike Szarkynski spied just the rim of a dish and carefully extracted a perfectly intact serving bowl, resting for over 100 years amongst the debris.
Needless to say he set the bar high, and although other interesting artifacts like Richards incredibly interesting boiler tube and valve assembly came up, Mike took big fish that day!
We headed motored forty miles offshore to a deeper site known as the PROP wreck. The remains of a wooden hulled steamer of civil war vintage sits in 120 feet and is as of yet unidentified. Named after the prominent feature the huge square blade prop sits upright and attached to the intact shaft.
The wood hull is mostly gone, although the ever shifting sand shows some hull or decking here and there. The PROP sits on a hard coral bottom with only a thin coating of sand and hand fanning in the wreck is very productive. It’s evident that at least some portion of the vessel burned as fused glass, melted brass fittings and cracked pottery litter the site. Various fittings and a severely eroded porthole were all found.
Forward of the boiler there are four large piles of iron railroad rails and just aft of that is a dispersed cargo of yellow bricks, each stamped B. KREISCHER, NO1, NEWYORK. A few of these were recovered and Robert Highsmith did his homework post-dive and searched the Internet. He told us these bricks were made from the late 1700's through the 1800's, in Staten Island NY). Robert plans to trace down the lost shipment of bricks and hopefully ID the wreck. Robert also found out that similar bricks are currently offered for 35 dollars each on E-bay!
Hmmmmm…looks like we found gold?
Although not as rich in marine life as the PECONIC there is a resident turtle, a handful of sharks and numerous lionfish and at least one less slipper lobster caught by Richard Hicks.
We had a late start due to a fuel issue but with oil smooth seas we headed out to a promising set of numbers. We arrived at the site and started our search pattern and for the next four hours mowed the lawn. I took the helm for most of the day methodically sweeping the four sets of numbers we had and although we did get one or two spikes there was no tell tale fish showing up and the bottom finder never revealed anything worth stopping for. Four six hours we burned fuel and when I offered the team an option to dive a known wreck a few miles away they all voted to continue the search. Finally it was time to turn back and although disappointed we didn't find us a virgin, we could now say for certain where there isn't a wreck.
By unanimous vote it was decided to return to the SS PECONIC. As good as the viz was, it didn't take long after the digging began that cloud of silt and sand drifted down current. Soon lift bags hit the surface and Robert Highsmith sent up a massive bronze valve and pump assembly that took two people to boat!
As the team poked and prodded the wreck to give up the goodies I took Gene Page on a bow to stern tour of the wreck, along the way getting close up and personal with some juvenile Nurse sharks. Too soon it was time to head up but before we ascended Wayne Kinard talked Gene into take one last pic...
All in all we did get in three fantastic days of diving in excellent weather and conditions and I am sure that the "cave-men" in our midst will return this October when we plan to airlift the PECONIC, and added to their dive kitts will be crow bars, hammers and lift bags….
From left to right
JP Pioveisan, Robert Highsmith, Richard Hicks, John Weisbrich, Mike Szarkynski, Wayne Kinard, (back first mate Derrick), Gene Page, Richie K
For this expedition we used Divers Den’s own GEORGIA WRECKREATION
and everyone was on CCR with three of the team (Mike "Pitt" Pittman, Joe Porter, and John Weisbrich, training on their new EVOLUTION rebreather's and Dart Craytor, (YES it's his real name) down with his EVO for fun and games.
Unfortunately the great weather of our first trip had was gone and with overcast skies and scattered showers we headed to our first day of diving on a steel hulled barge in just fifty feet of water. Covered with marine life, including a large Jewfish and sea turtle, this site was protected from the surge and current and provided a good place for the new rebreather divers to practice skills, and get in some fun exploration to boot. On the down side, we were attacked by killer jellyfish on our ascent and all of us were stung on our face and lips to the point were we looked like we had collagen injections gone horribly wrong.
With clearing skies and a ground swell we motored to the SS PECONIC where we had fantastic visibility, and thankfully less jellies. Without anyone blowing bubbles, we were visited by the resident turtle that swam by often to check on us. Our first dive was a 90 minute no deco dive, and whilst the students were doing drills, skills, and of course having a good time Dart was digging like a Doberman who lost a bone We swam around the entire wreck twice, sneaking up on a family of nurse sharks sleeping around the bow and also found the turtle’s hidey hole as well. Our second dive, was a short 60 minutes (!) during which (after more drills and skills) we poked about the wreck. While fanning in the sand Mike Pittman recovered the remains of one of the three of PECONIC’S wooden helm wheels, like the one pictured below which was recovered by John Yurga in 2007. Not a bad class!
This was the deep dive segment of the training and graduation dive on the PROP wreck. The surface conditions were great and the blue surface water made it look like we were in store for the typical stellar viz we get out here but a cold up-welling (possibly a side effect from Bertha???) and thermocline at 50 feet brought turbid water that dropped the viz down to 40 ft. Added to that a kicking surface current made the dive a little more challenging than normal. The dive went great and as we made our way around the wreck exploring the many nooks and crannies knowing somewhere is the BELL. As I turned a corner around the engine I came literally face to face with yet another very friendly turtle.
The team picked up a few mementos of the PROP and all to soon our time was up including more of them thar gold ($35) bricks....Dart Craytor was quite the rooter on this trip, recovering a skeleton key, the combination dial to a safe, and a brass gauge. Every now and then gauge has the ships name on it, so we all hoped Dart would figure out the real name of the PROP, but when he cleaned off the encrustation, stamped on the brass face was AMERICAN STEAM GAUGE CO, BOSTON. ALl in all still a very nice find...oh well, the BELL is still sown there....
Unfortunately both Joe Porter, Carrie and I had to leave a day early, so the newly certified CCR divers "Pitt" and John headed out with old hand Dart to the WWII wreck of the ESPARTA, as Pitt tells it:
The seas were calm and the viz was about 50 on the SS ESPARTA. As we descended down the anchor line, we could clearly see that the wreck lie in two different sections separated by about 50 - 60 foot of sand. The debris field for the wreck was somewhat massive in that it was scattered over a large area. There were very few parts of the ship that were discernible, we were tied in on the smallest part of the debris field which appeared to be the bow, the only reason I say this is we saw a small section of large chain which we believed to be the anchor chain which would have been on the bow we presumed. We ran a reel line from the smaller section of the wreck to the rest of the wreck just in case the viz went to crap we would know how to make it back to the bow section to ascend.
Once we made it over to the larger section of wreckage, we noticed right away 2 boilers but no engines that we could see. We were also able to ID the 2 prop shafts but there were no props attached to the shafts, the bolts were not even in the holes. The huge prop shafts were lying perpendicular to each other, not parallel as you would normally think they would have been. Some of the super structure could be made out but most of that is buried beneath the sand. Dart said that he saw several tires and automobile frames in the cargo hold area and thinks that it may have been carrying either the frames themselves or an automobile. Like I said earlier, a lot of this wreck lies buried beneath the sand and would be a great candidate for an airlift operation. It appears that after this ship was sunk in WW II by U-123, it had been depth charged extensively after her sinking because this ship is just obliterated and lies in many, many pieces.
The wreck does have one resident turtle and a resident Jew fish also,
not as large as the one we saw earlier in the week on the barge but non the less BIG, I think john got some pictures of him and a few of the wreck. I have those pictures and will attached a few to this email, some of the better ones showing the wreckage.
During both of our dives, we sifted and moved sand all over the area in and around the ship and no one found anything. We conducted two different dives, the first too 55 feet for 90 minutes and the second too 55 feet for 60 minutes. Chris gigged flounder
for lunch but he also had some sandwiches on board and when we got done with the sandwiches, no one was hungry, we were all full, LOL, so he saved the flounder for a later day. So all in all, an awesome day of diving and cant wait to return to dive this ship again along with the prop wreck.
The wreck Esparta is heavily sanded in and although no major artifacts were found on this trip, but everyone wants to come back with scooters, and maybe even bring my little friend “mini-maid… the airlift!
Left to right
Mike "Pitt" Pttman, Richie Kohler John Weisbrich and Joe Porter
It was a great two weeks and with a few cool artifacts, lots of bottom time and happy campers! We will be returning for two more expeditions this October to look for new targets one week and airlift the SS Peconic on the other. Special thanks to Joe Porter, JP Pioveison, Doug Counts, John Wesbrich and Gene Page for use of their pictures
Hope to see you there!
Safe Diving, Richie & Carrie