By Shannon Ricles
Monitor National Marine Sanctuary
Being a non-diver and fairly new to NOAA, I was very excited to be going out on my first expedition. I eagerly wanted to learn all I could about the process, but also didn’t want to be in the way. I was really worried about being seasick as I had had one bad experience in my life with seasickness, and I did not want to repeat it. So the night before, I took some medication along with another two tablets in the morning and hoped that would be the magic key to not being seasick.
Once we got down to the NCCOS docks, the divers began to load their gear onto the boat. They checked and rechecked everything one more time. You can’t be too safe. Roger gave a brief and said that the NOAA buoy just offshore was saying that the seas were 2-3 feet. This was good news, so final preparations were made to get underway. Finally, the lines were cast off and the boat headed out the inlet.
As you leave the inlet area, there is a no-wake zone and the boat speed limit is about 5 mph. By going slow and not creating a wake, it helps to protect swimmers, boaters, fishermen, marine life, and it even helps to prevent erosion of the shoreline. Once out of the no-wake zone, Roger was able to go faster as we headed about 30 miles offshore to the U-352 wreck. It took about two hours to get to the site, so I had a lot of time to enjoy the view, talk with the team, and to worry about seasickness. But fortunately no one got sick...not even me!
John McCord gets ready for his first dive on the U-352 wreck site. (Photo: NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries)
When we started to approach the dive site, there was a recreational dive boat already on site. But as we got closer, the boat left the area to go onto its next dive site. Using GPS and the coordinates and a depth finder, Roger soon found U-352. Joe and Tane dropped a marker line that consisted of a weight and a big orange ball that floated on top of the water. The orange ball would be the “X” that marked the spot. Because it is important to protect the wreck site, we were not to anchor to the site. Instead, Roger was to “free boat” it, which meant that he would keep the boat running and constantly maneuvering it to stay in the area of the wreck. Even though the big orange ball would drift with the current, it would stay in the general area and make it easier to find the U-352 as Roger free boated.
Now was the time that everyone had been waiting for. The divers went over their dive plan. They reviewed how they were to exit the boat (double tanks off the back, single tanks off the side), how they were to group in the water before diving below, who and what was being photographed and videoed, how long they were to stay on the bottom (20 minutes) and finally how they were going to ascend (they stopped along the way up to give their bodies time to decompress). Once everyone was geared up and ready to go over the side, they hit the water. In minutes they were all grouped and soon the only thing you saw was a fin waving above the surface as the last diver went down.
Craig and I stood watch on the deck as Roger maneuvered the boat a safe distance from the dive site. He circled the area maintaining a close proximity but far enough to be safe. After about 25 minutes, an orange float bag popped above the surface and then a green one. That was the sign that all the divers were grouped together on the bottom and ready to ascend. It also indicated the area that they would surface to make it easier for Roger to be closer for pickup.
Divers coming up the line into the boat (L-R) Dave Ball, Joe Hoyt, Steve Sellers, and Tane Casserley. (Photo: NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries)
After about another 10 minutes, one-two-three-four-and finally five divers were spotted bobbing in the water. Roger maneuvered the boat into position. Craig threw a line over the side with an orange ball and lowered the ladder. As the divers exited the water, they would first hand their cameras to either Roger or Craig and then one of us would put them in the buckets of fresh water. It was important to get the cameras rinsed as soon as possible. At last all five divers were safely onboard.
The divers had to decompress for two hours before they could dive again, so Roger let the boat drift while they ate their lunch and talked about what they had seen while diving. They all sounded very excited to have had the chance to dive the site and were amazed at the marine life on the site as well as the site itself. After about 30 minutes, Roger handed Craig a life vest and told him to toss it out the cabin window. Craig and I looked confused, but out the window it went. Roger then called away on the 1MC, “man overboard.” All the guys had about a second of confusion on their faces, and then they saw the life vest. They quickly started pointing to it as Roger had instructed in his safety brief. Eventually, Roger was able to maneuver the boat to the life vest and it was safely retrieved. We had passed our first man overboard drill.
John McCord and Dave Ball check the camera equipment as the prepare for their second dive on the U-352. (Photo: NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries)
As we were waiting for time to pass, the wind kicked up and the swells began to intensify to about 3.5 feet. Being fearful that they wouldn’t get a second dive for the day, they carefully calculated how much bottom time they would have if they shortened their decompression time. It was determined that they would only have 10 minutes, but with the wind speed increasing, they decided to go for it.
Roger headed back around to the wreck site and the divers once again geared up. Again they reviewed their dive plan and off they went. It seemed like we had just left the area when we saw their float bags surface. Roger maneuvered back into position to retrieve the divers and everyone made it safely onboard.
Once everything was tightly secured for a rough ride back, Roger headed to the docks. The waves were about four feet going in, but it didn’t seem that rough. Roger explained that when you are going toward the shore, you are riding the waves, kind of like a surfer, so the boat doesn’t get tossed as much as when you go against them. After two hours, we reached the dock and everyone had to clean their equipment, repack, and get ready for tomorrow. It had been a long day, but everyone was feeling good because the dives had been successful. I couldn’t wait to get back to the dorms to see the images and the video!