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2010 Battle of Atlantic Expedition

Blog: June 19, 2010

Paula Whitfield
Marine Biologist, NOAA NCCOS
National Marine Sanctuaries Photo Gallery
Mission info 2007 Nancy Foster Cruise

Preparing for a dive is always exciting and full of anticipation, but preparing for a 230ft dive to the famous Civil War Ironclad, The Monitor, takes it to a whole new level. As soon as the word came that we were going to the Monitor, you could tell that the energy level on the boat ramped up and everyone was filled with a sense of excitement at just the thought of seeing the Monitor.

For some people, like me, this was their first dive to the Monitor. For one diver, it was his 75th time to dive on the site! However, no matter how many times you have dove on a site, a dive to 230ft is never to be taken lightly. As a biologist, this dive is exciting not only because we are going to the Monitor, a shipwreck filled with history, but also because after resting for almost 150 years at the bottom of the ocean, it is hopefully filled with marine life. This will indeed be a rare treat for me!

Everyone has a system of preparation, a ritual of sorts that you go through when getting ready for a dive of this magnitude. For me, the first thing I need to do is make sure I have all my equipment in one spot. The last thing I want is to be running around looking for my wetsuit booties while everyone is waiting on me. That is really one of my worst fea...that I will be the one to hold up the show.

But I digress...after that I analyze the gases and make sure that my tanks are all full. Notice I did not say air because technical divers do not always use air. Due to the toxic nature of oxygen and the narcotic quality of nitrogen under pressure, a mixture of gases that includes helium is generally used for deep dives. That way the toxic and narcotic effects are minimized. This mixture of gases is called Trimix.

Divers prepare to dive over the side of the R-8501 (NOAA)
Divers prepare to dive over the side of the R-8501. (NOAA)
Technical divers also carry two additional tanks, one contains a NITROX mixture (36% oxygen, 64% nitrogen) and the other is 100% oxygen. By breathing these gases during the ascent phase of the dive, technical divers can minimize the time needed to decompress (so you don't get the bends). Fortunately, dive computers that divers wear while diving can now be set with a variety of different gas mixtures.

After analyzing all my tanks, it is then time to set my dive computers with the appropriate gas mixtures. To be safe, divers carry at least two and sometimes three dive computers. In addition to using the computers, we also write on underwater slates the dive tables for the dive. That way if both computers fail, we still have a list of depths and times that we can follow in order to decompress safely. Technical diving is all about back-up plans and more back up plans, so that if anything goes wrong there are always contingencies.

Next, after analyzing tanks, setting computers, 'cutting your dive tables' and suiting up in your wetsuit complete with computers, extra gauges, and wrist slates, the final staging process begins in earnest. Everyone works together to time the staging process. Working together prevents someone sitting all geared up getting steaming hot on the deck, while someone else is running around not even dressed. Working as a team is key-way before you ever get in the water.

Russ Green checks out his gear before diving (NOAA)
Russ Green checks out his gear before diving. (NOAA)
Just when it is time to actually gear up, I always first turn on my main tanks so that I can hear the gases coursing through the hoses. Then I visually check the pressure gauge for one last double check to make sure that the tanks are full. Finally, I take my seat and begin to put on the tanks. I know for me having an established ritual minimizes 'forgetting' to turn your tanks on or just absent mindedly doing it while not being confident that you actually did it (you know how that goes). Technical divers have so much gear on, which adds lots of weight, that even a seemingly small thing like not turning on your tanks can be a pretty big deal underwater-and not in a good way.

Finally, right before 'go time,' as we call it, we 'stage up' with our nitrox and oxygen bottles. These tanks are clipped onto each side of the diver. I also double check that these are full and working properly one last time. At this time divers also clip on any photo or video cameras that they might be carrying. In my case, I have my trusty mesh bag with all my sampling equipment for conducting the biological surveys.

When the captain makes the call, the boat maneuvers into position near the dive buoy. Then we all stand up in unison and basically hobble to the back of the boat and wait with increasing excitement and anticipation for the unequivocal signal of, "DIVE, DIVE, DIVE." Those words are music to my ears at this point, because once I jump in the water it is pure relief! The water is so warm and you instantly become weightless. I breathe a sigh of relief, signal the universal 'OK' sign to my buddies and head to the bottom... as fast as possible!

A continuation...

Just looking into the water at the surface, I was hopeful that the dive to the Monitor would be a good one. The water looked blue and it was warm, about 85 degrees. However, on this trip so far, we have encountered extraordinarily bad conditions underwater, and I mean bad.

I think my friends will agree that I am usually the first to praise North Carolina diving, especially the wreck diving and the marine life. Well really all of it...I have been diving here for.... well... shall I say... for a while... and the conditions on this trip have been some of the worst I have ever seen. The water has been cold, dark, and just plain gloomy. Maybe even a little dark and scary.

So, on THE dive to the Monitor, I was hopeful the conditions would be much better. Unfortunately, all of my optimism didn't pay off. As we continued on our descent to the bottom, I noticed that it was looking darker and darker and vis (short for visibility) was getting worse and worse. The worse it got, the closer and closer I got to my buddies. I was in visual contact, but the darkness below, as we descended past 150 ft, made me consider holding someone's hand. But deep down I knew that would NOT be cool. So I just stuck close.

I kept thinking that I saw the wreck below me, but it was just an optical illusion, my mind wishing that it were so. But a quick glance at my dive computer showed that we were only at 180 ft and still falling. I couldn't believe we were not at the bottom yet.

Then the cold water hit... and I mean cold... it was about 61 degrees, which for some of the Michiganders, who are used to diving in 38 degree water in the Great Lakes, that is not so bad. But with a 3mm wetsuit and compared to the balmy surface waters, the cold water felt practically icy when it first hits your face, at least until you get a little bit used to it.

Finally, I saw sand. We were at the bottom, and I was so excited to just not go any deeper. My eyes started to acclimate to the darkness and then there was nothing, nothing but sand in any case. With visibility this bad, we would have had to drop exactly on top of the wreck to see it, and with the surface and subsurface currents, that is almost impossible.

So we started to swim just hoping against hope that She would rise up magically in front of us. After all, this was such a long way to go and a lot of work and effort had gone into just getting to the bottom at 240 ft. It is so deep, even spending 10 minutes on the bottom means that once you are back on the boat you are DONE for that day.

Then magically the wreck appeared. Her steely darkness rose up just on the horizon of my visibility. What a welcome sight she was too! We made it! The first thing we saw was a huge sand tiger shark cruising right down the length of the wreck and veering off just feet from us. It really was a magnificent sight. At that point I realized I too had been bit by the Monitor bug. That's what I am calling it anyway, because it seems like the people who dive on the Monitor just can't wait to go back. Now I am officially in that camp too. There is just something that is hard to describe about diving into history that makes history come alive and all the more real!

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