Diving Days: No vast political importance

The  Atlantic waters off Snead’s Ferry in North Carolina are shallow, maybe 125 feet to the continental shelf. Several  wrecks lie on the bottom, mostly in advanced stages of disintegration, sunk by U-boats in the early years of the war. I know them well as for years I was a member of Capital Divers, out of DC, of which there is now no trace on the web. We often rented boats and dived the remains.

Cap Divers was a cowboy outfit. The members were engineers, bureaucrats from State, employees of Beltway Bandit operations like CACI, maybe a third women, but all were experienced divers and possessed of what might be called strong personalities. They didn’t follow rules, such as never dive in waves over two feet high. Yo  pays yo money and takes yo chances. But it was a hoot.

With five-foot waves many miles out out sea we would find ourselves going back aboard in bright blue water with the dive ladder on the stern of the boat rising high and then slicing back down like a guillotine. The trick was to wait until it was at its low, grab the highest rung you could, put your fins quickly below, and hold on as the stern rose. When it halter at its highest point, you grabbed a higher run and moved up, to hold on for dear life as it came down.

Sometimes we rented a live-aboard for a week–see below–and there would be uproarious merriment in the bar after chow. The women were hardy types, delicate flowers not being much for night diving on deep canyons. There was not a single infuriated sociology major among them airing her grievances. The guys accepted them completely because they were completely good divers. You could kid around with them. After most of Washington, it was a whole different take on the fair sex.

The leader was Dale Fox, a big former Navy diver who liked practical jokes. Such as: About once a year we rented one of those nice specialized dive boats, as for exam the Belize Aggressor, for a week. On one such trip Dale, a NAUI instructor, gave everybody a PADI Basic temporary card, the kind new divers get before the plastic card arrives. It means your total experience is diving in a swimming pool at a dive shop.

Belize Aggressor. A serviceable substitute for heaven. This may be a later version than the one I knew, which I heard sank. The crew filled tanks with the on-board fast compressor, you jumped in, came back ate, geared up….

As the boat put out to sea the crew checked out everyone’s diving credentials, as required by law. Their faces turned pale green. You could hear their thoughts: “Oh God. These loons don’t remotely belong on an open-ocean dive boat. They’ll drown. Law suits. Poverty. Maybe jail time. Oh god, oh God.” Then they noticed that the piled dive gear had the marks of use since the Crimean War. They were so releaved that they didn’t kill us.

It is a curious fact, or was with Cap Divers, that you get bored near the surface. The fish are pretty but after a couple of days the deep walls and dark water below begin to pull. I  forget where we were but it was one of those below-100 walls probably in the Caribbean, dark, the light purple-blue and below, black for maybe thousands of feet. We were buddied up and in a line, two by two, in the funny privacy of a dive. No sound but sssssssss-wubbawubbawubba of air flowing in and out of your reg, maybe that explosive high-pitched clicking of shrimp that you couldn’t localize because sound travels too  fast under water.

The wall was a nightmare of grey twisted cords, branched growths, cups of barrel sponges, ugly. This because deep water filters out everything but blue light. But where our dive lights hit them they burst into wild reds and oranges and greens, lovely, garish, otherworldly.

And then, I will never forget, three big eagle rays, flying in formation, flapped past us and disappeared into the murk. What they thought we wre, I do not know, but they belonged where they were, and we didn’t, and they had more important things in mind than bubbly intruders.

It was aboard the Aggressor that one year we went to the Blue Hole of Belize, famous among divers. The ocean there was land in geologically remote time, a cave system formed, then caved in leaving the hole, and the entire thing sank beneath the waves. When you dive it you go down and down and down along sheer rock walls until at about 130 until the walls open out into the ancient cave system and you see stalactites that it would take five people to encircle

I went a bit further down in the  murk to look but stopped at 140 because below that on air things get iffy and your dive computer squeaks in alarm and you can get bent. It was strange to see maybe twenty people from inside the DC Beltway ssss-wubbling around  in what may have been the last place short of Alpha Centaurs where they–we–had any business being. I think we all felt it.

The U352, a German submarine, early Forties. These men, or parts of them, are probably still aboard.

The U352 made the mistake in 1942 of being caught by the Coast Guard cutter Icarus, not a good plan if you are a U-boat. She went down with over thirty of her crew aboard. They could have made an easy ascent with scuba gear, but it hadn’t been invented, so they drowned in darkness and lay undisturbed for decades.

The U-352. She crumbles now.

On my first dive on her it was a sunny day and your eyes adjust on the way down so it isn’t as dark as the photos make it seem. The water was clear and blue and the hull was visible from considerably above. The water is  cool at depth and there was no sound but one’s breathing. It was eerey to float slowly down onto the conning tower and sit, three-foot amberjacks circling curiously.

I floated off and exhaled to drift down and lie on my back in the sand and watch my bubbles rising, wobbling, breaking into new bubbles as they expanded in decreasing pressure. If memory serves, my depth gauge said 115 feet. The last time I saw her she was considerably more decayed. Soon she will be gone. Sic transit….

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