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Wrecking Crew

Seeking sunken treasures (or just a few fish) in Jersey’s chilly coastal waters.

Posted May 5, 2009 by Kristina Fiore

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Shipwreck Scuba Diver Steve Langevin and Crew
Wreck diver Steve Langevin prepares to take the plunge into Jersey waters under the watchful eyes of fellow divers Gerry Sayco and Maureen Langevin, Steve’s wife and co-captain.
Photo by Bjoern Kils.

Scuba Diver Bjoern Kils at the wreck of the Stolt Dagali
Diver Bjoern Kils sheds light on the wreck of the Stolt Dagali.
Photo courtesy of Bjoern Kils.

Deborah Whitcraft at the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History shipwreck exhibit
Deborah Whitcraft of the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History with an exhibit depicting some of the thousands of ships that sailed their last off the New Jersey coast.
Photo by Bjoern Kils.

Most New Jersey divers know the story of the Stolt Dagali.

Early on the morning of  Nov. 26, 1964, the Norwegian tanker collided with the Israeli luxury liner SS Shalom, lopping off the Stolt Dagali’s stern. While her forward section remained afloat and was eventually towed ashore, her rear section settled in 130 feet of water, taking nineteen crew members to their graves.

Today, the ill-fated Stolt Dagali is one of perhaps 7,200 shipwrecks in New Jersey waters, making the Garden State’s seabed an ideal, if unlikely, divers’ playground. It’s not exactly the Caribbean, but visibility can stretch for 60 feet on a good day, and with the right gear to stay warm, divers can enjoy the wreck-laden seascape all summer and fall. 

“Not many people know what’s out there,” Captain Maureen Langevin says of the uninitiated beachcombers who can spend years at the Shore without a clue about the historic curiosities that serve as magnets for marine life on New Jersey’s sandy coastal bottoms.

Langevin and her husband, Steve, shipwreck dive as a hobby. On this early summer morning, the Langevins have beaten the Garden State Parkway traffic from their Laurence Harbor home to the Shark River Yacht Club in Neptune where their boat, the 30-foot Dive Voyager (which they have since sold) is docked. When they arrive, there’s not another boat owner in sight. The water is still, and the silence is interrupted only when Steve starts unloading gear from the car.

The Langevins are heading out to sea with their friend Bjoern Kils, a 29-year-old underwater photographer from Galloway. It will be a typical, leisurely dive. Once a final check is done to make sure every last piece of equipment is on board—regulators, dive knives, buoyancy control devices, spearguns, and so on—Maureen, a 48-year-old AT&T systems engineer, starts the engine. Steve, a 47-year-old sound contractor, casts off the lines, and they head for the ocean. As the boat chugs along at 5 knots in the no-wake zone on the Shark River, Steve explains that they set out early to beat fish-
ing boats and other divers to the wrecks, which can get crowded quickly.

As the Shark River estuary opens into the Atlantic, the Langevins can see the sun rise over an empty Belmar beach. The seas are calm, which means it will be safe to dive to an offshore wreck. The Langevins flip through their “book of numbers”—diver lingo for a collection of shipwreck coordinates. Some of the locations are known to the entire dive community, but others are kept under wraps by individual captains. Today’s destination is one of the well-known spots: 39 59’ 20” N, 73 39’ 56” W— the wreck of the Stolt Dagali.

Like an old cemetery, the grave markers in New Jersey waters span centuries. The postal ship Amity, like many mid-nineteenth century vessels, ran aground in 1824 just north of Manasquan Inlet, only 1,000 feet from the beach. The wooden-hulled passenger-freighter Delaware sank two miles off Manasquan Inlet in 1898 after a fire erupted in the hold and spread. The R.P. Resor was sunk by a German U-boat in 1942—a reminder of how close World War II came to American soil.

There is also benign wreckage, like the Mako Mania, which was scuttled in 1998 as part of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Artificial Reefs Program. The program spans fifteen reef sites from Sandy Hook to Cape May. Its decommissioned ships, subway cars, and demolition debris attract anglers and divers alike—although many divers prefer “real” wrecks like the Stolt Dagali.

“I would bet that New Jersey has more shipwrecks than any other state in the country, including the Carolinas, which are known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” says Deborah Whitcraft, curator of the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History in Beach Haven. “I would put New Jersey up against them any day.”

Whitcraft is a former diver who spent her honeymoon researching shipwrecks. She opened the museum in 2007 to “educate people about what’s out there.” By her estimate, there are nearly 7,200 wrecks in Jersey waters.

Land disappears well before the Langevins near their destination some sixteen miles out. The Dive Voyager glides over 2-foot seas until Maureen spots a blip on the boat’s depth-finder in the vicinity of the coordinates. When she’s right over the wreck, Maureen yells to her husband to drop anchor from the bow. Next, they raise the dive flag—a red square with a white diagonal slash—to let other boats know they have divers in the water.

Steve will be the first to go down the anchor line toward the wreck. Even though it’s a hot summer day, he must bundle up with a fleece and sweatpants. That’s standard wear underneath a drysuit, a full-body outfit that prevents any water from touching the diver except at the hands and face. At diving depth, Jersey waters can be too cold—sometimes below 50 degrees Fahrenheit—for the more-familiar wetsuits.

Once Steve is suited up, Maureen helps him into his diving gear. Several hoses connect Steve’s tanks to other equipment: his regulators, which allow him to breathe; his buoyancy control device, which lets him descend and ascend; and his pressure gauge, which tells him how much air he has left.

With his dive gloves and mask in place, Steve steps onto the boat’s swim platform, hovers a fin over the water, and splashes into the Atlantic in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

Underwater photographer Kils soon follows. The two of them slide down the anchor line, leaving a patch of bubbles on the surface. They sink slowly into a dark green abyss, passing jellyfish as the sea temperature starts dropping.

Finally, at about 65 feet, they can see the top of the Stolt Dagali. Its structure is encrusted in sea anemones. The creatures appear green because other wavelengths of light—red, orange, yellow—are filtered at shallower depths. Sea bass, blackfish, and other species congregate around the wreck.

That’s good news to the divers, who have their spear guns in tow. They drop down to the Stolt Dagali’s main deck at about 85 feet to hunt, but their foray is interrupted when Steve calls Kils’s attention to something on the wreck. He gives Kils the universal scuba hand sign for “follow me”—the index finger of one hand pointing in the desired direction, followed by the index finger of the other hand.

Inspection reveals a large unidentifiable artifact blanketed in barnacles and anemones. Kils takes some shots with his underwater camera, while Steve makes a mental note about a possible future salvage operation.

Salvaging artifacts is one reason divers splash into Jersey waters. A salvage diver’s home is easy to identify, because there’s usually a bell hanging from a porch beam or an anchor propped up on its side in the front yard. Inside, cabinets are stocked with plates, silverware, bottles, and other treasures. The artifacts may be worth only their weight in scrap metal, though Jersey divers sometimes turn up jewelry or silver and, on very rare occasions, gold coins. More important, divers say, is the personal value of the artifacts. They are trophies that speak volumes about a diver’s abilities and thirst for adventure.

One of the East Coast dive community’s most prized trophies is china from the Andrea Doria, an Italian oceanliner that collided with the M.S. Stockholm on July 25, 1956, and slowly sank  in 256 feet of water about 50 to 60 miles off Nantucket Island. The Andrea Doria is a formidable dive, reverently referred to on the East Coast as the Mount Everest of shipwreck diving. She rests on her side in extremely deep water, so divers can easily become disoriented, triggering a chain of mistakes that have led to fourteen deaths. But it’s a favorite of the best Jersey divers since the wreck is full of coveted artifacts, like the famous red officers’ china inscribed with the “Italia” logo.

Diver Bart Malone has dozens of pieces of Andrea Doria crystal and silver on display in his Bellmawr home. The 63-year-old retired carpenter has descended to the ship 171 times; his artifact collection is so large it fills his shed, backyard, and many rooms in his house.

“I’m in it for the artifacts,” Malone says. “I love the search, the recovery, the preservation.”

 Artifacts can also help reveal a wreck’s identity, as was the case for one of the most famous finds in New Jersey waters. A knife inscribed with the name Horenberg helped unravel the mystery of an unidentified U-boat discovered by crew and divers aboard the Seeker, a legendary dive boat from Brielle. In identifying the wreck, the divers rewrote history, as U-869 had reportedly been sunk off Spain in the Strait of Gibraltar rather than 60 miles off the Jersey coast. Their story—which began in 1991 when the Seeker’s Captain, Bill Nagle, got tipped off to a possible wreck— was chronicled in the best-seller Shadow Divers. Martin Horenberg had been the sub’s funkmeister, or radio operator.

Salvaging from a new-found wreck is one of the main reasons captains guard their books of numbers. It’s not just other divers they need to keep at bay. Insurance companies that paid customers who lost cargo may still hold title to the wrecks.

“Jersey divers have to be careful with what they bring up,” says Dan Lieb, president of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association and operator of a shipwreck artifact museum in Wall. Lieb has worked with maritime attorneys several times in order to gain salvage rights. Some wrecks, like the USS San Diego, sunk south of Long Island during World War I, are historic preserves, so nothing can be removed. Divers also have to dodge critics who equate salvaging with grave-robbing. Some marine archaeologists have said the hobby is equivalent to pillaging and piracy.

Malone eagerly defends his sport. “If we didn’t recover these artifacts, no one would ever see them, because no marine archaeologist is diving down 250 feet to recover them,” he says. “And salt water wears down even the sturdiest of metals.” Even the 29,000-ton Andrea Doria one day will have completely corroded away.

Salvage dives are mostly the province of experienced, technical divers, but New Jersey is just as welcoming to recreational divers. Training, gear, and transportation to dive sites are offered by shops like Lakeland Divers in East Hanover.

Captain Dan Crowell of Brick, who dove with the team that identified U-869 and has produced underwater programming for the Discovery Channel and TV stations, runs a diver training program called Deep Explorers. Crowell says warmer-water scuba sessions help new divers gain experience and confidence, and they can certainly then dive in New Jersey. If they do, Crowell recommends diving in the fall, when the Gulf Stream sweeps the warmest waters north, bringing along tropical fish and the best visibility.

The sport often becomes a way of life. The Langevins used to take the Dive Voyager to sea every weekend in the summer, and they plan to continue venturing out on the 42-foot Chris Craft Steve is restoring. Steve’s dive with Bjoern Kils presages a return trip to the Stolt Dagali. For now, they pluck a heap of mussels off the wreck and spear several blackfish and sea bass for dinner. They swim up the anchor line, ascending no faster than one foot per second, careful to avoid decompression sickness, or “the bends,” which is essentially the body’s inability to expunge extra nitrogen that has been absorbed into its tissues at depth.

Back on board, they change into shorts and T-shirts, and stow their gear. On the return trip through the Shark River Inlet, Steve declares his dinner druthers. “I like mine with garlic, shallots, white wine, and butter,” he says. “There’s nothing like fresh catch after a great day of diving.”

Kristina Fiore is a health and science writer based in Glen Ridge.

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