Twelve miles off the coast of Barnegat Light, 90 feet below the water’s surface, lies the Great Isaac, a sunken tugboat whose storied past and excellent condition attracts hundreds of wreck divers every year.
It’s nearly 7:30 am, and after sailing for more than an hour on the Dina Dee II, a 42-foot passenger boat that’s been chartered by Atlantic Divers for the morning, we’ve nearly reached our destination.
“The Great Isaac is one of the favorites,” says Gary Smith, captain and co-owner of the Dina Dee II, which is chartered by various dive shops for excursions like this one. “It’s really big and it’s laying on its port side, buried in the sand about halfway, and on a really nice visibility day, you can see the outline of the bow, so it really looks like a shipwreck. It’s just picturesque. There are a ton of fish on it—lobsters and mussels all over the top.”
The eight divers on the Dina Dee II this day signed up for the trip with Atlantic Divers, a Cape May dive shop that has specialized in shipwreck diving since 1986. The group has been mostly quiet on the outbound cruise, watching the sun rise on this cloudless morning.
After a typically rough passage through Barnegat Inlet, it’s been smooth sailing on the open Atlantic waters. The divers have already been briefed as we approach the coordinates for the Great Isaac. Once the Dina Dee II is anchored and the engine hushed, a symphony of sounds becomes apparent: slapping waves, laughing gulls, clanking gear, zipping suits, escaping air.
The divers break into teams of two, with newer divers pairing with the more experienced. Within minutes, the first team is ready to dive. They disappear over the side, off to explore the sunken ruins.
The Great Isaac is one of approximately 5,000 shipwrecks that sleep at the bottom along the New Jersey coast. Gene Peterson, manager, instructor and dive guide at Atlantic Divers, says the Garden State’s unique geographic location makes it a mecca for underwater adventurers.
“It’s the approach to New York Harbor—that’s where the highest migration of immigrants and the greatest amount of shipping traffic came in on our coast,” he says. “If you go out of Cape May…within 60 miles there’s probably about 100 different dives that you can choose from. There’s a bonanza of shipwreck diving here. Everything that you want—from old sailing ships and schooners to tankers, destroyers, American and German submarines. There’s just about everything that you can think of—even treasure ships.”
The Great Isaac was built in Boston in 1944 and deployed to aid the Allied forces during World War II. According to Peterson, the 194-foot tug was used during the D-Day invasion to tow floating concrete used for the artificial breakwaters, known as gooseberries, that were designed to reduce the effects of the ocean current as Allied personnel and equipment reached the Normandy coast.
Not quite three years after surviving D-Day, on a foggy evening in April 1947, the Great Isaac was struck by a Norwegian freighter and sank 15 fathoms, or 90 feet, to the ocean floor. Luckily, there were no casualties.
Peterson says an estimated 250 shipwrecks from the two world wars can be found off the coast of New Jersey. They are, he says, like underwater museums.
“There’s a lot of history out there that people don’t realize,” says Peterson. “The nice thing about wreck diving is that you not only see history, but you can touch history.”
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While history is a draw, divers have other reasons to love the sport. For many, the attraction is what divers refer to as hunting, which ranges from spearfishing to pulling lobsters out of cracks in the wreck with their bare hands. For others, the allure is the sheer adventure that comes with exploring a wreck—especially if there is the potential of finding sunken treasures.
“There are wrecks that people are hunting for all the time and finding—and not necessarily sharing the information on a public basis,” says Peterson, who claims he was first to discover more than 25 shipwrecks along the Jersey Shore. He further claims there are at least a dozen “treasure ships” off the Jersey coast “that went down with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars’ worth of treasure.”
Those treasures can range from ships’ bells to gold, silver and art pieces. Smith, who has an 18-inch porthole that he retrieved from the Chaparra, a Cuban steamship that sank off the coast of Barnegat in 1918, says he has been on several excursions where divers retrieved gold coins. The Vizcaya, a 287-foot Spanish passenger steamer that sank off the coast of Barnegat in 1890, is a popular spot to search for gold and valuables like silver bowls and inlaid items. The ship reportedly was carrying wealthy Cuban businessmen and their families when it went down.
Peterson, who in his 50 years of diving has retrieved more than 1,000 items, most of which are now in museums across the state, says such finds are not only thrilling for divers, but also help to preserve history.
Many wrecks, he says, “are now dilapidated; they’ve come apart, they’ve been spread over the bottom and torn up by storms, and they’re subject to all of the stresses of a saltwater environment. So you’re not recovering treasure, you’re actually preserving treasure.”
After about 20 minutes, the first few diving duos begin to resurface. Most of the divers come up with net bags of fish and lobster; one diver has found something out of the ordinary. Attached to his lifting bag, which inflates to carry heavy items to the surface, is a porcelain sink that he retrieved from the wreck.
“I’ll probably turn it into a planter,” says Mike Edelen of Barnegat, a long-time diver who cut the sink away from the insides of the Great Isaac.
Following the first descent, everyone back on the Dina Dee II seems energized. As they rest and refuel with snacks and water, the divers share stories of favorite dives and unique finds, from dentures to handguns with their serial numbers scratched off.
After about an hour, the group suits up for the second and final descent of the day. (For 2020, Atlantic Divers charges $125 for a standard two-dive trip.) The divers must wait between dives to off-gas or release the nitrogen absorbed from the compressed air in their tanks from their bodies.
Peterson prides himself on emphasizing safety when training divers. “There are a lot of people who are alive today because they had him as a teacher,” says Steve Seeberger, a dive master with Atlantic Divers. “He’s got a lot of expertise, and I think people recognize that and come back because of that.”
Through Atlantic Divers, Peterson offers scuba certification courses, as well as courses for beginners and for would-be wreck divers. He explains that the mix of cold water, strong currents, low visibility, and the ever-evolving condition of the wrecks makes New Jersey particularly challenging for divers.
“If you do ocean wreck diving in New Jersey, you are in a class by yourself,” says Peterson. “It’s some of the premier diving in the world, and the difference is that the conditions change dramatically all of the time and the divers have to be adaptable.”
New Jersey has other advantages that attract divers. “We have a flat, sandy bottom, so you go 60 miles offshore and you’re only in like 250 feet of water,” Peterson explains.
And you never know what you might find, especially with an experienced diver like Peterson leading the way. Among other finds, Peterson is credited with identifying the remains of the S.S. Miraflores, which went missing in February 1942 on a journey from New Orleans to New York. All 37 members of the crew were lost. The ship’s disappearance remained a mystery until Peterson tied artifacts—including serial numbers from the ship’s helm—that he had recovered from an unidentified wreck to the Miraflores. It was determined that the ship had been hit by a German U-boat off the coast of Cape May.
“It was torpedoed by a German submarine about 55 miles offshore,” Peterson says. “I was the first to dive that and identify it—and a lot of the families contacted me to let me know they appreciated the discovery.”
While many of the divers on the Dina Dee II have experience diving around the world, all of them share a special affinity for New Jersey waters. Some credit Peterson with instilling a love of history and respect for the sport. For others, there’s the sense of community with fellow divers.
But whatever the reason that draws a wreck diver in the first place, many stay for the thrill that comes with the possibility of finding sunken treasure.
“It’s like the Wild West or the last frontier in Alaska,” says Seeberger. “When you go down there, there is just such a small group of people that do this…. It’s not like going through the woods, where any number of thousands of people could have been there.”Click here to leave a comment