By Chris Gaydos
Whether exploring shipwrecks for their history and treasure, practicing underwater photography, or even picking up a lobster or two, the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Beach Island (LBI) offers a wide, wet, playground for divers.
Ocean diving has been documented for centuries. Around 1000 BC, Homer described sponge fishing in which divers tied themselves to rocks, filled their ears and mouths with oil, and jumped into the water to harvest sponges on the ocean floor. Pearl divers trained to hold their breath for long periods of time have been described all over the world. Christopher Columbus recorded his experience with pearl divers along the coast of Venezuela on his third trip to the New World. In the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians and Spartans practiced combat diving in order to disable each other’s fleets.
Man’s desire to explore the ocean also gave rise to a wide variety of diving suits designed to trap air within the diving apparatus or have air supplied from above the water. The requirement of being tethered to the surface was both cumbersome and dangerous; as a result, this type of diving was used mainly in military and commercial operations. The development of the Gagnan-Cousteau autonomous diving suit with compressed air bottles and pressure regulator in 1943—the “Aqua-Lung”—made diving available to anyone. Recreational or scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving took off.
New Jersey Shipwrecks for Diving
The coast of New Jersey is littered with shipwrecks tracing back to the 1700s. In early U.S. history, the major ports were New York, Tuckerton, and Philadelphia. As a result, most ships passed along the New Jersey coast. The ever-changing shoals, dense fog, and great storms made this path treacherous, often resulting in shipwrecks. Pirates were also known to lure ships into the shallow waters with the goal of causing a shipwreck and stealing the cargo.
Historically, the elements weren’t the only obstacles ships navigating the coast of New Jersey faced. During WWI and WWII, U-boat attacks took their toll on many of the ships passing through the waters of the Eastern Seaboard. Today there are over 4,000 recorded shipwrecks off the coast of New Jersey and thousands more unrecorded.
In his book, “Buried Treasures of the Atlantic Coast: Legend of Sunken Pirate Treasures,” W.C. Jameson
describes the Betsey, a British ship carrying $1.5m worth of silver coins. During a nor’easter in 1778, the Betsey sailed toward Beach Haven Inlet seeking calmer seas, but became shipwrecked. Salvage attempts were unsuccessful due in large part to strong tides and shifting sands. In the 1940s beachcombers in and around Beach Haven would find silver coins on the beach attributed to the elusive wreck. The lore of the Betsey intrigues divers to this day.
Intentional shipwrecks enable reefs to form, a century-old method of enhancing marine life. The United States was one of the first countries to create these artificial reefs by sinking retired warships such as the Liberty ships of WWII. On May 10, 2017, the Tamaroa, a 205-foot (62-meter) Coast Guard vessel made famous in the book and film “The Perfect Storm,” was cleaned of toxic materials and intentionally sunk off the coast of Cape May. The Tamaroa will undoubtedly become a popular destination reef for divers in the years to come.
Today recreational divers can enjoy a variety of diving experiences off the coast of LBI, including wreck and reef diving, spearfishing, and underwater photography. The ocean remains relatively shallow for quite a few miles, allowing access to many wreck and reef sites. A depth of 130 feet is considered to be the “safe” limit for recreational dives. Although visibility is always a factor in the Atlantic, today divers can usually see up to 40 feet thanks in part to clean up efforts in the ocean. There is no strict season; May through October are generally considered the best months to dive along LBI. Popular dives off LBI include such ships as the Stolt Dagali, Tolten, and Great Isaac, but there are countless others.
In the 1970s Deborah Whitcraft, President of the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven, NJ, started two dive shops on LBI that produced and inspired a generation of divers; related historic artifacts and photos can be viewed at the Maritime Museum (www.njmaritimemuseum.org). Although currently there are no dive shops on LBI, Atlantic Divers in Egg Harbor Township run by Captain Gene Peterson sponsors a full schedule of certification classes and dive trips close to LBI (www.njwreckdivers.com). In Barnegat Light, the certified dive boat, Dina Dee II, has an experienced crew providing dive trips as well (www.dinadeescuba.com).
In recreational scuba diving, understanding safety protocols is essential. Only trained and qualified people should scuba dive. Also, knowing the context of a dive sites is worth consulting a professional in the LBI region for guidance. Some wrecks can be unstable and even retain live munitions!
The Caribbean is not the only place to view spectacular fish and marine plant life. On his web site and in his book, “Beneath the Garden State: Exploring Aquatic New Jersey,” Herb Segars showcases a huge variety of fish, plants, and wrecks, some not far from local jetties (www.gotosnapshot.com).
Spearfishing and Bug Diving
The sport of spearfishing is also very popular on LBI. Most divers consider it a sure way to “catch dinner.” Spear guns can range from hand spears to pneumatic spear guns—in general, the bigger the gun, the bigger the fish. Skin divers, also called free divers, spearfish in the surf along the jetties or groins on LBI using a snorkel, fins, and a wet suit. Surf divers often go out at night, giving evening beachcombers quite a scare when they emerge from the ocean, spears in hand.
Many divers prefer to spearfish off a dive boat using scuba gear where the fish are larger and more plentiful. However, wrecks and reefs also provide an ideal environment for lobster. Due to their shape and mobility as they scuttle along, lobsters have often been referred to as “bugs.” Catching lobsters must be done by hand (very carefully) since it is illegal to use a spear on them. Large lobsters were plentiful in years past and seem to be enjoying a rebound as of late.