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Diving the Outer Banks, North Carolina

Updated on April 28, 2010

Shipping traffic along the 300-mile North Carolina coastline was hit hard during the early months of World War II. Enemy action was fierce here and many Nazi submarines cruised the waters here torpedoing both military and merchant ships almost at will. The toll that this wartime action took on American shipping was truly momentous. An untold number of tankers and freighters plunged to a watery tomb, joining an unknown number of ships downed by nature's fury or human error, or in earlier wars. Today these tragedies provide the rare opportunity for divers to explore a four-century chronicle of maritime history that can't be equaled by museums or books. Many divers state categorically that to actually touch a part of history in the shape of a sunken ship can be the most exciting aspect of underwater exploration. But it's more than just the urge to touch a piece of history that compels divers to visit these wrecks.

As a result of the convergence of currents, North Carolina's waters teem with marine life, both warm- and cold-water species. Vivid carpets of coral and thick schools of silvery baitfish bring life to the rusting hulks of shipwrecks.
 
Large jacks and grouper, colorful tropical fish, and solitary creatures like tiny arrow crabs congregate on and around these wrecks. Barracuda are plentiful. Sometimes large sea turtles, stingrays, and sharks glide by in the distance. On the surface, dolphins often accompany dive boats to and from the wrecks, surfing along the bow wake.
 
While marine life may be transient, shipwrecks are not. The coast of North Carolina offers a handful of dive destinations — Morehead City, Beaufort, and Hatteras are the most popular — each with its own amenities and shipwrecks. A word of caution, however: Not all wrecks are created equal. Divers, particularly those with little or no ocean wreck-diving experience, should assess their skill levels before venturing out to deeper, more difficult dive sites.

Remnants of Battle

The adjacent cities of Morehead and Beaufort are located on North Carolina's mainland, west of Cape Lookout and just south of the thin ribbon of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Both towns offer accommodations, from group dive lodges and chain motels to oceanfront condos. Full-service dive shops and a wide selection of charter boats support the large number of divers who visit each year. While novice divers may get their fins wet on shallow, in-shore wrecks, the more experienced are lured to the quintessential North Carolina shipwreck — the German submarine, U-352. The U-352 sank 30 miles southeast of Cape Lookout, a stunning reminder of how close the war came to U.S. shores.
 
If conditions are good, as they often are here, with visibility reaching 100 feet, divers visiting the U-352 see its clearly recognizable outline as they descend the anchor line to 115 feet. Beyond the torpedo-shaped wreck, deep blue water stretches into the distance. The sub, listing heavily to starboard, sits on a white-sand bottom, and hundreds of small fish dance in unison over its hull. On occasion, snaggle-toothed sand tiger sharks fin silently around its perimeter.
 
Continued In: Diving the Outer Banks, North Carolina - Part 2

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