Shark River Inlet
February 3, 2002
For most of my adult life I've thought that winter was pretty much a good thing. It forces one to accept some measure of discomfort and suffering in life and plan ahead for the future. I attribute this to my Teutonic/New England Yankee heritage. People like me tend to get vaguely unsettled and a bit disagreeable when life gets too comfortable. We figure there must be something wrong with your life even if you haven't figured it out yet.
Scuba diving has severely tested this personal philosophy and attitude towards winter. Once the fall comes and the air temperature dips below 50 degrees or so, the thought of jumping in the water, drysuit or no drysuit, becomes very unattractive. I can quite happily put away my gear and assorted diving paraphernalia and turn to other activities for a few months. But then I start reading about people going on Caribbean vacations and diving in warm crystal clear water, surrounded by colorful coral, amazing fish, and bikini-clad babes like those in the diving magazines and I get very unhappy. Soon winter really sucks.
I did my last dives of 2001 in mid-November, after which the weather got cooler and much less pleasant. It was only with moderate interest that I read about a local group of divers, calling themselves the Some Beach Divers Club, who began doing shore dives off the local beaches. I've been interested in doing more shore diving for some time, but did they have to start in winter? When we had some unusually mild weather in late December I was considering joining them. I was seriously considering joining a beach dive one Sunday, but when I woke up there was a cold, drizzling rain outside. Not conducive to getting even wetter. Then I caught a nasty cold in January and felt little desire to do much of anything, let alone jump into 40 degree water.
Still the notices of planned beach dives kept coming, and after I recovered, the itch to dive again came back stronger than ever. When an email about diving the Shark River Inlet appeared in my mailbox, I had to give it serious thought. I really enjoy local shallow water diving and I had hoped to do the Shark River Inlet, supposedly NJ's most popular shore dive, the previous summer. It didn't work out largely because I couldn't find anyone else who was interested. Now here was my opportunity and in the winter months the restrictions against diving there during the day were lifted. It seemed like a good opportunity to learn about the dive if only to dive it as a night dive in the warm weather.
I asked around about the likely water temperatures and was told mid to low 40's. Sounded not too bad for a drysuit, so on Sunday, February 3rd I found myself joining the group at the Divers Two shop in Avon, NJ. Conditions looked pretty good: a partly sunny day with air temps around 40 degrees. The wild westerly wind of the previous day had died down and shifted to the south leaving the the surf at the beach pretty mild. The one discouraging report was of visibility in the "Yoo Hoo" category, but the tide was still coming in and this could improve.
We had eight divers ready to jump in with another 3 or 4 prepared to offer surface support as we assembled our gear on the Avon side of the inlet. It's amazing how soon I had forgotten all the little rituals involved in assembling my gear and getting into my drysuit. What had been an automatic sequence of events and routine checks a few months ago was now difficult to recall and I had to force myself to think through each step.
My buddy du jour was named Bob (never got his last name) and he seemed friendly and competent. We helped each other into our rigs and hiked from the boardwalk to the entry point. This is a concrete pier under the Ocean Ave. bridge connecting Avon and Belmar.The entry is a giant stride off the pier into the inlet. I had been assured that there were no lurking rocks or debris waiting to impale divers. First in was Chris, who going lead our happy group and tow the dive flag. I watched him jump in, bob to the surface, and then quickly descend to get out of the current. The only time to dive here is right at high tide to minimize the current and get a shot at some decent visibility. At this point the tide was still coming in, but it was due to change very soon.
I was next into the water. I always find giant stride entries a little unsettling if not plain scary. There's something about the abrupt transition from breathing on the surface to breathing underwater that spooks me. Despite carefully checking my equipment, testing my regulators, and putting a little air in my BC, I'm never absolutely, 100% positive that everything's going to work when I jump into the water. I can easily imagine myself sinking under the surface and continuing to plummet non-stop towards the bottom while at the same time my regulator stops working. Sometimes it pays to not let your imagination run too freely. This time there was the added uncertainty of just how cold that gray water was going to feel once I hit it. The fact that I hadn't been in the water for several months was improving my mood any either.
Well it was no time for second thoughts. One large step for me, and no giant leap for mankind?. In I went. A quick dip under the surface, some blessed breaths from the regulator, and I popped to the surface. The tide was quickly sucking me inland towards the Belmar Marina, so I gave a quick OK signal to Bob and the rest of the group before descending to the bottom. I hit a nice sandy bottom at 20 ft and pulled myself against the current until I found a nice rock to hang on to while I waited for Bob to join me.
It felt so good to be in the water again. I felt very comfortable in my drysuit ? just a little chill on my face. The viz was pretty good, too, maybe 10-15 ft and I happily took in my surroundings. There were some colorful orange sponges on the rocks, a nice sea anemone, and a little fish, maybe a juvenile sea bass right near me. After a minute or two, however, with no sign of Bob, I started to get a little concerned and surfaced once again. He had been having some trouble with his backup regulator/BC inflator free flowing. He pronounced it OK and we descended together.
Our plan was to stay at around 20 feet keeping the rocks of the jetty to our left. Any deeper and we might be venturing into the middle of the heavily trafficked boat channel and any shallower and we would be more exposed to the current. We poked along for a bit in and out of the rocks. My computer said 21 ft and a water temp of 45 degrees. Without pause the tide seemed to abruptly shift and I felt my self being pulled along the rocks out to sea. It wasn't threatening, just a little uncomfortable. I had a little trouble tending all the little simultaneous details of diving controlling my buoyancy, checking my computer and SPG, and keeping an eye on Bob as the current pulled me from rock to rock. In the meantime, I was peering under the rocks for critters and trying to enjoy the dive.
Gradually the current seemed to be picking up and it was hard to hang on to the rocks. My computer still told me 21 ft and I started to wonder what was going on. Then I saw the surface a few feet above my head and took a closer look at my computer. I was reading the wrong number on my computer. It was telling me it was set for 21% oxygen and there was another number showing my depth at 5 ft. These are the things that happen when you're out of the water for a while. I singled to Bob that we should go deeper and began pulling myself downwards from rock to rock.
Back at 20 feet, it was a lot calmer, only there was no Bob. I hung around for a minute or two and then went back up. He was waiting for me. I glanced around on the surface and saw that, despite feeling like the current had been propelling us a long ways, we really hadn?t covered much distance. We descended again and the dive settled down into a nice relaxing tour. The current still made it difficult to hang around in one spot for any length of time, but I found the best strategy was to keep my buoyancy a little on the negative side so I could settle into the sand when I wanted to spend some time looking under rocks and into crevices.
The marine life seemed to be a little scarce this time of year. We came across a few ornery crabs and there were quite a few sea urchins clinging to the sides of rocks. I didn't see any fish apart from the little guy I saw when I first hit the water. There were loads of hooks, monofilament, and fishing lures lurking amongst the rocks and I did my best to avoid them.
The jetty has an "L" shape and once we turned the corner we were exposed to the ocean. Here, the surge picked up and the wave action began to slosh us against the rocks and then pull us back. It was not quite the leisurely floating along that I love and a little disconcerting. Again, the best strategy seemed to be to stay as deep as we could and a little negative. At one point I popped up to see how far we were from out exit point and then headed back down.
Finally, we rounded the end of the jetty and swam into the little cove behind the rocks. Heading into the beach, we called the dive when we reached 3 feet of water. The wind had really picked up from the south and I quickly began to chill. Bob and I congratulated each other on a great dive. The rest of the group seemed equally exhilarated as we briskly hoofed it back to the cars. This winter diving is a lot of fun and certainly better than not diving at all. It seems to have just the right amount discomfort and suffering to keep me happy.
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 The pictures on this page were taken by Bill, one of the divemasters from Divers Two and a member of the Beach Divers Club. I'd like to thank him for letting me use them.
 For any non-Americans reading this, Yoo Hoo is a kind-of-disgusting bottled chocolate milk drink mostly favored by youngsters. It's definitely a challenge to see through the stuff.
Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen