March 9, 2002
The Western World is a 19th century sailing ship that sunk off the beach of Spring Lake, NJ in 1853. The Beach Divers Club arranged to dive it on a beautiful late winter's day. Air temperatures were in the mid-60's and there was a breath of spring in the air. It was enough to bring the beach alive with joggers, strollers, a few surfers, and about 8 crazy scuba divers.
I buddied up with Bill Hulik. Bill's a divemaster and a DIR diver. I have some DIR tendencies myself and it was a pleasure to dive with a buddy who had similar leanings and was an excellent diver and buddy.
One of the highlights of this dive was my new camera. It was to be my first opportunity to try under water photography. I'd also been looking forward to doing a genuine off-the-beach shipwreck. It was also my first beach dive with a genuine surf entry and I wanted to get the experience under my belt.
It was a bit of a hassle lugging our stuff from the parked cars down to the water's edge. setting it up, and getting into it. We piled our stuff on the slippery pier that housed a pipeline leading into the ocean. I hoped the pipeline was only a storm runoff pipe and not a toxic waste or sewage pipe. I'm pretty sure these have been banned, but in NJ you never know.
The plan for the dive was for our dive leader, Chris, to go in first with a flag and float, dive down to the wreck, and anchor the float to the wreck. Then the rest of us would swim out to the float and descend to the wreck. After Chris had been in for a while and it looked like Chris had anchored the float, Bill and I went in. Walking backwards in fins with all my scuba gear on was more difficult than I thought it would be. The little potholes in the sand threw me off balance, and as the waves receded, the full weight of my rig would suddenly weigh me down again. I fell down a few times (with my regulator in my mouth) and ended up wallowing in the shallow water like a turtle on it's back. Bill seemed to be having a much easier time of it. Eventually we made it into deeper water and we were able to begin the surface swim out on our backs.
Normally I don't mind surface swims and find them relaxing. But this one was a real work out. There seemed to be a stiff current running and the float seemed like a moving target. We'd head in one direction towards the float and still find it a ways off. At one point we ended up further out from shore than the float and thoughts of being carried out to sea passed through my mind. Finally, we managed to maneuver ourselves right by the float and prepared to descend. Just then up popped Chris. It turned out the float was a moving target. With the current Chris hadn't been able to locate the wreck and had been searching unsuccessfully along the bottom. From our surface position, Chris determined that we were way north of the wreck and further out than we should be.
Bill and I decided to descend and follow Chris, because all this surface swimming was getting to be a drag and, to me anyway, it seemed preferable to dive along a barren sandy bottom than to continue to swim around aimlessly. We descended, but after a minute or so we lost Chris who was really motoring along the bottom. Bill and I surfaced again and began chasing the float.
When this didn't seem to be leading anywhere, Bill suggested descending and heading toward shore to see if we could find the wreck as we made our way into shore. If we missed it, that was the breaks. We descended into crappy vis (around 5 ft) and practically landed on the wreck.
The wreck was mostly an indistinct blob, covered with some type of seaweed and the odd patch of brightly colored sponges or corals.
We toured the wreck awhile and then Bill prodded me to take some pictures. I found it more difficult than I thought. With heavy neoprene gloves on, it was hard to get the camera out of my dry suit pocket. Once I yanked it out, I found that pressing the small buttons on the back of the camera case was difficult as well. In the dim vis, I also found it very difficult to see the image on the display, let alone figure out if it was in focus. Eventually I just pointed the camera in the general direction of what I wanted a picture of and pressed the shutter until something happened. Meanwhile, there was a moderate surge running that sloshed me to and fro over the wreck. Clearly I needed more practice at this.
After taking a few shots, I carefully clipped the camera off to the chest D ring on my harness, giving a good tug to check it was secure. A minute later, I had a sudden fear that it was no longer there. I reached down to feel it and couldn't feel it. I felt a rush of panic, thinking "Great a brand new $500 camera, and I lose it the first time I try to use it. What and idiot!"
Something told me it had to be there, so I kept feeling around for it. Finally I felt the snap clip and the camera. It turns out the camera is positively buoyant and it must have floated up under my armpit behind me.
I unclipped it and took a few shots of Bill and he reciprocated. We toured around the wreck a bunch of times I began to recognize some features. I alternated between being negatively buoyant so I could stay in one spot and being neutrally buoyant and letting the surge move me back and forth over sections of the wreck. It felt pretty neat.
After about 30 minutes of bottom time, Bill gave me a strange signal. He made a circular motion around his midsection like he was rubbing his stomach. I hadn't learned this one yet, but figured it had to something to do with wanting to end the dive. He later told me it was the universal signal for "I'm hungry, lets surface". I proceeded to haul out my camera for one last shot of some bright orange sponges and a sea urchin nestled in a cranny of the wreck.
After a bottom time of just over 30 minutes, Bill gave me the sign that he was cold and
wanted to surface. By this time my fingers were pretty numb from the 45 degree
water and I readily agreed. We surfaced and began the tedious swim to
The surf seemed to have picked up quite a bit and as I paddled on my back the breakers would loom over my head and crash over me. Encased in my scuba gear as I was, I felt like a floating log in the water. It was a bit different from body surfing off the beach.
Despite the marginal conditions, it was still a great dive. I look forward to doing it again; I hope with better visibility on the wreck. It turns out we had only done the northernmost piece of the Western World. There's a similarly sized chunk of it a bit southeast of the piece we had found. Next time.
Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen