By Selene Muldowney
Honestly who wouldn’t want to live in the Hamptons – the name itself evokes images of palatial homes, majestic staircases, cavernous fireplaces, stone walls reaching the cathedral ceilings, and bear rugs accentuating the décor. Located on eastern Long Island’s South Fork, in New York, is a tiny slice of paradise some 30-odd miles; marked by a string of seaside communities and enveloped by long stretches of beach, interior farmlands, towns and villages with 18th century shingle buildings, and estates all hidden behind well-groomed boxwood hedges. New Yorkers know how to pack a lot into small places. The differences among these villages are slim, hence they are collectively known as “the Hamptons”. The Hamptons are made up of a number of unique neighborhoods or ‘hamlets’ beginning with Southampton, Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Amangansett, Westhampton, and Montauk to name a few.
In the summer months, the Hamptons become the wealthy’s playground, where the collection of these historic towns and villages on the Atlantic Ocean boast beachfront mansions and the streets are lined with designer boutiques while the roads are covered bumper to bumper with Range Rovers, Ferraris, and Bugatti Veyron. Women and men in designer clothing, their bronze bodies glistening against the backdrop, walk along the boardwalks and delicately manicured sidewalks, while children and teenagers play on the endless beaches. Winter months; however, offer a stark difference to this beautiful summer scene. Roads are nearly deserted, trendy restaurants have tables at the ready, and lone figures walk along the beautiful stretches of deserted beaches. While summer months have so much to offer, many people are rediscovering the quiet and relaxing Hamptons.
While it is certain you cannot find unicorns in this magical place, the Hamptons does offer a unique and vivid tapestry of individuals, culture, scenery, and activities. Tourists and the locals have access to fine dining and exquisite shopping but for the more adventurous traveler willing to drive a few miles, the Atlantic Ocean, beckons them with promises of swimming, sailing, surfing, paddle boarding, and of course, scuba diving.
Hampton Bays, originally named Good Ground, when the Native Americans realized the soil would allow them to grow nearly anything, offers a plethora of water based activities as well as great dining and fun activities for families. Hampton Bays is the second largest fishing port in New York State behind Montauk. Sport fishing, deep sea fishing, scuba diving, surfing, and spear fishing are favorite local pastimes.
There are a number of local watering holes to dive into; however, the most popular and enticing is hidden in plain sight: Ponquogue Bridge. This wooden draw bridge was constructed in 1930 and served as the sole access to the Atlantic Ocean in the Hampton Bays area until 1986 when the new, modern, stationary bridge was constructed by Suffolk County. The new bridge is made of concrete and has a 55-foot vertical clearance above Shinnecock Bay and is used by the traffic between Hampton Bays and Westhampton Island. The former Ponquogue Draw Bridge was retired, the middle section removed and now serves as a fishing pier under the new span. The negative space spanned by the former drawbridge serves as a marine park. Divers looking to dive into water with great visibility teeming with sea life and an incredible history that spans more than twenty thousand years beginning with two thousand-foot glaciers and Native Americans need look no further than Ponquogue Bridge.
Taking a short step back in history we learn the barrier islands were most likely formed about 18,000 years ago when the last Ice Age ended. As the glaciers melted and receded, the sea levels began to rise, and flooded areas behind the beach ridges at that time. The rising waters carried sediments from those beach ridges and deposited them along shallow areas just off the new coast lines. Stabilized by dunes situated away from the waves and plant life that holds them in place, the barrier islands have been very successful at resisting erosion. Consequently, one of the most famous stretches of narrow beachfront property was created and preserved, playground to not only the rich and famous but the curious scuba diver.
Eventually, after the glaciers receded and the topography settled, the Native Americans settled in the area naming it Shinnecock, which means “a level country”. Pawonon Quogue, an Indian term translated to Ponquogue, which means something about a pond in the place where the bay bends was one of the eleven hamlets settled by the Europeans in the late 1700s.
Given an opportunity to seek out an underwater adventure, divers find this old wooden draw bridge as one of the most exciting and fulfilling in the northeast (of course there are contenders to this statement).
Fed by the Atlantic Ocean and nestled between the barrier islands and the Long Island Shore, the Shinnecock Bay offers a great opportunity to view an impressive array of ocean life. While the water is distinctly browner than the cerulean waters found in tropical destinations, the dive is not less exciting. Visibility can be phenomenal as divers discover an incredible array of marine life on display, clinging to the old wooden pilings and along the new bridge’s stone. Layered with mussels, clams, mollusks, crabs, lobsters and a variety of fish species, the bottom also offers a breathtaking view of sandy shoals and islands. The vast array of fish are often accidentally swept up from warmer climes by the gulf stream and then become trapped off Long Island. Divers often collect these juvenile fish for their aquariums as it is inevitable they are going to die in the cooler waters. It is not unusual to spot exotics including sargassum, triggerfish, leatherback sea turtles, octopi, puffers, seahorses, dolphins and seals.
A word of caution; however, despite the incredible opportunity to discover this hidden oasis, the dive is generally not intended for an amateur diver especially without supervision. Timing is crucial and the tides can be strong. Anyone fortunate enough to dive along the old wooden draw bridge will find not only an exciting and sometimes ‘hold on for dear life experience’ but a haven of marine life.
Long Islanders love the water and diving opportunities exist on every level – from the Ponquogue Bridge to Montauk and nearby Block Island. While the marine diversity is outstanding for divers exploring the old wooden Ponquogue draw bridge, others are drawn to exploring underwater wrecks.
Block Island draws eager adventurers to explore casualties of a war long gone. The island is three-by-four miles of rolling, windswept hills and was settled around 1650. It is home to about 1500 people year-round and boasts a number of wrecks within a few miles of the harbor. Two of the war’s casualties include a freighter and the submarine who sank her. They are the U-853 and her last victim, the SS Black Point. For technical divers, another submarine, the USS Bass, sits at approximately 155 feet. She met her fate a few weeks before the U-853 and Black Point. There are also lesser known sites in the area offering terrific dives.
The Montauk Point Light
Another favorite is Montauk, New York, located at the tip of the South Fork peninsula of Long Island, 118 miles east of Midtown Manhattan, has been used as an Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Air Force base. The Montauk Point Light was the first lighthouse in New York state and is the fourth oldest active lighthouse in the United States. Aside from access to beautiful state parks boasting hiking trails and fresh water wetlands, a casino, fishing access, great dining, and preserved WWII bunkers for history buffs to explore, Montauk offers great diving opportunities. Montauk harbor eastside jetty is easily accessible from the beach. The jetties extend into Long Island Sound to about 20 feet of water on a sandy substrate. Divers can find lobsters, Striped Bass and other smaller fish especially in summer months. Montauk harbor west side jetty is also a favorite local dive site popular for fishing, snorkeling, and jet skiing. The jetty extends into the sound along a substrate mixed with rock and sand. Divers are cautioned to tow a dive flag due to the boat traffic.
Culloden Point is another great location to visit. This small peninsula located north of Montauk marks the east side entrance to Fort Pond Bay from long Island Sound. The park is named after the HMS Culloden, a British 74-gun warship sailing with the Channel Fleet during the American Revolutionary War. The HMS Culloden was a British Royal Navy Frigate warship that ran aground during the war. This wreck, just offshore, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is popular with scuba divers. This is a marine park and scavenging is strictly prohibited, although sometimes you will find divers searching for lost treasures. While most of the ship has been covered by shifting sand bars, divers can still spot a number of fish and lobsters. A word of caution to divers as currents are strong.
Last but not least on our list is Fort Pond Bay, located off Long Island Sound at Montauk. This bay has a long naval and civilian history. This bay was used as a US Navy Submarine Base in WWII. Divers of all levels can take on this beach dive offering all types of marine life and sometimes artifacts from the war.
While the Hamptons are best known as the playground for the rich and famous, divers know the most abundant riches are found underwater. If looking for guidance, gear, or perhaps a charter, it is best to contact local favorites; Hampton Dive Center located in Westhampton or Captain Chuck Wade from Sea Turtle Charters, the only dive charter located in Montauk.