Home Go Diving! Whale of a Tale – Rockage and Wreckage in the Rocks

Whale of a Tale – Rockage and Wreckage in the Rocks

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Jon Hulburt

The task of wreck hunting becomes muddled when searching an area congested by rock formations. Wreck anglers and wreck divers along the sandy coastline of the northeast are fortunate searching the flat bottom where anomalies rise precipitously. Hunting in the rocky coastline of the greater northeastern America and Canadian boundaries wreck hunting becomes more challenging where the wrecks are in the rocks and the rocks imitate wrecks. Consider the chance happening of searching for rocks and finding a wreck. The ocean is brimming with surprises…

By Gene Peterson

In the mid-‘90s, I was appointed by Rutgers University to take samples of a natural rock formation 60 miles east of Cape May, New Jersey. This is a phenomena for the New Jersey coastline, known for its flat sandy bottom only, elevated by unnatural man-made structures like shipwrecks or carelessly lost cargos. The site was discovered by Rick Shepanski, a respected fisherman running out of Cape May. I chartered Captain Rick and selected Jon Hulburt and Tom Packer to do the dive with me. The formation was in 230 feet of water requiring the talents of skilled deep divers. Tom and Jon were accustomed to the arduous conditions and hazards of offshore wreck diving. Individually, they are the crème de la crème of wreck divers.

Jon Hulburt was a Dupont chemist, who experimented with open circuit mixed gas diving on deep wreck dives like the Andrea Doria, a decade before the tech explosion of the early ’90s. An intelligent and analytical diver, Jon is renowned for his astonishing penetration dives on the battleship San Diego. The San Diego is a 12,000-ton armored cruiser, lying upside down in one-hundred-ten feet of water south-east of Fire Island, New York. Historically, it is the only U.S Warship lost during World War I, when the mighty battleship struck a mine laid by the German sub U-156. Venturing deep into its murky labyrinth of darkness, Jon had navigated from the stern to the bow. In the early seventies, Jon’s reputation was already an established lore. As a teenager, I was impressed by his persona when I met him on a south Jersey dive. His heavy double Seamco 82 cubic foot tanks mounted with a long steel 30 cubic foot tank overshadowed Jon’s slight, but muscular build. Jon carried two aluminum Darrell Allen lights bolted together, which hung on a line tethered to his left valve post. Wearing a thick Poseidon Uni-suit, he balanced his buoyancy with lead, heavy tools and clipped two giant eight-pound sledgehammers conspicuously between his legs.

Observers would cringe as he leaped into the sea. Undaunted, he would continue his descent without incident. Jovial, assertive, and enthusiast, Jon commanded the deck with his occasional firecracker outbursts. I enjoyed Jon’s diagnostic personality and his friendship, which took us on many journeys since that first meeting. Teeming with new concepts, he continuously evolved his techniques and created dozens of wreck diving accoutrements, sometimes to our amusement. Gauge panels made from paint pallets, plastic newspaper bags lined his outer socks, high volume drysuit intakes, lead weights clipped or bolted precariously to camera housings, tank bands, and fins. Perhaps he is most noted for an offshore dive when he tied a long line off on the anchor line at his decompression stop. As divers crowded the line competing for a spot, Jon disappeared behind them unaffected. I remember chuckling as Jon disappeared out of our sight assuming he was just struggling with a line reel tangle. After querying him, he explained it was purposeful. His simple solution later referred to as the Jonline, caught on, and soon every serious deco diver would deploy the line to maintain their depth during their decompression ascent.

Tom Packer began his diving career in the late ’70s. Ever so enthusiastic, Tom remains a strong, meticulous diver. After his taste of ocean diving, Tom promptly got into deep wreck diving, cutting his teeth in the notorious dark “Mudhole”, a deep dell lined with shipwrecks in the approaches to New York harbor. Tom dived ships such as the Ayuruoca, a massive freighter in 180 feet of water and the Choapa, a Chilean cargo freighter in 200 feet, both are in the category of deep, dark, and dangerous. Tom is a veteran Andrea Doria diver, noted for his teamwork on numerous expeditions surmounting to the celebrated recovery of the Andrea Doria stern bell and several unfathomable explorations throughout the wreck. I have known Tom since his first ocean dive and have watched him excel to one of best wreck divers in the world.

Packer

With this notable team, a plan was made to investigate this natural rock formation and collect the needed samples. On a calm July day, we loaded in the early dawn and sped offshore. After a couple hours of travel, the ocean panorama began to transform. Reaching the boundaries of the Gulfstream current, the waters turned turquoise and glistened in the deepening depths. The surface splashed and spit as turtles rose, porpoise chased our wake, and all sizes of fish skipped on the surface. We were at the edge of the deep where mysteries linger for voyagers to witness. Another hour passed and we were over our target. There was no urgency as all prepped for the descent. Greg Modelle, a local diver, architect, and avid fisher came along to assist us and mate for Captain Rick. Additionally, Greg is a remarkable artist and his renditions of local shipwrecks are striking masterpieces. Greg wanted to be a part of the strategy and fish over the site known to hold massive seabass. All the lines were set and the safety gear readied as we suited up for the reconnaissance. Packer and I would set a large sand anchor since there are no significant structures to grapnel a hook into. We would then do a short survey of the area and collect samples. Hulburt was to also survey and video the site to document the outcropping of rock.

We descended. In the clear water, a massive formation emerged. A football field of fauna, sponge, cold-water coral, and rock exposed itself. Tom and I wedged the Danforth anchor into the sugar sand at the perimeter of the formation. Satisfied it was secured, we wandered the underwater terrain. It was unlike anything I had dived before or since. The rock appeared to ooze out of the sandy underbelly in layers. Attached to the rock, different heights of colored and branchlike sponge forms waved in the currents. Small white and yellow formations of coral adhered to the tops of the grey sedimentary rock. I knocked a few brittle pieces of rock with my hammer and dropped them into a bag. Jon steadily videoed and cruised amidst the structure.

Following the perimeter of the growth, I pursued Tom as he suddenly sped ahead, and without hesitation, veered out into the sand. I hovered by the spot where he dashed rising to see only his shadow disappearing into a boundless region of sand. This was an uncharacteristic act for Tom to delineate from a set dive plan and vanish into the emptiness. I waited, waving my light in the last direction of his path. There was no response. Time was dire at these depths, failing to start an ascent could drastically penalize our decompression debt. Each minute would magnify into dozens of unplanned stops for a survivable ascent. The sense of urgency was excessive, and I had to assume Tom had or would somehow work his way back unassisted. He was too good a diver not to have a reserve plan. Jon was shining his light for me at the anchor line, I swam back to the tether and ascended under Jon. In concern, I gazed over the scene below scanning the area for a glimmer of color or light. There was only the shadow of the rocks fading as I reached my first stop at 100 feet. Meeting up with Jon I could see the concern in his eyes behind his mask. He shook his head and looked away. This kind of anxiety can be overwhelming. We had to strike out our negative thoughts and assume the best. Rationally, Jon and I assumed Tom had traveled too far from the ascent line and sent up his own ascent line. He was probably as concerned for us, as we were for him. Emotionally, it was a difficult ascent even though the conditions were ideal. During our decompression, small schools of baitfish surrounded us in the warm current and an occasional Bonita would chase them through the clear azure water. An alternative distraction was watching Captain Rick and Greg reel in double catches of huge seabass unaware of the mental drama we were enduring on our hang.  Nearly an hour had passed during our ascent. I had planned a very conservative profile and was well within my requirements. We were stern anchored, and as I reached the last few minutes of my commitment, I decided to break my hang to find out if anyone topside had seen Tom. Popping to the surface, I saw Greg reeling in another double of fish, oblivious to my anxieties. “Where’s Tom?” I shouted. “Have you seen a lift bag?” Greg tossed the fish down on the deck and rushed to the back of the boat. His assuring voice instantly encouraged me all was okay. “He’s hanging on a bag in the bow; He’s fine. I swam out to him when he came up and checked on him.” He assured.

With that I abruptly descended. I dashed down to Hulburt and gave him the all good sign and then completed my stop. The relief was overwhelming. Worrying over divers is one of the challenges when managing dives. There is such a close bond in our friendships that few outside this brotherhood will understand. Diving can run you though a gamut of emotions. When all your friends are safe, it is especially satisfying. Soon Tom ascended and began to remove his gear. I could tell by the disconcerted look on his face he had worried as well. There was something else, I sensed a tell. He told us that he had not intended on going out into the sand but saw another formation and thought it might be a part of the rocks. As he got further away, there was no turning back. When he looked behind, he could no longer see the rocks or my light. Ahead of him a large shape with an unnatural squared corner began to form. It was the stern of a wooden ship. Astonishingly, he happened upon an unknown wreck a hundred feet from the rock formation. Reaching the wreck, he had just enough time to tie off a line on a large beam and inflate his lift bag. As he ascended, he could see the outline of a large hull in the sand. It was a lonely hang he confessed. If Tom had found another piece of rockage there would have been little to tie off on. Evolving circumstances require resolute action and instinctively Tom made the right call.

The Rutgers study concluded this to be natural sedimentary formation. Several other abnormal rock formations dot the New Jersey coast. A natural rock formation lies in 90 feet of water about 15 miles off Ocean City. It is called “Joe Blacks” or the lumps south of the “Tabletop”. This has larger boulders and are spread out with soft coral over a wide area. Lobster and schools of bluefish prevail over the sight. A mud bank lies a few miles inshore from Joe Blacks. Lobsters dig themselves into the bank which resembles a step running several hundred feet. A difficult spot to anchor and find, those lucky enough to dive it could easily fill their bags with lobsters by swimming just a few yards. Many of these natural mud formations are located north of Herford Inlet including a well-known fishing mound called the Mud Wreck. It is not a wreck, but a massive hill that rises nearly 12 feet in 50 feet of water.

Lobster

The late George Hoffman had some small rock formations he would buoy for lobster bounce dives near the Maurice Tracy and the Tolten. He often buoyed the Shrewsbury rocks, the Elberon Rocks, and others. On one such lobster loop Hoffman dropped a few divers on another unidentified rock formation. Here some divers were somewhat delighted to find another so called virgin wreck. Following what appeared to be a large pile of rocks, divers discovered a gigantic metal tube with large a hatch on the end. The first group of divers that ascended from the so-called virgin wreck were ecstatic. They fervently claimed they had dived a partially buried German mini sub. The pragmatic second group expressed abhorrence realizing they had just descended on the Asbury Park outfall pipe. Sometimes you must accept the good with the bad.   

“The most beautiful stories always start with wreckage.” – Jack London.