Drive and Dive

Drive and Dive: Exploring Shipwrecks in the Florida Keys


During my first year of diving — 17 years ago — my brother and I were gearing up for Key Largo’s USCG Duane, a 327-foot former Coast Guard cutter sitting at 120 feet. We planned to descend through a circle of 10-foot barracuda before hitting the navigation bridge at 70 feet. But the current at the surface was rough — so rough that our guide called the dive before we even had a chance to begin our descent. Canceling the dive turned out to be a smart move; this advanced dive had no place in our crisp new logbooks.

Nearly two decades later, and with an instructor’s worth of dives under my weight belt, I’m back. The current is just as I remember. One of 10 wrecks along the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail, the Duane almost guarantees a strong current because of its location just outside of the protection of the reef. The upside is that the visibility is almost always spot on. (Another bonus: Critters love current.)

“The current can make the Duane a more challenging dive, but it’s that flow of nutrients that makes the sea life on the ship so phenomenal,” says Kell Levendorf, lead instructor at Divers Direct/Ocean Divers/Emocean Sports.

At the surface, the current looks doable. Emocean Sports has its 45-foot Corinthian positioned near the bow of the wreck; from the mooring line I can see the Duane’s silhouette at 120 feet. From there, I head for the bow and into the direction of the current. I am not the only one with this plan: Nestled at the tip of the wreck is an 800-pound goliath grouper basking in the down-flow.

Penetration on the upright wreck is easy. An American flag waves from the top platform as if it’s in slow motion, with an underwater anthem of bubbles. Within minutes, the current has already pushed me farther from the bow. I’m short of breath and can sense the hesitation in my regulator as it threatens to self-purge from the rushing current. This is quite a workout. After an air check, I take one last look around and make the decision to work my way back to the mooring line.

Near the crow’s nest, silver clouds of baitfish work the flow with ease and barracuda lurk in the distance. I embrace the few minutes of bottom time I have left. Levendorf is right. The marine life is booming here. This wreck was well worth the wait.


Although I’m still reeling from the rush of the Duane, the next day’s dive is a double dip on the nearby USS Spiegel Grove. Because the wreck measures 510 feet in length, it can take six dives to circle it in its entirety. After the first dive, it’s understandable why many divers want another chance to explore the gorgeous giant. A double-dip dive is the local dive operators’ answer to packing in as much bottom time as possible by offering back-to-back dives on the wreck in one outing.

And there is a lot to see. Instead of the scheduled sinking that was planned for the Spiegel Grove in 2002, the wreck had other plans and sank several hours earlier on its own, and on its side. Back in 2005, Hurricane Dennis did divers a favor by placing the Spiegel Grove back on its keel.

Today, the helipad has fallen to the wayside, but the remaining architecture still stands strong with dynamic lines and walls of healthy corals. Making the wreck easily accessible for multiple boats, the structure itself has roughly six mooring balls and sits at 134 feet, with the highest point starting between 60 and 65 feet. Prior to sinking, several areas of the ship were opened for penetration, but some of the most breathtaking views are on the ship’s exterior, including a crane area that attracts a wealth of marine life and a coral-covered gun mount. And, as with many dives along Florida’s Shipwreck Trail, an American flag waves loyally in the current.


Post-dive I’m bound for Key West and the next day’s dive on the newest member of the Shipwreck Trail, the USAF Vandenberg, located about 7 miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Listed as the second-largest purpose-sunk wreck in the world, this is the last stop on my journey down U.S. Route 1.

Based on my predive briefing from CeCe Roycraft, co-owner of Dive Key West, it seems the underwater patriotism continues along dive sites throughout the Shipwreck Trail. “We wanted to respect the Vandenberg’s former life as an integral part of American history, so you’ll notice a flag positioned as one of the first things you see on the dive,” Roycraft says.

The 520-foot-long ship rests at 140 feet, with the key points starting at about 40 feet. The current is almost nonexistent, so we head for the crow’s nest, a 20-foot smokestack, bridges covered in thriving corals and a weather-balloon hangar. Dish antennae provide a complex weave of metal and the perfect hiding place for bashful grouper and barracuda. As we make our way to the line, the supersize American flag bids us goodbye.

“On a clear day, the light becomes red, white and blue because the threads are so thin,” says Joe Weatherby, president of Artificial Reefs International. “It creates a mood that gives it an almost theatrical look.”

And it’s with that theatrical look that my journey down the Shipwreck Trail comes to a poetic close.

From the Duane’s fast-paced current to the dignified aura of the Spiegel Grove and the sense of adventure on the Vandenberg, I’ve only touched down on three of the 10 wrecks that make up the Shipwreck Trail. I can only anticipate what each wreck will deliver, but this time I won’t wait 17 years to find out.


Day One When your trip starts in Key Largo, visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a 70-square-mile area of mangroves and reefs teeming with life. A stay at the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort means easy access to local dive boats and the perks of a resort with an expansive pool area, two bars and a private sandy beach.

Day Two On your way to Key West, take in the kitschy style the Keys is known for at Robbie’s of Islamorada, where you can hand-feed tarpon, peruse local art and jewelry, or grab a quick cold one. Ignite your inner treasure hunter with a visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, where you can get up-close looks at Spanish coins and historic artifacts.

Day Three The best place to watch the sunset in Key West is at the Sunset Festival in Mallory Square. Entertainment includes local musicians, food carts and the sizzling sunset. Within walking distance of it all: the Marker Resort. On your way out of Key West, ditch the tourist traps with a lunch at Hogfish Bar and Grill for its famous hogfish sandwich.


When To Go Conditions in Florida are divable year-round, but the summer months offer calmer conditions, warmer water and lobster season from August to March; mini lobster season is near the last Wednesday and Thursday of July.

Dive Conditions Current can vary between sites, with water temps ranging from 69 to 88 degrees. Wetsuits (from 3 mm to 7 mm) are ideal throughout the year; drysuits are preferred for the winter months. Hurricane season is from August to October.

Operators Emocean Sports ( and Ocean Divers ( are located in Key Largo; Dive Key West ( is located in Key West.

Price Tag Two-tank charters from $90.

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Drive And Dive: Wreck Diving and Sand Tiger Sharks in North Carolina

This shark dive began with no chum, no briefing on kneeling on the sand. Ninety feet down on the SS Papoose, as six sand tiger sharks surround me, I realize I need to toss out everything I know about shark behavior — and I’m stoked.

Sand tigers are one of the biggest reasons to drive to Morehead City, located roughly midway south along North Carolina’s coast. The others: the U-352, a German submarine at 115 feet, and 20 or so additional wrecks, cruising grounds for the sharks found here year-round thanks to a couple of factors, notably the colliding Labrador and Gulf Stream currents. These supply a steady stream of nutrients and make it nearly impossible to predict dive conditions. The crew at Olympus Dive Center — the biggest scuba operator in town — is used to starting days with perfect forecasts and fat seas, only to be running from threatening skies and 5-foot waves by lunch time. You’ll see this variability in the water too — you can have 80 feet of visibility at one site and 40 at a site less than a mile away.

Finding the sharks is a similar gamble. There could be 100 or zero on wrecks like the Papoose, USCGC Spar, SS Caribsea and USS Aeolus — the hit list for our wreck shootout, a five-day photography competition organized by Mike Gerken, a shooter and former boat captain for Olympus, which hosts the competition. And the only way to tell where the sharks are is to drop in or radio another dive boat in the area to ask for a shark report.

Today, we’ve started out lucky: sunny skies, fat seas and a handful of sand tigers on the first dive. At depth, I understand why North Carolina is rumored to be a favorite location of National Geographic photographer David Doubilet. The distance — two-hour boat rides are common — limits runoff and the number of day boats; the reward is fish schools in numbers that far outrank other East Coast destinations.

And they’re what I notice first. Like the spinning clouds that surround the Peanuts character Pigpen, mini tornadoes of cigar minnows surround every sand tiger. Each baitfish reflects the sunlight in a different direction, creating the effect of a disco ball rolling toward you.

But what puzzles me about the sand tigers is how they glide — they barely swim. They move nothing like Caribbean reef sharks. Or bulls. Or oceanic whitetips. Other sharks never stop moving, but thanks to a makeup that does not require speed to oxygenate their systems, as many shark species do, sand tigers swim in low gear. They’re slow. Lumbering. And although I’m sticking to shark-diving basics such as keeping my arms at my sides, I’m finding I can swim much closer; these sharks don’t spook easily. Because there was no bait, I don’t have to stay in one spot to be near the action. I’m as close as my fins will carry me.

The interaction allows for extended eye contact. Time to appreciate the uneven rows of curved teeth beckoning toward the back of their gullets. Where the Caribbean reef shark appears more well mannered, with its mouth nearly shut, just the hint of teeth visible, this mess of points — an aw-shucks underbite — seems somehow more menacing. And yet, this species hasn’t been involved in any human fatalities.

On dive two, the boat relocates to the nearby Spar. This 180-foot buoy-tender-cum-artifcial-reef would be a curious enough attraction for any underwater tour, but it’s the big fish we’re after. The way the water flows along the bow attracts the sharks, so all the divers concentrate here at this stretch, a catwalk for 12 that strut up and down this corridor. It’s a bit of a cluster as photographers take turns swimming with a different shark to get a shot, but the overlap is nothing like the limited space found along the horseshoe shape that defines most shark dives.

The following day, we target the Atlas, a 430-foot tanker sunk by torpedo in 1942. The crew moors to the bow, where there sits a boxlike structure described as a rusted-out skyscraper of sorts. The rest of the ship would also be of interest to the metal-inclined, but we stick to this structure — because the sharks do.

As we drop into the intersection of their traffic, I’m reminded of what Gerken had said on the surface.

“It’s not so much that these sharks come close to you as you’re in their territory.”

Their territory extends to the ship’s interior cavities, which I find as I drop down into one. The room is maybe 25 feet by 25 feet, and yet a sand tiger and I manage to swim circles around each other in these tight confines.

Because there are 23 sand tigers at this location, we unanimously decide to stay here for the second dive. After all, when you’re shark diving in the wild, you have to consider hopping between wrecks much like one would with house parties: Never leave for a new party when you’re already at one that’s going off.


Day One

Check in at the Hampton Inn Morehead City, which includes free breakfast, or the more affordable Olympus Dive Center Dive Lodge two blocks from the shop, with space to host 32 in five shared rooms. After you settle in, have an early supper at Channel Marker restaurant on the Atlantic Beach Causeway. Watch boats cruising under the bridge while you tuck into dishes like crabcakes or she-crab soup with sherry; the crab-stufed founder in a creamy mustard sauce is decadent, yet not a gut bomb.

Day Two

The dive day starts at 6 a.m. at Olympus Diving. Make sure you’ve packed breakfast, and a cooler with a sandwich, snacks and drinks for the long day on the water; you’ll also want a hat and sunscreen to take advantage of the ship’s sun deck. The boat typically returns around 3 or 4 p.m. If you can, nap before dinner at Floyd’s 1921. Dine inside for a more upscale selection of eats, such as plank-roasted salmon. Head to the patiofor casual dining, including tapas, and live music on most Sunday and Monday evenings.

Day Three

Spend another day on the water — you’ll be happy that you did. Afterward, as your gear dries, enjoy time on the sand at Atlantic Beach. Fort Macon State Park is 10 minutes by car from Morehead City; learn the interesting role it played in Civil War-era North Carolina and beyond. If you have time for one last meal before starting the return trip, try City Kitchen in the Town Creek Marina for seafood with a twist. Menu highlights include fish and chips with malt vinegar aioli and shrimp ravioli.


When To Go Olympus Dive Center operates charters year-round; summer brings warmer water, and thus a greater demand for diving —boats depart daily. The rest of the year, charters are weekends only. The next North Carolina Wreck and Shark Shootout is June 2-5, 2016 (

Dive Conditions Conditions in North Carolina can vary wildly day to day. Visibility can jump from 30 to 80 feet within days. In the summer, expect water temperatures in the high 70s; come winter, water temps fall to the mid-50s.

Operators Olympus Dive Center ( is located waterfront in Morehead City; its dock is just outside the shop’s door. Nitrox is available for certifed divers.

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Drive and Dive: Cold-Water Diving in British Columbia

Every diver remembers his first time. My baptism in British Columbia waters was 25 years ago, in Discovery Passage. The midwinter plunge at a site called Whiskey Point opened my eyes to just how great cold-water diving could
be. Granted, I nearly froze to death. (You would think with 1,000 dives under my belt I would have known better than to wear a ratty, old hand-me-down wetsuit. Chalk it up to the follies of youth and the poverty of a college student.) I survived, emerging from the emerald seas stuttering excitedly about the remarkable color, the diversity of life and the magic of wolf eels.


Flash forward to February 2015. I smile to think that seminal voyage to British Columbia’s Vancouver Island began much like this one. I’ve just convinced the border agent that, yes, the purpose of our visit to Canada in the middle of a gray winter drizzle is indeed scuba diving, that we’d be taking only pictures, leaving only bubbles. Our little car is stuffed to the gills with dive gear, tanks clinking merrily at each turn in the road. We’re making a beeline for the Tsawwassen ferry, which will whisk us across to Vancouver Island. We’ll arrive at Campbell River in four hours and be underwater in the morning. Tunes are blaring. Life is grand.


Tapping his smartphone, Bill Coltart consults his favorite app and then announces that the time is nigh. “Slack should be in about 10 minutes. Make your final buddy checks and hang tight. We’ll move the boat into position.” Coltart, owner of Pacific Pro Dive, gently nudges his 30-foot, custom-built aluminum Ata’Tude close to the rocks, then stares intently downward, reading the gray-green water. Even with a lifetime of midisland ocean experience, he admits that predicting slack water in Discovery Passage — the interval between tides when water movement is at a minimum — is part science, part experience, and part adapt-on-the-fly.

Thankfully, we nail it at Whiskey Point. Dropping down a series of rocky steps carpeted in bright-yellow sponges and strawberry sea anemones, I’m amazed once again that such tropical hues exist in the cool Pacifc Northwest. At 70 feet, my computer shows 47 degrees, but who cares? (This time, we have drysuits.) Hulking lingcod are lounging about, begging to be photographed. A Puget Sound king crab clambers past like a Technicolor Humvee on a mission.

My plan is to keep moving south in hopes of finding my wolf eels of memory. But we are waylaid by a giant Pacifc octopus. It’s a pipsqueak, no bigger than my fist. This little guy is all attitude, launching off the wall and squirting a cloud of ink to bamboozle us. My wife, Melissa, sees through his anemic smoke screen and follows him down to 80 feet, where he settles on a pink-coralline-algae-covered rock and does his best sea urchin imitation. Unfortunately, a building flood tide 30 minutes later encourages us to ascend.

As soon as we break the surface, I begin babbling about the remarkable color, the diversity of life, and the magic of the octopus.


Vancouver Island’s bulk does a splendid job sheltering Campbell River’s dive sites from open-ocean storms and the punishing Pacifc swell. Currents, however, can scream through these inland waters — up to 16 knots in Seymour Narrows, just north of town. Current is the region’s lifeblood, a conveyor belt bringing nutrient-rich, oxygenated seawater and plentiful food to marine life large and small. It’s no surprise that Seymour Narrows is a superb dive whose sheer walls are plastered in a kaleidoscope of anemones and sea stars.

Along the Quadra Island side of the passage, at Row and Be Damned, we make a leisurely, hourlong ramble in 55 feet, over boulders smothered in billions of red anemones. We discover kelp greenlings zinging back and forth, nudibranchs, weird scaled crabs, and a reclusive tiger rockfsh, all amid ruby splendor. Our submersion coincided with the calm of slack water between modest tidal exchanges — otherwise, we would have sucked through our air in a few moments fighting against Poseidon’s sea wind.

Day two finds us weaving beneath the Argonaut Wharf, a forest of pilings from which ghostly plumose sea anemones sprout, and under which critters creep and scuttle about. Accessible by shore or boat, it’s an excellent place to encounter octopuses in less than 40 feet. Second slack is reserved for Steep Island and its garden of giant feather duster tubeworms starting at 50 feet and cascading past 100. Quillback rockfsh hover near their purple, pompom-like blooms, and divers with eagle eyes will spy outrageously painted candy-stripe shrimp under the tentacles of snakelocks anemones.

One of the few sites accessible while current is running is the HMCS Columbia, a 366-foot destroyer sunk by the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia in 1996. Well prepared, with plenty to see between 60 and 120 feet, it’s a good intro to B.C. wreck diving. For the nocturnal, a night dive in Quathiaski Cove provides an opportunity to poke around the shallows, hunting for micro beasties.


On our final day, we drive over an hour south into Comox to meet up with Coltart again at the municipal marina.

We transfer gear onto Fast Forward, his ex-Coast Guard Zodiac, and greet our dive mates, filmmakers Russell Clark and Trisha Stovel, on assignment for

Under leaden skies, we race along at 20 knots to Norris Rocks, just off Hornby Island. The raucous barking and the smell offer irrefutable proof that we’ve arrived. Hundreds of huge Steller sea lions shamble about on the low-lying rock.

Coltart smiles, asking, “Ready for the full-contact action to commence?” Trisha chimes in: “It’s like running around the woods among a massive wolf pack that uses newcomers as chew toys — in the friendliest way possible!”

We back roll into the green. Silence greets us. As do 50-odd marine mammals, eager to play. At first, the sea lions politely swim around us at arm’s length, tilting their heads like curious puppy dogs and ogling us with dreamy eyes. Minutes later, they’re mobbing us. They cuddle, lean heavily on us, and take “exploratory” bites, mouthing our arms and legs. They nuzzle against my camera, pull at coiled strobe cords and nibble our fins. If you don’t fancy being in the middle of an underwater rugby scrum, consider skipping this dive.

Two hourlong dives pass too quickly, and the boisterous throng seems truly sorry to see us go. We will dearly miss the sea-lion loving.


Day One Feast on the loggers breakfast and morning glory muffins at Ideal Cafe. Dive. Dive again at an off-slack site like the Columbia. Dick’s Fish and Chips is a no-brainer for grub to refuel yourself for the third tank. Dive. Afterward, enjoy the authentic Greek and primo steaks at Acropolis Kuizina. Sleep very soundly.

Day Two Between today’s two slack dives visit the Museum at Campbell River to immerse yourself in the thousands-year-old art, culture and history of the First Nations coastal peoples. Picnic under a seaside totem pole. When you climb out of your suit after your last dive, head to funky Freddie’s Pub to meet other scubakind over wings and brew.

DAY THREE Use this as a wild-card day to customize your getaway. Be harassed by sea lions, do additional dives at premier sites such as April Point Wall and Copper Cliffs, or become one with salmon in the Campbell River. Mountain bike in Snowden Demonstration Forest. Watch grizzly bears and whales with Aboriginal Journeys, or shred the slopes at nearby Mount Washington. Let the season — and your style — decide.


When to Go Diving Discovery Passage is possible year-round. Visit between November and April to add sea lion dives at Mitlenatch Island or Norris Rocks. From August to October, join Pacific Pro Dive for a drift snorkel down the Campbell River to witness mighty Pacific salmon concluding their epic journey to spawn and die.

Dive Conditions Sea temperatures range from 45 to 55 degrees, and visibility 20 to 80 feet. Winter generally delivers the best viz, and summer and fall the best topside weather and warmest water. Drysuits or thick semidry wetsuits are strongly recommended. Dive with experienced locals, use a live boat, plan a submersions for slack water, and be wary of boat traffic, especially during summer.

Operators Pacific Pro Dive (

Price Tag Custom charters are from $99 to $120 (Canadian) for two-tank air dive charters.

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Drive and Dive: Exploring the Wrecks of Tobermory

The Forest City Shipwreck in Tobermory

The Forest City Wreck

The Forest City met its fate after ramming Bear’s Rump Island; the most interesting parts lie between 100 and 150 feet.

Andy Morrison

The thrill of diving the shipwrecks of Tobermory came long before I made a giant stride into the frigid Canadian waters of Lake Huron. It was born of the countless stories told by Great Lakes divers who shared accounts of the magnificent shipwrecks and spectacular scenery. It also came from numerous accounts rating Tobermory among the best the Great Lakes has to offer.

I needed to see for myself. My much-anticipated first dive was on the Arabia, a striking three-masted wooden barque that sank in October 1884 in heavy seas, forcing the crew to abandon ship. Sought out because of its beauty and interest to divers, only the experienced should attempt the Arabia because its depth — about 120 feet — and cold waters can create difficult conditions.

I descended the line to the bow, where my dive buddy and I spent most of our air, despite knowing an intact captain’s wheel — a definite must-see — stood at the stern. The Arabia is an excellent example of how the chilly, fresh water of the Great Lakes preserves maritime history: Rigging hung from the bowsprit that pierced the water, and chains spilled of the windlass onto the deck. Deadeyes stared up at me as I hovered over the railings while taking my time exploring the mostly intact hull. I couldn’t ask for more.

Another of Tobermory’s more-challenging dives is the Forest City. A three-masted wooden schooner later converted into a steamer, the Forest City sank in June 1904 after running full-steam into an island in a dense fog.

The ship now rests almost perpendicular to the island, with the bow at 60 feet, gradually descending to about 150 feet at the stern. Stick to your dive plan on this wreck because the ease of the descent and the sights found among the ship’s broken decking can easily lead you beyond your planned depth. Thanks to 50-plus-foot visibility, I was able to observe the Forest City’s intact stern railing — its signature feature — while staying at my planned maximum depth of 120 feet.

Tobermory is located at the northern tip of the South Bruce Peninsula, a slice of land that juts out into Lake Huron, forming the western border of the Georgian Bay. Peppered with islands, the waters around Tobermory attract all sorts of water enthusiasts.

Divers come because of the abundance and variety of shipwrecks, ranging from novice depths to technical. Sharp underwater inclines, which loom into islands above the water’s surface, meant captains cruising along in deep water might unexpectedly find themselves colliding with a shallow shoal. The result: several downed ships, many of which can be reached on a single tank of air.

Fathom Five National Marine Park protects many of these treasures. Canada’s first national marine park, Fathom Five was designated in 1987 and encompasses 45 square miles consisting of 20 islands and 22 shipwrecks. Parks Canada charges divers a nominal fee before they can enjoy all Tobermory has to offer.


Not everything is inside Fathom Five, however, including one of the area’s best — the City of Cleveland. The boat ride out to the wreck is nearly two hours, but it is worth the trip.

A 255-foot steamer that sank in September 1901 after being forced of-course by devastating waves, the City of Cleveland has been called the most impressive shallow dive in the Great Lakes. While many of Tobermory’s shipwrecks are better suited for the experienced diver, the City of Cleveland is a playground for all experience levels. The only drawback is the long boat ride it takes to reach it, but it’s worth the lengthy round-trip commute.

The steamer’s bow sits at about 10 feet below the water’s surface, with its deepest point at about 30 feet. The shallow dive meant more bottom time to check out the steam engine with its massive boilers, the rudder, and the main attraction — an immense propeller resting upright in sand.

Just when you think you’ve seen all of Tobermory’s amazing offerings, your dive boat will drop anchor at one more. For us, it was the 182-foot Niagara II, also outside the park boundaries. The Niagara II was purpose-sunk in 1999 by the Tobermory Maritime Association to alleviate pressure on the area’s older wrecks. The 182-foot sand- sucker sits at about 100 feet, ripe for exploration. Locals had a bit of fun prepping this wreck for divers, adding items like a piano, which is fairly smashed up now.

We tied in at the bow and descended into the cold, clear water. We spent a lot of time at the pilothouse, where a ship’s wheel can be found, thanks to a replica placed by association members. We then slipped along the portside deck to the stern, penetrating the hull and slipping over rails along the way.

After four days spending as much time on and under the water as possible, it became clear — Tobermory definitely lives up to its reputation. We’ll return soon to dive some other don’t-miss sites: the 175-foot former barge James C. King and the 130-foot former schooner San Jacinto, as well as Dunk’s Point, North Otter Wall and the Caves, which is at the base of a limestone cliff and features two underwater entrances that lead to a picturesque grotto in 20 feet of water.

More Epic Diving in North America

Explore California’s Sonoma Coast

Wreck Diving the Straits of Mackinac

Tour the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail

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