By Elizabeth Harris/Correspondent
As lovely as the ocean waters are with their ever-changing colors, waves, textures and moods, the real intrigue lies in what’s beneath the surface.
More than 3,000 shipwrecks litter the ocean floor off of the Outer Banks coast—everything from pirate-era sloops to 16th-century Spanish galleons, Civil War ironclads, World War II German U-boats and modern fishing vessels.
This collection of underwater relics make up what’s known as the Grave yard of the Atlantic. Some went down in storms, others by war, running afoul on shoals, navigational mishaps and, occasionally, mysterious circumstances.
The shipwrecks provide portals into history and, even better, structures for world-class diving. When the conditions are right, diving the Outer Banks wrecks is a scuba diver’s dream and chance to see these pieces of history transformed into marine habitats.
You can experience a few local wrecks without a scuba certification—in fact, you don’t even need a boat! Equipped with a snorkel, mask and fins on the right day, you can swim, kayak or paddleboard about a hundred yards offshore to find wrecks covered with fish and sea life.
Pam Landrum, owner of Roanoke Island Outfitters and Dive Shop, offers guided snorkeling trips to the beach wrecks in Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills. Her shop also rents the necessary gear and offers advice for those going out on their own.
At the local wrecks, might see spadefish, triggerfish, sheep’s head, sea turtles, sharks, rays, crabs and smaller fish. The Triangle Wrecks, two ships off of 2nd Street in Kill Devil Hills, is one of Landrum’s favorites.
“There’s a lot of sea life, and it changes almost every day. It’s a good dive,” she says.
Swimming the 100-200 yards to the wrecks can be physically demanding. Landrum advises that swimmers be comfortable going that far offshore.
“Sometimes people swim out, then look back to shore and get freaked out about how far off they are,” she says.
The ideal condition for swimming to a wreck, she says, is calm water, no more than 2-footwaves and light east winds for best visibility.
Prolific local diver Marc Corbett says there’s a beach wreck for every skill level, and the best days to explore the mare when there’s an east wind and the Gulf Stream comes in closer to shore, bringing crystal clear water.
His favorite wreck is the Winks Wreck off the beach in Kitty Hawk. “I’m partial to that one because it’s the first wreck I identified,” he says. “It’s the wreck of the British steamer Mountaineer, which wrecked on Christmas Day of 1952.”
Where to find beach wrecks
The British steamer Mountaineer or the “Winks Wreck” is at milepost 2 off Luke Street in Kitty Hawk. It’s about 100 yards offshore in about 15 to 20 feet of water, though the top of the wreck can be as close as 5 feet from the surface. It’s close to the original Winks convenience store (no wice cream shop), hence the name.
These wrecks can be found aroundmilepost 7 in Kill Devil Hills. It’s two ships,the freighter Carl Gerhard and the tankerKyzickes, which was split in two. Park at2nd Street and walk about 80 yards southto get the site. The wrecks are in about 15feet of water 100 to 200 yards offshore.This is a popular dive so just look for thepeople.
The wreck of the steamer Huron, perhaps one of the area’s most famous wrecks, is at milepost 11.5 at the Bladen Street access in Nags Head. It’s about 200 yards offshore in about 20 feet of water. It’s marked with a buoy.
The Oriental, also known as “The Boiler Wreck,” can be seen from the surf right across from the Pea Island Visitors Center. The wreck is about 200 yards out and sits in 15 to 20 feet of water. Be warned that it can be a long swim and might be best visited with a kayak or paddleboard.
The wooden paddlewheel steamer Pocahontas is at the end of Sand Street in Salvo. Its paddlewheel shaft sticks up out of the water, making the site fairly easy to locate. The wreck is in 10 to 15 feet of water about 75 yards out. The best way to get there is to drive on the beach at Ramp 23 and head north.
The above information is from DiveHatteras.com, a wealth of information about diving Outer Banks shipwrecks.
Want a guide?
Dave Sybert of Vicarious Charters offers freediving and spearfishing boat charters to several wrecks off the northern beaches and Hatteras Island. Ideally, he says, the divers have had a class on basic freediving safety and technique, but he can offer basic instruction as part of the charter if needed. Some of the species Sybert can help you target are sheeps head, triggerfish and spadefish, and his charters have also speared cobia, Mahi, African pompano, snappers and grouper.
To charter a beach dive, free dive or spearfishing trip, visit Roanokeislandoutfittersanddivecenter.com or vicariouscharters.com.
. Beach dives are for strong swimmers only.
. Educate yourself about breath holds and how to equalize to prevent shallow-water blackout (Roanoke Island Outfitters and Dive Shop offers a class).
. Always swim with a buddy and always let someone on shore know your plans.
. Be honest about your physical limitations; currents and wind can add challenges to an easy-looking beach swim.
. Only swim to wrecks during ideal conditions— light east winds, waves no more than 2 feet.
. If possible, bring a flotation device like a boogie board, kayak or paddleboard, especially for children.