I earned the Master Scuba Diver rating in July 2019.
North Carolina Wreck Diving
Where the cold waters of the Labrador current meet the clear warm Gulf Stream waters, lies a place called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic". For as long as men have sailed the seas, they have found their way to the beautiful Barrier Islands of North Carolina. But their arrival has not always been a pleasant one. For many of these vessels, the hazardous shifting shoals, German U-boats, and just plain old sailor error have determined their fate. Weather in the Graveyard is unpredictable and can change in the span of a few minutes. The shifting sand shoals continuously move about, providing a challenge for even the seasoned mariner. The tragic irony is that many of these ships who dared to take their chance close to the shores of North Carolina now sit on the bottom of the Atlantic, a testament to Man VS Nature. North Carolina is considered the #1 wreck diving site in the United States by many, and our large variety of underwater flora and fauna bathed in warm blue Gulf Stream waters rivals popular Caribbean diving resorts. Visibility on many of these wrecks is usually in the 70 foot range, but days of 100+ feet of visibility is not uncommon.
From the Northern tip of the Albemarle Sound to the Southern tip of Cape Fear, the North Carolina coastline boasts over 2,000 shipwrecks. Some of these are so close you can dive them by just walking out into the water from the shore, while most require you to own a boat or take a charter out. Our wrecks vary from 14th century pirate ships, to World War I and World War II casualties, to modern ships sank as artificial reefs.
North Carolina Weather
During the summer months, our typical weather pattern is similar to the tropics ~ hot and sunny in the morning with scattered showers in the evening. Sometimes, we'll enjoy a ridge of high pressure that drops the humidity and eliminates the chance of rain. Though rare, we may also get a few days in a row of overcast skies and rain. When we get hurricanes, they typically occur in late September, with the threat diminishing in mid October. These are few and far between, and should have little impact on your diving plans. What affects our diving most here in North Carolina is ...the wind.
North Carolina's coast, similar to the entire east coast...or any coast for that matter...has issues with wind. The magic of an island is that, at any given point, there is always a windward side and a leeward side. That means depending on which way the wind is blowing, it's usually calm enough to be diving somewhere. Unfortunately, that's not the case with a coastline. In the summer, the prevailing winds in North Carolina come from the southwest, offshore, so there is no protection offered by land. So when the wind blows hard, the seas get rough in North Carolina.
There is, however, a difference in "wind chop" and "swell". Wind chop is a sea condition categorized by lots of waves, very close together that have, as the boat captains say, "no back on them", meaning they are like miniature ski jumps, where the boat rides smoothly up one side and then comes crashing straight down the other, as opposed to a swell, where the boat gently rides up one side of the wave and gently down the other side. Wind chop can start and stop rather suddenly here off the North Carolina coast and is, as the name implies, completely dependent on how hard the wind is blowing. "Swell" on the other hand, refers to big, wide rollers that have a lot of space in between them. Swell is often caused by offshore storms and doesn't fluctuate as quickly as chop. So a four-foot swell is not an issue, but a four foot chop can be downright uncomfortable. Add the two together? Forget about it.
So How Rough is Rough?
Your perception will vary according to where you're used to diving, but here are some "North Carolina" guidelines: 1-2 foot seas produce calm, lake-like conditions. 2-3 foot seas make for a pretty good day on the water, though it is a tad bumpy. Solid 3 foot seas is doable not miserable, whereas 4 foot seas are probably doable but miserable. 5 foot seas are not fun at all and if you are in 5 foot seas you might be on your way back to the dock instead of on your way to the dive site. Anything 6 foot or over, if you left the dock at all (which is unlikely), there is little chance of getting in the water.
On average, during the summer, 10% of all North Carolina days are "blown out" (not diveable). The most common condition in North Carolina is 2-3 foot seas, which compromise about 50% of our dive days here in North Carolina. The remaining 40% is evenly split between marginally miserable, miserable, and positively perfect. A good rule of thumb is - the actual size of a swell is 2/3 of what you think it is. What you think are 3's are probably 2's. 6's are 4's, 8's are 5's, etc. This caveat is to save you the embarassment of claiming you were diving in 8 foot seas in North Carolina to those of us who know better. Right now somewhere in the Caribbean, there is absolutely some guy saying out loud to those around them, "Pffft. I was too out diving in 8 foot seas in North Carolina!"
What winds produce what seas, you ask? Out of the Southwest, winds exceeding 15 knots (about 17 mph) will create sea conditions in North Carolina that over a few hours, build to the point of being undiveable. If you're reading NOAA's Marine Forecast, and you see words like "light and variable" or "winds 5 to 10 knots", you're in for a wonderful "dead slick calm" day on the water. Another common forecast in North Carolina is "Southwest winds 10 to 15 knots", which is a lot like saying "50% chance of rain" in that you're being provided with information, but in reality, the forecaster doesn't have a clue about what to expect. Anything over 20 knots, go to the cafe, buy yourself breakfast, and sip your coffee all morning. While you're sure to be dissappointed that your dive got "blown out", I can guarantee you that you'll be happier on land than on a dive boat that day.
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