Close Call as Divers Explore The Nantucket LV 117
The following is a trip report for a series of dives conducted Sept. 7 & 8, (?) on the Nantucket Lightship, off Nantucket, MA.
I don't know whether to file this trip report under "Close Encounters", or "Ignorance is Bliss", but either way, I think it safe to say that at times, truth is, in fact, stranger than fiction. I was a part of a six person team that dove on the Nantucket Lightship over the past weekend. The lightship, LV-117, is located over 40 miles southeast of Nantucket, MA in about 200' of water. She rests on her port side after being sent to the bottom by a collision with the RMS Olympic in May of 1934. Closer to the Nantucket shoals than the Andrea Doria, the shallower waters create incredible currents, and it's only possible to dive the wreck at slack, as it can rip at greater than three knots at its peak. The waters are extremely unpredictable and ever changing out there, and you may only get one slack in an eighteen-hour period. Eric Takakjian positively identified the lightship in 1998.
This was our third trip out to the wreck this year with Eric on his 43' research boat, Quest, and we were blessed with incredibly great weather, particularly for September. The seas were flat (in fact, they actually got oily smooth Saturday night, and the Milky Way was reflected on the mirror-like surface) with a favorable forecast, with warm days and cool nights. The surface waters were bright blue in the low 70's, and the bottom green water was a comfortable 56o, with visibility varying from 20-40', considered near excellent for northern New England. As mentioned, the wreck lies on her port side, with the prevailing current running along the wreck, making it extremely difficult to hook, as the grapple invariably tended to slide off the hull. After three failed attempts to hook it, we eventually elected to use a weighted drop line, and a diver with a scooter went in first to tie in. The wreck is intact, with the aft mast lying alongside the hull, and the forward mast broken off, but lying perpendicular to the wreck. While there is very little monofilament on the wreck due to its rather remote location, there is a significant amount of nylon trawler net snagged in the debris. The netting still has numerous 8" diameter plastic floats throughout, which allow it to float at times 10' off the bottom, increasing the potential for entanglement. The bottom is hard-packed, with lots of shell debris, but there is also a certain amount of silt that gets kicked up, despite the ever-present current. The wreck has shown considerable deterioration even over the four years that we have been documenting her, and we're on a race with the elements before all is buried and lost.
We conducted the first series of dives on Saturday around 1 PM, working on a variety of projects that included filming and photographing the wreck site. We were hoping to squeeze in a second dive during the late afternoon if the current slacked off enough, with a go/no go decision to be made by 5:30 PM, to ensure that we would be out of the water before dusk. The currents subsided enough to make a go call, and I splashed with Eric, with a plan of cutting away as many of the floating balls as possible in an area near the bow, in order to try and clear the netting away to facilitate documenting a particular area of wreckage. The dive went smoothly, and we managed to cut away over a dozen floats, and move a significant amount of netting before we headed to our deco. stops. We were told after that the balls were breaking the surface all over the place before they drifted away. The hang was quite pleasant, though we were both surprised that the other buddy teams had not entered the water. I figured that they decided to take it easy and not fight the moderate current. How wrong I was. This is where it pays to be ignorant, as the real reason they didn't dive was far more chilling. We did our hang on our jon-lines, obliviously happy in the current beneath the boat, where we stared ahead and down into the depths, watching the little jellyfish-type creatures drift by. As we surfaced, the other four anxiously hurried us out of the water, while maintaining a constant lookout around the boat.
They professed how happy they were to see us alive, and proceeded to tell us why no one else felt like diving that day. As we were midway through our hang, the second dive team had just donned their drysuits, when another team member saw something out of the corner of his eye, and looked off the stern of the boat. He quickly yelled for everyone's attention, and there, near the 24"x36" fender at the end of a 100' tag line, they saw huge dorsal fin cutting through the water. They all estimated the fin to be at least 3' high, particularly since it seemed to dwarf the nearby fender. It was on the surface, then submerged, then came back up, but there was not enough time to grab a camera. Then after surfacing a second time next to the granny line float, it dove rapidly, showing the top half of a tail fin with a hooked back that had to measure at least 4' from the forward base to the top tip, as the shark made a sharp, drastic turn right at the boat, and rapidly dove down, heading straight for the divers beneath the stern.
The four guys on the surface thought for sure that the shark was making an attack run on the two decompressing divers, and stood helpless on the deck 30' above. And that was it! For the next 20 minutes or so, bubbles kept coming to the surface, and no more fins were seen. The two of us on decompression never saw a thing, even though the surface visibility was over 50' horizontal and better than that in the vertical. The shark approached us from above and behind (the perfect attack angle on any unsuspecting scuba diver!), but must have decided we weren't even worth swimming by, as he never entered our view. We surfaced to our relieved shipmates, and listened, rather incredulously, to their shark tale.
They all have decades of experience diving and running boats, and each said it was the largest shark they have ever seen. Based on their estimates, the shark was most likely a great white, in the range of 18-20' long. As a related side note as recorded in the local New Bedford, MA newspaper, on Tuesday Sept. 6 two groups of guys fishing off of a 22' and a 25' boat near Noman's Island, about 60 miles west of where we were, saw what turned out to be the aftermath of a "very large predatory animal attack".
According to the story that I read (can't remember the newspaper), there was a huge commotion in the water (one eyewitness called it an explosion at the surface), and shortly after, the guys on the boat saw the remains of a blue shark trying to swim on the surface. It was about 6' from the snout to the dorsal, and behind the dorsal was completely gone - it was severed in half, trying to swim away with it's front half before it sank out of sight. Apparently, an animal of significant size came up, chomped a 12' blue shark in half, and then disappeared. Both boats decided to get the hell out of Dodge, and called it a day, with one of the crewmates quoting from Jaws, "we gotta get a bigger boat". Like I said, fact is stranger than fiction. There are certainly some big animals out there, and this weekend, one of them was just a few feet away from me. Don't know if sending up the floats acted as a beating drum to get its attention, or if it just detected strangers in its domain, but it found us in the "middle of nowhere", then left as quickly as it appeared.
Needless to say, everyone was quite attentive during the evening watch, and throughout Sunday morning as we awaited the next slack, which finally arrived in the early afternoon. We were treated to a rare display of northern lights after sundown, and had plenty of schools of small tuna passing through and a few mola-mola, but thankfully were never visited again by "the taxman". A final series of dives were conducted Sunday afternoon, and several other areas of the wreckage were explored, including the stern area where the wardroom was, though no china was spotted. All dive teams reported seeing an abundance of portholes and deadlights about, but that's to be expected on a lightship- after all, the 135' long ship had over 100 onboard (and all beautifully built to U.S. government spec's)! ~
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© 2009 USCG Lightship Sailors Association International Inc. Larry Ryan, President