The destination is 240 feet under the Atlantic Ocean.
The place is the wreck of oil tanker the E.M. Clark, sunk in 1942 by a German U-boat 25 miles southwest of Ocracoke.
It’s “the cherry on top” among diving professionals, because it’s so large, so deep, but mostly so intact, gushed Joseph Hoyt, a maritime archaeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, while onboard the NOAA SRVx research boat.
“There are other wrecks that are larger,” he said. “But the Clark is so spectacular because it’s so pristine.”
This is NOAA’s fourth summer of its investigative project, “Battle of the Atlantic,” to explore this and several other wrecks of ships sunk during World War II off the North Carolina coast, and this is the most ambitious of the expeditions to date, noted David W. Alberg, superintendent of the USS Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
Hoyt, the principal investigator, and a team of more than 30 archaeologists, divers, technicians, crew, and videographers from various private and governmental organizations, have been on Ocracoke since June 1, using hundreds of pounds of state-of-the-art sonar and video equipment to document several wrecks and locate two others in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The European War Theater came very close to U.S. soil as German U-boats lurked off the North Carolina coast, threatening our shores and firing on Allied ships, Hoyt said Wednesday, Aug. 10, between dives from the research vessel. He specializes in Great Lakes and World War maritime history.
“The German Navy was right off our shores,” he added. “People on Ocracoke would have seen the smoke from this wreck billowing in the sky.”
The Clark was torpedoed March 18, 1942. Although the ship sank quickly, 40 of the 41 members of the crew escaped in two lifeboats.
Other ships that the expedition is documenting were part of the Battle of Convoy KS-520, the largest naval engagement that occurred off the North Carolina coast.
On July 14, 1942, a merchant convoy of 19 ships and five military escorts left Hampton Roads, Virginia, sailing south to Key West, Fla., to deliver cargo to aid the war effort. The next day, off Cape Hatteras, the convoy was attacked by the U-576.
The convoy fought back with an American warship ramming the U-boat while U.S. Navy aircraft dropped depth charges that sank the submarine.
Neither the U-674 nor the Nicaraguan tanker, Bluefields, which was part of the convoy and also sank, have been found, but Hoyt hopes they will with the new 3-D and side scanners.
Photos of the Clark are being taken by divers from two sites. The first is the from the NOAA research boat.
Team members take turns diving off the SRV with huge underwater cameras to document the wreck. They include Hoyt; Tane Casserley, a NOAA maritime archaeologist; Russ Green, deputy superintendent/research coordinator with Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and Doug Kesling, manager of the advanced diving technology program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Since the wreck is so far down and because they can’t rise to the surface immediately upon being down at 240 feet, each pair of divers can spend only about 20 minutes on the wreck. The rest of the time they spend rising to the surface in timed stages so that their bodies decompress.
Another pair of divers—safety divers—wait below the water with extra air tanks for the pair below in case of an emergency.
John McCord, education coordinator with the East Carolina Coastal Studies Institute, is the prime videographer but also is a safety diver, along with Dave Sybert for the NOAA divers.
Locations of the divers are pinpointed with flotation devices bobbing on the surface.
Between dives, McCord checks out the many images taken of the Clark and explains them to a visitor.
He documents everything and assesses the sites biologically and archaeologically for educational purposes later. The expedition members are particularly interested in what the photo-mosaics will show. These are photos taken by an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle moving back and forth over the top of selected wrecks taking a series of photos that will be strung together to form one photo.
In addition, the team is also examining the aquatic life around the wrecks and what hazards may still be inside some of the wrecks.
“NOAA is working on a database on potentially polluting wrecks,” said Lauren Heesemann, research coordinator for the expedition.
The 30-foot Cutting Edge, an island hopper from East Carolina University, drifts about 100 yards away. It is the dive platform for videographers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who are the technical divers using re-breathing apparatus in order to stay at the site longer than the other divers.
Becky and Dave Schott, are filming the wreck in 3-D, along with Evan Kovacs and Richard Stevenson.
The re-breathing apparatus re-circulates the air the divers exhale infusing it with a mixture of helium, nitrogen and oxygen.
“It gives you a clearer head, which you need at those depths,” notes Becky, one of the few women underwater videographers in the world.
She and Dave travel the world doing underwater photography of caves (one of their passions), wrecks, and undersea life.
With the re-breathing technology, they get to be closer to sea creatures than typical divers because there are no exhaling bubbles announcing their presence to the wildlife.
“It’s so quiet,” Becky explained. “Turtles come right up to you.”
And they can talk to each other underwater, too.
“We sound like chipmunk voices because of the helium,” Becky said.
She and Dave enjoy diving the Great Lakes because fresh water preserves wrecks whereas they disintegrate faster in saltwater or get covered with coral.
“You see the human elements of the wreck in freshwater,” she said.
She has even swum with sharks—tiger sharks that are not typically aggressive.
But in September, she and Dave will have their courage tested as they film great white sharks in Guadalupe, Mexico.
“I’ll be in a cage for that,” she said.
The Woods Hole team also has brought a custom-built Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, to record more 3-D video. It is tethered to 500 feet of cable.
Mike Skowronski and Maryann Kovacs work inside the SRV as the ROV gets video of the wreck that the humans can’t.
Hoyt hopes the ROV will find the Bluefields and the U-576.
Later in the day on Wednesday, the group tested the ROV at the Dixie Arrow, a shallower wreck.
Friday, Aug. 12, they will put it into operation when they visit the Empire Gem and the USS Lansing.
Skowronski explained that he had spent the previous several days in a garage in Ocracoke building the device as part of the engineering operation of the institute.
“We take a science need, build the equipment for it, then go operate it,” he explained.
He said he was part of an expedition photographing the Titanic in 2010.
“We wanted to get as much imaging of it as possible before it disappears,” he said. “It was a very moving experience to be out there.”
Woods Hole equipment also recently found the Air France jet that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil a few years ago, he said.
The expedition is an archaeological operation with the aim toward preserving the sites.
“Most of this has been a non-disturbance dive,” McCord said. “These are war graves, and we want to respect that.”
Both the technical and re-breather divers did go inside the wreck of the Clark.
“We went in through the torpedo hole and swam through,” Green explained.
Stevenson was in the water for three hours but on the wreck only for one of those hours, holding lights while Evan Kovacs filmed.
“We concentrated mainly on the bow and filming the inside,” Stevenson said. “We could see sharks in the front.”
While the focus this summer is on the Convoy KS-520, the team is checking out as many wrecks sites as possible, about 10 in all.
Thursday, Aug. 11, the group dove to the USS Monitor, a National Marine Sanctuary site.
Earlier, the team visited the City of Atlanta, the Dixie Arrow, and the Keshna.
Every minute of the activity is being filmed by Wild Life Productions for a documentary for National Geographic’s television channel.
Director Devon Chivvis, co-owner of the video company based in Santa Monica, Calif., said the “Battle of the Atlantic” film will be shown sometime in November, 2012, during National Geographic’s “Expedition Week.”
“The film will be a combination of present-day action and history,” she said. “It will tell the story of the first six weeks of the Battle of the Atlantic.”
Heeseman does not know if the expedition will continue next year. It all depends on funding.
In the meantime, the crew will continue their 12-hour days of videoing as much as they can until Monday, Aug. 15.
“I haven’t seen the beach yet,” said Dave Schott.
For extensive details about this and past expeditions, go online to http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov.