As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, some of the scientists and experts there are introducing us to the fascinating research and activities they are involved with. Heather Knowles is the co-founder of Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions, Inc. Heather is a member of the Explorer’s Club, the Boston Sea Rovers, and is currently the vice-chairperson of the Sanctuary Advisory Council for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Heather is also a technical diving instructor, and has had the privilege of exploring some of the world’s notable shipwrecks. – Ed.
How many shipwrecks are there in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary? Nobody knows for sure, but there enough to keep a diver like me coming back time and again. Like much of the Gulf of Maine, Stellwagen Bank is subject to harsh weather and offers little protection from storms. Over time, countless fishing, shipping, and recreational vessels have been put at risk for shipwreck. Some shipwrecks in the sanctuary are quite famous, such as the SS Portland, lost with all hands – almost 200 lives – in a devastating 1898 blizzard. Other shipwrecks are not as well known, but have great historical significance, or are more contemporary, and represent important social, economic, and cultural aspects of New England life – like fishing vessels. Even today such losses continue.
People often ask me what it’s like to dive in the sanctuary. Not surprisingly, many local divers have never been there. Stellwagen is an offshore location, with dynamic conditions, rapidly changing weather, and a remoteness that requires a greater degree of effort to get to. Parts of the sanctuary are subject to very strong currents, and trips must be planned to coincide with tidal slack water. Even with careful planning, the weather may not cooperate—often times a 30-mile fetch of west or south wind means the end of any big plans offshore.
I usually tell people that diving at Stellwagen is unlike diving inshore—in the accessible coastal areas most typically visited by divers. There’s an amazing abundance and diversity of marine life that you don’t see in the coastal waters. For example, sometimes there are so many longhorn sculpin blanketing the bottom that you need to look before putting your hand down to avoid their sharp spines. There are ocean pout, wolffish, sponges and anemones, lobster, cod, and even an occasional school of tuna fish—all of which can be seen on a “typical” dive. The bright sand bottom affords good visibility with lots of ambient light.
Although the marine life is spectacular, we’re often heading to the sanctuary to dive shipwrecks. Shipwrecks are time capsules at the mercy of the ocean environment. Unfortunately, this means they will ultimately be consumed – if not completely, then so much so that the wreck might eventually be unrecognizable. One such wreck that fascinates me is the potential Pentagoet, a steam freighter lost with all hands in the same 1898 storm as the SS Portland. This wreck is almost completely buried in the sand, resting in 170 feet of water. We often get only one opportunity to visit this wreck each year – it’s a long ride out there, and the current is ferocious with a short, unstable slow water period—so, why do we go? The answer is simple – because it’s exciting, interesting, and one day we might observe and document a clue that explains everything about the ship and its demise.
Our dive this year on the potential Pentagoet is a great example of why progress on shipwreck research is often painstakingly slow. We were out on the wreck, almost 30 miles from Salem, the fog was so thick that visibility was at most a few hundred feet, and the current was ripping. Other divers at the wreck were using “scooters” (dive propulsion vehicles) to help get down, but they were still having trouble. Returning divers said the current was just as strong on the bottom.
Based on these reports, I decided to make things easier and leave my camera behind, giving up my only chance this year to get photos of the site. No matter how much I wanted to get great pictures, it was more important that I bring myself back! My dive buddy and I made the dive, and found that conditions had improved by the time we got in the water. The visibility was at least 50 feet and we didn’t even need a dive light at the bottom. We covered a large area on our scooters, making new observations—and having a lot of fun too. I suppose there’s always next year for another chance at taking photos.
In some ways, diving in the sanctuary paradoxical. There is so much to see, yet the opportunity to see it is so limited. I think this is what makes it special. The vast and deep sanctuary is only beginning to be characterized from an archaeological standpoint. In some ways, Stellwagen Bank is a frontier that draws scientists, explorers, and adventurers from all disciplines. Scuba divers are no exception, as the opportunity for discovery and exploration combined with the thrill of the underwater experience is great. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the sanctuary’s designation, it’s important that we do what we can to protect this resource, and not forget that we should take the time to enjoy all that it has to offer as well.