Diving The Heroic in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

This story and video of a wreck dive on Stellwagen Bank was shared by Alex Shure, a regular contributor to the New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest. For more information on shipwrecks on Stellwagen, see this post from Matthew Lawrence.

I recently had the opportunity to dive The Heroic, one of several shipwrecks located in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The Heroic began its life as an Accentor-class coastal minesweeper built during World War II. Now, over 70 years later, its final resting place is marked by a large engine block, decaying wooden ribs, and a trail of ghostly debris scattered about an otherwise sparse sandy bottom 100 feet below the ocean surface.

We set out mid-morning from Beverly Harbor with Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions planning for a dive at slack tide. After a remarkably calm ride out to the wreck site, 2 divers dropped into the water to tie onto a mooring recently installed by NOAA. As the first divers descended, we could still see their tanks and blue gloves 20 feet beneath the boat; this would be a good dive. I donned my gear and readied my camera with great enthusiasm for the wreck below. Steadily lowering myself along the downline deeper into the crisp water, The Heroic’s engine was visible from almost 50 feet away! As I got closer, the shadowy structure beneath gave way to a worn metal block swarmed with cunner and encrusted in hydroids. There’s not much “wreck” beyond the massive engine, but what is there has turned into an artificial reef for the local inhabitants. Shooting photos and video, I managed to burn through my bottom time before I knew it.  I waved goodbye to all of the rebreathers and reluctantly ascended back up the line looking backwards at the disappearing wreck below me.

Stellwagen exploration is the pinnacle of SCUBA in New England. Due to its location and unique underwater topography, many species of marine life call this sanctuary home. Its human visitors have the inherent adventure of offshore diving. Visibility in the sanctuary tends to be spectacular and there is a rich variety of locations, wrecks and wildlife at recreational depths. Divers get all this and can still be home in time for dinner. One can easily compare diving Stellwagen to visiting a national park above water. It is a place that deserves our respect, admiration and perhaps most importantly, our protection.

Image credit: Alex Shure

Meet Our Dive Team

 

With our dive team busy exploring Cashes Ledge and other sites in the Gulf of Maine, we thought we’d introduce you to our star-studded team of ocean adventurers!

 

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Brian Skerry is a renowned underwater photographer praised around the world for his aesthetic sense and evocative scenes. His images tell stories that not only celebrate the mystery and beauty of the sea, but also help bring attention to the threats that endanger our oceans and their inhabitants.

A contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine since 1998, Brian has covered a wide range of stories, from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries. His latest book, a 160-photo monograph entitled Ocean Soul, was published in 2011.

Skerry is also a passionate ocean advocate. After three decades of exploring the world’s oceans, the Massachusetts native has returned to the Gulf of Maine to document and protect its exceptional diversity of marine wildlife and habitat.

 

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Jon Witman is a professor of biology at Brown University. He has studied the ecology of subtidal marine communities for over 30 years, and has conducted research in six of the world’s seven oceans.

Jon led the first ecological study of overfishing in the Gulf of Maine. He has published numerous per-reviewed papers and book chapters on the invertebrate and fish communities that thrive on the rocky seafloor at Cashes Ledge, and he has also studied the internal waves that support primary productivity in the area. He is committed to protecting the ecological and scientific value of this unique marine habitat.

Jon will also be joined on the expedition by his Ph.D. student Robby Lamb.

 

EvanKovacs

Evan Kovacs started his filming career in 2003 on the History Channel’s underwater adventure series Deep Sea Detectives.  He has also had an ongoing filming relationship with the Emmy award winning Lonewolf Documentary Group, and recently the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

With WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab, Evan has filmed on the deep submersible ALVIN and the ROV Jason. Currently he is working with the lab to develop the next generation of 3D and 2D cameras and shooting techniques for topside and underwater imaging. Evan has been diving for over 18 years and has dived on shipwrecks, caves and reefs across the world.

 

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Luis Lamar is a scientific technician with WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab. He has filmed and photographed marine life around the world, from New Zealand to Micronesia. Lu has assisted Brian Skerry on numerous dive expeditions and has captured video of the kelp forests on Cashes Ledge for Conservation Law Foundation.

 

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Ken Houtler is the captain of WHOI’s R/V Tioga, a research boat launched in 2004 and designed for day and overnight trips in coastal waters. Ken has led the vessel on countless research expeditions in New England waters, including trips to deploy and recover autonomous oceanographic instruments, to collect data on harmful algal blooms, and to tag endangered North Atlantic right whales.

 

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Liz Kintzing is the expedition’s dive captain. Liz supervises the academic diving program at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, and she also sits on the board of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. She has been diving with Jon Witman on Cashes Ledge for over 20 years.

Getting Educated – Sea Rovers Style

I’ll be honest with you – I tend to stay on top of the water when I’m in the ocean. Or, I try, anyway. As a surfer the goal is to spend as little time underwater as possible. Especially in the winter. But I’m starting to think I’m missing out on something by avoiding the chilly depths of our Gulf of Maine.

The Boston Sea Rovers, one of the oldest underwater clubs in the nation, hosted its 59th annual show this past weekend, and I was lucky enough to be there with some fellow CLFers. We went to talk about the importance of preserving valuable habitat, like Cashes Ledge, for protecting our fragile ocean ecosystems and helping our dwindling groundfish stocks recover.

We hoped that by showing people Brian Skerry’s beautiful photographs of the gorgeous kelp forest and amazing animals of Cashes Ledge, the divers would be inspired to help us protect it. They were – we got hundreds of signatures on our petition to ask our fisheries managers to protect essential habitat in the Gulf of Maine. And, while we may have gone there to talk, we ended up doing a lot of listening as well. Here are just a few things I learned after spending two days talking with divers:

  • The Gulf of Maine is an excellent place to dive. There are so many wonderful animals to see here.
  • But visibility often stinks. This is partly due to the very productive nature of our waters. As phytoplankton bloom and the food chain gets going, it gets a little harder to see. Or, poor visibility can be due to human activities in the water (see next bullet).
  • The ocean floor looks pretty bad after a bottom trawler comes through. I heard this dozens of times this weekend. “It looks like a freshly plowed field,” said one diver, and you can see the sediment plume from miles away.
  • The next time I want to talk to divers about the amazing beauty of Cashes Ledge, I’d better bring a map so they know how to get there and see for themselves.
  • The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Discovery Channel have partnered to develop a robot that can follow a white shark. Seriously. I saw the footage. More on this later in the month (yes, I am totally geeking out on this).

 

I also learned that, in spite of difficulties equalizing my ears underwater, there may be ways I can still get down below, if I take things very slowly. I’m pretty stoked to find out if that’s true. My 10 year old son, who was with me this weekend, wants to learn also. Even more motivating!

I’m not sure I’ll be as hardy as diver Zachary Whalen, who took this awesome picture under the ice, but maybe I can at least go down below on a warmer day and watch the seals that I usually only see when they pop their heads up next to me while I surf. But if there are waves – I’m bringing my board.

Our Sea Rovers photo contest winner loves a good dive!

Congratulations to Josh Cummings, for submitting the photo Brian Skerry chose as the winner of this month’s contest – this exquisite image of a moon snail navigating the sandy bottom of Folly Cove in Rockport, MA. We asked Josh to tell us more about his passion for diving in New England. Read on to hear about Josh’s New England Ocean Odyssey.

 

My first experiences underwater date back to the early 1980’s while I was on a family vacation. Being only eight years old, I was way too young to dive, but all it took was one snorkeling trip and I was hooked. What I saw was a whole new world; colorful tropical fish in crystal clear warm water swimming amongst vibrant canyon like coral reefs. My little brother and I explored for hours, watching animals such as parrot fish munching on coral, angelfish chasing each other around and moray eels curiously staring us down.

As soon as we got home from that trip, my parents took us down to the local dive shop where I got my first mask and snorkel set; this was the beginning of my love for diving.  After a wait that seemed eternal, my little brother and I signed up for a scuba diving course when he was twelve and I was thirteen:  just old enough. 

We grew up in New Hampshire, close to the Vermont border, where there were no tropical fish or coral reefs to be found, but we were still amazed by what we could find beneath the surface. In those ponds and lakes we were free, able to move around three-dimensionally through the water and swim amongst the trout, bass, and pumpkinseed; still holding out hope that one of Captain Kidd’s ships ended up in a New Hampshire pond.

I continued snorkeling and diving in the nearby ponds and lakes until college, when diving really became an obsession. I took a job at the local dive shop, Underwater Sports of NH, learning everything I could about the sport, and went diving as much as I could.  I dreamt of diving in far-off exotic lands, but being a broke college student kept me in New England. There were still many adventures to be had – off beaches, on shipwrecks, under the ice, in caves and even quarries. 

 

Herring and beer bottle

Back then, I began to notice the destructive influence people have had on our marine environment. I saw the destruction caused by draggers, the deaths caused by carelessly discarded or lost fishing gear, centuries-old and modern trash, as well as the devastating effects of invasive species, such as zebra mussels. 

I noticed that when I recounted my stories to non-divers they were surprised by two things: 1) That there is anything to see in New England waters; and 2) That activities, like carelessly conducted fishing and boating or forgetting that plastic cup on the beach, had long-term consequences. 

I did what I thought I could to help the situation. I participated in underwater clean ups and reminded customers to properly clean their equipment and boats when traveling between water bodies. These were little things that helped, but I knew they were only temporary and small solutions – a Band-Aid. The real solution lies in changing people’s attitudes and behaviors. 

I left the dive shop after I graduated and started my career in the environmental field, but I kept on diving. As soon as I could, I bought a high quality underwater camera system so I could finally share with family and friends what I saw in those murky ponds and chilly surf. As I practiced and slowly got better, I saw how many people were amazed by the colors, beauty, and sheer volume of life in our New England waters. 

I soon realized that the best way to convey the natural beauty of the life in our waters, as well as the damage being done, was through photographs. I wanted to show the destruction, while also showing what is there to protect. 

While I have yet to publish any of my photographs commercially, I am proud to have provided many of my photographs to organizations and agencies aimed at protecting our environment such as CLF’s New England Ocean Odyssey, the U.S. EPA and the USACE.  Over the past year I have been able to document some incredible marine life behaviors: Atlantic squid mating and laying their eggs, and herring migrating through a rushing herring run. Small wonders happening right here in our backyards. 

People often ask, “Where is your favorite place to dive?” It’s a hard question to answer. In my 25years underwater, I have been fortunate enough to dive all over the world (Caribbean, Mexico, California, Thailand, and Palau) with each providing an incredibly different and new experience, but I will always love the excitement and adventure that our New England waters offer. This is my personal New England Ocean Odyssey.

Josh

Josh Cummings is an Environmental Scientist for Jacobs Engineering at the New Bedford Harbor Superfund Site. He has a degree in Industrial Chemistry and has been a certified diver since 1987 with certifications through PADI, TDI and IANTD. 

Brian Skerry’s Ocean Soul Video is Third Most Viewed on National Geographic Talks!

Congratulations to Brian on his wildly successful National Geographic video about his beautiful and moving photography book Ocean Soul. A book like no other, Brian’s Ocean Soul “showcases his stunning photography and describes his adventurous life in a gripping portrait of the ocean as a place of beauty and mystery, a place in trouble, and ultimately, a place of hope that will rebound with the proper attention and care.”

CLF is proud to feature Brian’s work to help bring the mysteries of New England’s ocean to light in the New England Ocean Odyssey. If you love Brian’s photography and his passion for protecting the health of our oceans, you know what a treasure Ocean Soul is. We like it so much, we are giving it away to the winners of our monthly New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest. There’s still time to enter December’s contest!

 

 

Cunner – Color in the Kelp Forest

Who is this brilliant orange fish lighting up Cashes Ledge? It’s a charming little cunner. Are they always this colorful? Well, as Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder said so well in their classic work Fishes of the Gulf of Maine: “To describe the color of the cunner is to list all the colors of the bottoms on which it lives, for it is one of the most variable of fishes.” Maybe that’s the case, but the Cashes Ledge cunner are especially fetching, we think.

Brian Skerry was struck by the vivid colors of these cunner when he visited Cashes Ledge recently. He said they were “quite stunning, like the garibaldi in California.” Ranging from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Chesapeake Bay, cunner are common inshore fish in the Gulf of Maine, but Cashes Ledge provides ample offshore habitat and some of this fish’s favorite foods: including shrimp, lobsters, mussels, and sea urchins.

Diminutive in stature, cunner don’t get very big – up to a foot or so, and weighing less than 3 pounds –  but what they lack in dimension they make up for in dazzle.

Dive Log: Cashes Ledge

Here they are! Some of Brian’s first ever pictures of Cashes Ledge. Every picture tells a story – but we are lucky enough to have some real stories to tell about these awesome pictures. We caught up with Brian shortly after he visited Cashes Ledge and asked him about the dive. Brian filled us in on some of the exciting details of this bona fide ocean odyssey:

Robin: You’ve never dived Cashes Ledge before, what were your first impressions?

Brian: As always when I am diving in a new place for the first time, all I see is chaos when I first get on the bottom, but over time I begin to zero in on specific behaviors to start making order and begin to put the puzzle together.

The kelp is beautiful, the stalks are 6-8 feet high, then they have fronds that lay horizontally for probably 10-15 more feet. They create this sea of kelp, literally a bed of kelp that you see when you first come down from the surface that looks like the bottom but isn’t. The descent line we sent down just disappeared through it. You’d follow it down to the kelp bed then you’d have to go another 6 or 8 feet to get to the bottom. It’s a false bottom of kelp fronds. It’s a lovely golden amber color, and there’s another species of kelp that’s sort of reddish, growing on the amber ones. It all looked good and lush and thick – very colorful and healthy looking.

There were lots of fish circling around. We saw quite a few red cod. There are a lot of pollock and quite a number of cod mixed in, and some of the cod are more traditionally colored, but some have the distinctive red/orange iridescent coloration.

Robin: What other kinds of wildlife did you see?

Brian: Besides pollock and cod, there were a lot of juvenile fish. We found out later they were cunner. They are bright orange when they are small, quite stunning, like the garibaldi in California. We saw quite a few whales on the surface, minke whales porpoising and coming up for air, but not close enough to photograph. There were invertebrates on the bottom, on ledges below the kelp. It’s definitely worth a lot more exploration. This is clearly a unique habitat.

Robin: Was this dive different from your expectations?

Brian: I’d heard about the Cashes Ledge kelp forest for years. People always say it’s not like California, so I expected an area that was covered in kelp on the bottom, but the brown kind that I usually see inshore, just a lot more of it – low-lying, a foot off the bottom. I didn’t expect anything like this. Stalks of kelp that were 8 feet high and long strands at the top that made this golden bed. It was very unique. The fish stayed localized, always in the area. They weren’t passing schools; they sort of hung out there. The kelp forest is probably a square mile or so – it’s a big area. But the fish were always there – in the background, silhouetted. It was very different from what I expected.

Robin: Did you see evidence of human activity in the area?

Brian: There was a tremendous amount of fishing gear out there. We tried to dive away from gear. But everybody on the trip remarked that there were a lot of fishing buoys on the surface. I think they were lobster traps, but I’m not sure. They were everywhere. This was surprising. Nobody expected this.
A friend of mine remembers diving Cashes in the 80s, and said the fish used to be so thick that you couldn’t see your dive buddies. It’s not like that today, so the biomass must be down. But there was a good population of fish. I think a place like this with proper protection could come back to those levels that my friend observed 20-30 years ago.

Robin: Were there any unexpected difficulties?

Brian: No, but the currents got quite strong on Sunday and we had trouble getting to the dive-line buoy. Wearing a dry suit and 120 pounds of equipment you have to swim really hard against the current. We couldn’t get to the buoy, so the boat picked us up and we tried again and made it.

Robin: What was the water temperature?

Brian: Pretty warm for New England, probably 50 degrees.

Robin: Did the weather cause any problems?

Brian: No, the weather was really good. It progressively improved. Early Saturday it was fine, small waves, a little bumpy, but it got better and by Sunday was really calm. If the waves are big it’s hard to get back in the boat after the dive.

Robin: Was visibility low from the recent northeaster?

Brian: I don’t know why visibility was low. It was very typical of New England conditions. Turbid, but not terrible. Visibility was 20-25 feet, but hazy, not crystal clear. I tried to work close in and make some pictures that would still come out well.

Robin: Will you do anything differently next time you go to Cashes?

Brian: Not necessarily. I would like to have more time. To produce pictures in these conditions takes a lot of repeatability and serendipity. My M.O. is to dive a place over and over and keep working it, if I can. I could spend hours and hours working those fish. I’m very intrigued by the red cod. They are highly unique and beautiful with the golden kelp backdrop and green water. I would just like to do more of it.

Are you intrigued by the red cod, too? We will give you a look at those fascinating fish soon. In the meantime, enjoy some of these other sublime pictures Brian made in this vibrant special place in the Gulf of Maine!

Cashes Ledge Dive Marks First for Brian Skerry as the New England Ocean Odyssey Gets Underway

“I didn’t expect anything like this. Stalks of kelp that were 8 feet high and long strands at the top that made this golden bed… This is clearly a unique habitat.”

Success! After two prior attempts foiled by bad weather and rough seas, last weekend Brian Skerry at last reached Cashes Ledge and was able to explore this extraordinary, ecologically important seascape – a first for the peripatetic Skerry. For two days Brian and his crew swam in Cashes’ unearthly kelp forests, among its waving amber fronds and remarkable red cod, making pictures that will reveal the mysteries and beauty of this unique New England treasure so far unknown to most.

About 80 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Cashes Ledge is a submerged mountain range that nearly pierces the surface of the ocean and is home to the deepest kelp forest in the North Atlantic. Fields of anemones and brightly-colored sponges produce a fascinating marine landscape surrounding Ammen Rock, the highest peak of Cashes Ledge and New England’s underwater equivalent of Mount Washington.

Cashes Ledge is important not only to marine organisms but also to people hoping to learn about the history of New England’s oceans – many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

We will be sharing some of the extraordinary pictures Brian made – and the stories that go with them – next week. Stay tuned!