Diving Crystal Coast

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Crystal Coast, USA

North Carolina

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Country: USA  Area: North Carolina 

Water Temp: 14 - 27°C (57 - 81°F)

Visibility: 4 - 30m (13 - 98 ft)

Depth Range: 15 - 42m (49 - 138 ft)

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The three coastal communities in Carteret County, North Carolina form the Crystal Coast.  Beaufort is the seat of the county and was one of the first coastal towns in North Carolina. In addition to being a great American wreck diving location, the region also features ample American history and culture. Recently voted the “Coolest Small Town in America”, the town of Beaufort is quaint, active and completely unique.

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Beaufort has a strong maritime history, that is complete with boat builders, seafarers, fishermen and of course, Pirates. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) called Beaufort home for a short time and his ship the “Queen Anne’s Revenge” rests in 20’ of water just outside the inlet. Today, the town is filled with good small-town lodging and local restaurants. Nearby Morehead City is also worth a visit, given that the waterfront has a nice array of restaurants, bars and nightclubs – with a heavy emphasis on large sport fishing boats. A little further to west and just a bridge across the sound is Atlantic Beach. A popular vacation spot for families, Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle share 20 miles of pristine ocean beaches. All 3 towns have Dive operations that run out of Beaufort Inlet.

The waters off the North Carolina Coast are often called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.  Three Capes and the shoals that extend to sea from each created treacherous navigation for ocean going vessels of days gone by. The combination of the shallow shoals, fall hurricanes and winter storms sent many vessels to the seabed.

The prolific diving off the North Carolina coast was created by yet another hazardous threat at sea: German Submarines. In an attempt to interrupt the shipping of oil and supplies on the east coast, Hilter dispatched a fleet of these war time underwater predators all along the east coast of the United States. A massive torpedo attack in the spring of 1942 sent nearly a dozen ships to the seafloor. Today, they can all be accessed on a day trip from Beaufort Inlet. The wrecks currently provide shelter for hundreds of marine species.  Sandtiger sharks cruise while sea turtles and large stingrays rest on the bottom. Tunas and amberjack chase bait herding them into tight fluid balls. Beautiful schools of spadefish swim above the wreckage and barracuda greet you all along your ascent back to the boat. Visibility can be up to 100’ on the best of days.

The other noteworthy wreck dive in the region is the USCG Cutter “Icarus”, which sank in 1942 when a German U Boat 352 mistakenly fired on it. This historically significant wreck lies on a sand bottom at a depth of 115 feet, roughly 28 miles south of Beaufort Inlet. It is a local flagship dive, and a feature on many divers’ bucket lists.

Marine Conservation

In total, the Crystal Coast covers an 85-mile stretch of Atlantic coast in North Carolina. 56 of these miles are covered by protected beaches. Local businesses lead most of the regional conservation efforts. This includes dive shops that enforce a no-touch policy, and the local aquarium that educates local residents and visiting tourists. There are also a few adventure operators that focus on eco-tours throughout the region. The region has also become of interest to researchers as of late, given the new sightings of lionfish – a foreign specimen to these waters. 

Climate

April... Weather begins to get nice. Water is still in the high 60's. Cold fronts dominate the weather pattern. After a front the wind shifts from northeast to south and we have some nice days before the next one.

May- The fronts are coming with less frequency, with longer stretches of warm nice days. Water temps are in the low 70's

June- Great month. Water temperature has reached the mid 70's. Days are long and the sun is bright.

July- Water temps climb to near 80. The Bermuda High dominates the weather pattern. A steady SW flow blows all month. Some days it is too windy to go out, but most days are just normal rough conditions. Visibility is usually excellent. Diving is great but the boating not so much.

August- The summer doldrums set in. Diving is great and we have many calm, hot days. The biggest weather threats are now tropical storms. By the end of the month we are watching the tropics for approaching hurricanes.

September- Hurricane season is in full force. During the season the weather is great unless there is a hurricane. Great diving, warm (almost hot) water and generally some of the best visibility of the year unless a storm has just passed.

October- Storm season is winding down and the cold fronts are starting. Nice weather follows after the front is well on its way. Tropical lows and hurricanes can still impact the weather. Some of the best diving of the year if you catch it right. Water temps are still in the high 70's.

November- Cold fronts control the weather. Locals love this time of year. The water is still warm and the air can be too on a lot of days.

December- March- To windy and cold to plan a dive trip 

Other Year round Marine life

The coast of North Carolina is known for the big animal experience. Large Sandtiger sharks congregate in numbers on the wrecks year round, with concentrations being late spring through late fall. It is not uncommon to see large Southern Stingrays, and ocean turtles. Porpoises are common on the surface. Manta Rays and Ocean Sunfish are frequent guests. The wrecks are teaming with grouper, amberjacks, snapper and spadefish, big barracuda and tons of baitfish. It is not uncommon to see schools of tuna and mackerel. In the summer when the water is tropical warm you will see spanish Hogfish, queen angels, and a wide variety of other smaller colourful tropical species.

within a day trip on a boat out of Beaufort Inlet. After 70 years on the sea floor, subjected to the harsh salt water environment and the force of powerful hurricanes, the wrecks have broken apart and created the structure that provides shelter for hundreds of marine species.  Sandtiger sharks cruise while sea turtles and large stingrays rest on the bottom. Tunas and amberjack chase bait herding them into tight fluid balls. Beautiful schools of spadefish swim above the wreckage and barracuda greet you all along your ascent back to the boat. Visibility can be up to 100’ on the best of days.

 

In 1942 the German U Boat 352 mistakenly fired on the USCG Cutter “Icarus” and that turned out to be fatal. The Coast Guard cutter dropped dozens of depth charges and the wound submarine was forced to surface where she was met by machine gun fire. Captain Hellmut Rathke made the decision to scuttle the wound sub taking himself and 14 other German sailors with him. The remaining 33 survivors were picked up and spent the rest of the war as prisoners. U-352 lies on a sand bottom in 115’ of water 28 miles south of Beaufort Inlet. Because of the historical significance, the U-352 is the flag ship dive on the Crystal Coast and belongs on every diver’s “bucket list”.

 

Diving on the coast of North Carolina can arguably be called some of the best diving in the world, and it is certainly the best wreck diving in North America.

 
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Boat Diving

U-352 : A German Submarine on patrol off the NC Coast during WWII fired and missed a torpedo at the Coast Guard Cutter Icarus in 1942. She was depth charged then surfaced but was scuttled by the Captain and sank to the ocean floor 115’ below taking 14 German sailors with her. A “must see” because of the historical value alone.

Papoose: Now believed to be the WE Hutton, local dive operators still refer to this wreck as the Papoose. She was sunk by a German Submarine in 1942. She is a 400’ oil tanker that rests upside down in the sand at 120’, she is one of the most interesting wrecks off the North Carolina to dive. There is a large break amidships with high relief on the bow and stern sections. There are many entry points where a penetration into the hull can be made. Marine life is prolific. Sandtiger sharks, southern stingrays, huge grouper and schools of big Amberjack abound. Sometimes the bait schools can be so thick it is hard to see. Late summer and early fall bring the colourful tropical species like queen angelfish and spanish hogfish. 36 miles south of Beaufort Inlet, visibility is consistently 60’-100’.

USS Schurz- Known to locals as the WWI wreck, the Schurz sank after a collision with a merchant ship in 1918. She rests in 110’ of water 32 miles south of Beaufort Inlet. Teeming with sea life the wreck is broken into a long pile of debris, the highest part of relief are the boilers near the stern section. Visibility ranges from 50’-80’.

Aeolus and Spar: Two decommissioned ships sunk intentionally 300 yards apart in 1988 and 2004 respectively on an artificial reef site 25 miles south of Beaufort Inlet. Both are very diver friendly and hold large concentrations of sea life. The main attraction on both sites is the large concentrations of Sandtiger sharks. The Aeolus was a Coast Guard cable layer and is broken into two sections with a debris field in between. The stern section is home to the famous “Shark Lounge”. In the hold that was used to house cables is an area where the sharks congregate, swimming in circles that looks like a shark Merry Go Round. The sides have collapse and you can see through from one side of the room to the other. Brave divers can enter for the fantastic photo opportunities. The lounge is at 90’, while a trip to the sand can be as deep as 115’.

The Spar was a Coast Guard buoy tender. Originally sitting perfectly upright and intact, Hurricane Irene moved and rolled her on her side. She now lists on a 45 degree angle to port, her rail in the sand is 110’. Very easy to navigate at just under 200’ long, the sharks tend to hang out on the down current side of the wreck. Large schools of amberjack and spadefish circle the bridge section which is the highest part of the wreck at 80’. Visibility on both wrecks ranges from 40’-80’.

Atlas and Caribsea: These two wrecks are victims of the German U-Boats in 1942 on the “east side” of the Cape Lookout shoals. At times both host the largest concentrations of sharks in the area. The Atlas was an oil tanker, over 400’ in length and rests in 120’ of water. Highest part of relief is around 90’. It is not uncommon for hundreds of Sandtiger sharks to be cruising at the thermocline on the top of the wreck. Visibility can range from 20’ to 80’, but she always seems a little dark. The Atlas can have a “spooky” feel and some claim it is haunted.

Just a short boat ride away is the Wreck of the Caribsea. In 85’ of water, visibility can reach 100’. An unarmed merchant ship, she also met her demise in 1942. The highest point of relief is at the boilers near the stern section, but fantastic swim through opportunities exist down towards the bow.  Like the Atlas, hordes of Sandtiger sharks can swim just above the wreckage.  She is always teeming with fish, and the sand around the ship is home to big numbers of large flounder.

Hutton and Suloide: 17 miles to the Southwest are two shallower wrecks. The Hutton is now widely believed to be the tanker “Ario” and the wreck formerly known as the Papoose is thought to be the Hutton. She sank after a submarine attack and came to rest in 70’ of water. One year later the Suloide ran over the wreckage and sank just 2 miles to the north. Because of the hazard to future navigation in that area, the Coast Guard depth charged and cable dragged both ships into piles of mangled debris. The result became two wonderful inshore reefs. Amberjack patrol the top of these wrecks while grouper hide in the debris and flounder hide in the sand. Visibility can be as much as 60’ and is easy to navigate both wrecks in those conditions. However, as with all inshore sites, visibility can be as low as 15’ making navigation a bit more challenging. Both wrecks can be home to Sandtiger sharks in the late summer and it is not uncommon to encounter the more “edgy” Sandbar and Bull sharks. Big Rays are often encountered and in the spring you could see an Ocean Sunfish (Mola Mola).

USS Indra: Another great shallow option is the artificial wreck of the military landing craft support ship Indra. At 400’ long, she has ample area to explore in a long dive. The bow and stern sections are still intact, but recent hurricanes have taken their toll and much of the deck plating has collapsed in the mid-section. For those trained in wreck penetration, the Indra offers large volumes of interior space to explore. Sea life can be incredible, with tons of bait being chased by cruising Amberjack, Bonita (in the tuna family) and Spanish Mackerel. Sharks are common visitors. Visibility can range from 20’ to 60’.

Liveaboard Diving

There are no major liveaboard companies operating along the Crystal Coast.

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How to Get there

It is easy to drive to the Crystal Coast from roughly anywhere in the Eastern time zone in the USA.

The nearest international airport is RDU in Raleigh, North Carolina. From there, you can rent a car and make a 3-hour drive to the Crystal Coast. Alternatively, you can fly into Charlotte, NC and take a 40-minute regional flight to New Bern. From New Bern, it is a 45-minute drive to the Crystal Coast. It is also possible to fly into Jacksonville and take an hour’s drive to the Crystal Coast. 

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Where to Eat & Drink

Both Beaufort and Morehead City have wonderful waterfronts with great restaurants, bars and night clubs.

In Beaufort, you cannot go wrong with dinner at Stillwater Café, Spouter Inn, Finz, Clawsons and Dock House. One street off the waterfront is Back Street Pub for lively night life after dinner.

In Morehead, there is the traditional and iconic Sanitary Fish Market (it is a restaurant), Ruddy Duck and Redfish Grill. One block off the waterfront is Tight Lines Brewery and Restaurant and don’t miss Floyd’s 1921 just 3 blocks away on Bridges Street. Get your party on at Jack’s Waterfront Bar after dinner.

Atlantic Beach has several great seafood restaurants in Amos Mosquitos, Channel Marker and McGurdy’s.     

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Other Activities

Deep sea fishing is extremely popular along the Crystal Coast. Morehead City is home to the Big Rock Blue Marlin tournament each June. It is the biggest money tournament on the East Coast, with more than a million dollars in cash prizes.

There is a fantastic aquarium on the beach in Pine Knoll Shores. There is a complete replica of the U-352 and Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge.

The Maritime Museum in Beaufort does an excellent job of chronicling the areas deep maritime history. It also happens to house all the artefacts discovered in Blackbeard’s Queen Anne Revenge. 

Fort Macon State Park. Tour the Fort that overlooks Beaufort Inlet, or enjoy a day on this long stretch of public beach. Great free parking and clean public facilities. This is a favourite location for those interested in learning about the American Civil War.

Catch a ferry on the Beaufort waterfront to Shackleford Banks or Cape Lookout. Wild horses are easily seen grazing on the protected sea shore.

Sunset Cruises and Dolphin watches. Many boats in the area offer these type of trips.

Local Shops. There are hundreds of locally owned art galleries, boutiques and specialty shops that reflect the Crystal Coast’s unique cultural and natural resources.

Local festivals. A number of festivals run year round which celebrate various elements of local culture. In addition to the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, it is also worth trying to catch the North Carolina Seafood Festival – the biggest seafood festival in the state. Check with locals for smaller ongoing events upon arrival. 

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Tips

Summertime is vacation time and the population of this coastal community expands considerably. Plan ahead, make lodging and dining reservations early. Drive carefully, traffic law is strictly enforced. Take a cab if you plan on having a cocktail. 

Visitors would be wise to rent a car when visiting the Crystal Coast. There is limited reliable public transit connecting the various towns. Carolina Trailways makes only sporadic stops in the region. Traveling by private boat or ferry is also popular.

There is a hyperbaric chamber in Morehead City – and numerous others throughout North Carolina more broadly. 

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