Shipwrecks Can Be Lucrative

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — For the past three years, Paul Riccobon has been diving at Kure Beach in North Carolina, drawn by the opportunity to dive in waters where he can explore among a host of historic shipwrecks.

Prehistoric fossils can also be found on the ocean's natural ledges, making the underwater experience more than a "great dive," said Riccobon, who takes underwater photos during his adventures.

"They're beautiful wrecks because of the colors and the life that has attached themselves to it," he said. "It's actually kind of a magnificent site. You come up on this thing and see this big hunk of a ship."

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Riccobon, president of American Decal, a printing company, makes the annual trek from Santa Ana, Calif. because diving in the U.S. is easier and more affordable than traveling abroad.

"It's a very different experience, and the diving is really good off of Kure Beach," he said. "There aren't big crowds and the beach is clean and beautiful."

Divers can explore various shipwrecks such as the Hyde and Markham, which are both fully intact and are a good site for beginners. The 300-mile coast has been dubbed the Graveyard of the Atlantic and is a popular among history buffs.

The fabled Fossil Ledge, also known as Megalodon Ledge, is famous for having a significant number of teeth that belonged to the megalodon, an extinct whale-eating shark that experts believe to be the largest shark that ever lived.

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"You can experience every kind of dive at Kure," Riccobon said. "Finding old shark teeth is very cool. The ships are still in good shape."

Chris Slog, an instructor at Aquatic Safaris, said the probability of finding these prehistoric prizes is not guaranteed, but most divers return to the boat "with at least one tooth." The largest megalodon tooth that was found was about seven inches long. Other souvenirs that divers could take home include whale vertebrae and teeth.

Divers have found china plates, silver flatware and medicine bottles at one shipwreck named the City of Houston. From May to August, the most popular shipwrecks among divers are the Hyde and the nearby Markham. Both ships are fully intact, making them good dive sites for beginners. During those same months, these wrecks are home to a healthy population of sand tiger sharks that divers find to be more amusing than alarming.

 

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"You can dive and see the Markham on its side and its propeller is crusted with coral and all sorts of colors," Riccobon said.

 

Diving among the wrecks gives people a chance to see both the aftermath of disaster and history, including the incredible amount of loss of life and wealth, said Nathan Henry, the assistant state archaeologist and conservator who oversees research on North Carolina's estimated 1,000 shipwrecks and sunken boats.

"It's always a drama," he said. "There is a certain mystique to it and is certainly awe inspiring. I can't imagine being on a tanker in WWII with German U-boats trying to torpedo you."

Henry, who works at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site at Kure Beach, said the wrecks can give everyone a chance to dive from beginners to professionals.

"There are definitely some diving opportunities here," he said. "If somebody wants a challenge, it's a great place to dive. We have wrecks here that will push you to the limit."

The region was the main artery where the blockade runners from Bermuda would bring in irons, cannons and other supplies to Wilmington, N.C.

"It was a really important area," he said. "There were so many ships trying to come in and keep them out. It was an absolute amazing amount of material that came through. It's valuable data for archaeologists."

Henry is one of three archeologists and a technician who work for the underwater archaeology branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology. The underwater archaeology branch was established when the Modern Greece — a Civil War-era blockade runner — was unearthed after a big storm in the spring of 1962.

Although it's based at Kure Beach, the branch works statewide and is responsible for everything found in North Carolina waters.

The branch projects and exhibits range from the prehistoric to the present and the office maintains extensive records on everything from wooden dugout canoes to iron-hulled blockade runners and classic steamboats, keeping track of over 5,000 documented shipwrecks.

The underwater archaeology branch also has a preservation laboratory where a full-time conservator oversees a growing collection of artifacts. Due to the high volume of artifacts awaiting conservation, the lab is limited to conserving artifacts owned by the state of North Carolina. The most comprehensive and pressing project is the excavation of the Queen Anne's Revenge — the legendary flagship that belonged to the notorious pirate Blackbeard before running aground on a Beaufort sandbar 110 miles north of Kure Beach.

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet

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