A few miles east of Boston, at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, the highly productive waters of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary draw humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales and dolphins each summer to feed and nurse their young — and millions of tourists who come to see them.
However, more than 80 feet below the surface, numerous shipwrecks lie scattered on the sanctuary’s seafloor, a testament to New England’s notoriously stormy weather and its long history of maritime transportation.
The sanctuary’s recreational scuba-diving sites include shipwrecks and natural habitat areas on Stellwagen Bank, Sanctuary Hill, and Jeffreys Ledge. The F/V Patriot, a steel-hulled western-rig dragger built in 1997, is one of the most popular sites.
History of the S/V Patriot
Originally a shrimp boat, the 62-foot, 44-gross-ton vessel now lies on its starboard side in 100 feet (30 m) of water atop Stellwagen Bank. Patriot fished in Massachusetts Bay until January 3, 2009, when disaster struck. After Patriot hauled in its nets following a tow on Stellwagen Bank, it suddenly capsized. Two crew members were unable to escape the sinking vessel and drowned. Ultimately, a Coast Guard investigation concluded that modifications to the vessel had altered its stability, making it susceptible to being swamped in heavy seas. The sanctuary asks divers to remember that two fishermen died when Patriot sank and refrain from disturbing the shipwreck.
Winter storms in 2012 tumbled the wreck 900 feet across the seafloor, breaking off its mast and outriggers and leaving it partially buried in Stellwagen Bank’s sandy seafloor. The wreck attracts schools of cod and pollock along with Atlantic torpedo rays. Recently, large schools (numbering in the hundreds) of red hake have been hovering in the vicinity. Even more spectacularly, some lucky divers have seen humpback whales underwater while diving Patriot.
While the sanctuary’s exposed waters create challenging dive conditions, including fluctuating weather and potentially strong currents, the reward is usually good visibility and a variety of colorful and interesting marine life. Fifteen percent of the sanctuary, about 126 square miles of seafloor, is less than 130 feet deep at low tide.
Diving the S/V Patriot
In the sand and gravel areas atop Stellwagen Bank, you may encounter sand lance schools and monkfish, while the boulders on Jeffreys Ledge hide Atlantic wolffish. At nearly every location, you will encounter colorful sponges and anemones encrusting rocks or shipwreck structure.
When planning your dive, check the sanctuary’s marine forecast and offshore weather buoy reports here. A careful examination of the Boston Light tide table will reveal tides that have less of a water exchange between low and high tide. With longer slack tides, you’ll experience more enjoyable dives. In any case, arrive at your dive site early to judge the current.
You should also wear appropriate thermal protection. During the summer dive season, surface-water temperatures rise into the 60s F (15 to 18 C). All sanctuary dive sites are below the thermocline, however, where water temperatures hover around 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 C).
Watch for entangling fishing nets and other gear hanging from the wreck. Gill nets pose the greatest threat because they are hard to see and designed to ensnare. Additionally, monofilament line, lobster-pot lines, and derelict trawl nets can catch unaware divers. Fortunately, visibility in the sanctuary usually exceeds 20 feet (6 m).
Because part of the sanctuary is in the shipping lanes for vessels entering and exiting the port of Boston, dive vessels should fly the appropriate dive flags. Also, sanctuary regulations prohibit divers from grappling or tying a line onto a historic shipwreck, as fragile hulls cannot withstand the tension created by anchoring. Since Patriot is a modern shipwreck and not considered historic, dive charters may secure their vessel to the wreck.
Learn more about diving in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary here.