Sharks and Shipwrecks

The waters off North Carolina’s coast are often called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, thanks to the more than 1,000 wrecks scattered across the seafloor from Currituck Beach in the north to Cape Fear in the south.

The Best of Both Worlds in the Graveyard Of The Atlantic

The waters off North Carolina’s coast are often called the Graveyard of the Atlantic, thanks to the more than 1,000 wrecks scattered across the seafloor from Currituck Beach in the north to Cape Fear in the south. Shifting sandbars, shallow reefs, strong tides and seasonal hurricanes all combine to make the waters around the state’s Outer Banks some of the most treacherous in the world. In particular, the confluence of the Labrador Current with the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream generates rough seas and unpredictable weather, of which vessels of all kinds have fallen foul since before colonial times. Piracy and war have played a significant part in populating the Graveyard, too, with North Carolinian waters becoming the final resting place for more German U-boats than any other American state. Many of the more recent wrecks were sunk intentionally to create new dive sites, cementing the area’s reputation as a world-class wreck-diving destination.

The Graveyard of the Atlantic serves as a record of maritime history, with wrecks dating from each period of North Carolina’s history since record keeping began in 1526. Every one of the hundreds of ships that met their fate along the state’s coastline has a story to tell; some have become the stuff of legend. In 1718, the infamous pirate Blackbeard ran his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, aground off Beaufort while on the run from the British Navy. Although he managed to escape, he was later killed in a confrontation near Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks; these days, artifacts from Blackbeard’s piracy reside in the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Other famous wrecks of the Graveyard include the American Civil War vessel USS Monitor, the first ironclad battleship to be used in combat; and the most recent victim of the area’s volatile weather, a replica of the HMS Bounty that sank during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. During World War II, German U-boats patrolled the North Carolina coastline in an attempt to intercept cargo ships carrying supplies to Europe. Both their targets and many of the U-boats themselves ended up on the seafloor.

Thanks to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, many of these Graveyard of the Atlantic wrecks now provide the framework for an impressive regeneration of marine life. Tropical species coexist alongside temperate ones, and the wrecks are consistently veiled with curtains of shimmering, iridescent baitfish. Large shoals of jacks, barracuda, belligerent-looking grouper and even the invasive lionfish can all be found at the wreck sites, which act as prolific hunting grounds and sources of shelter on an otherwise barren, sandy bottom. The area’s most exciting residents are the sand-tiger sharks, which inhabit some of the wrecks in large numbers. Although other sharks, including hammerheads, threshers and bull sharks sometimes pass through the area, the Graveyard of the Atlantic is now thought to be one of the best locations in the world for sightings of the beautiful and photogenic sand-tiger. With rows of crooked, needle-like teeth, sand-tigers can reach lengths of up to 10 feet and, despite their fearsome appearance, are typically docile creatures. Favored by aquariums all over the world, to see them in the wild is a privilege, particularly as they are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Several sites provide the opportunity to combine the area’s rich history with a chance to spot the sand-tigers. The sharks tend to favor different wrecks from year to year, but a few in particular boast consistently good sightings during peak season (from June to October). One of the most established shark-spotting sites is the wreck of the Papoose, a 412-foot tanker torpedoed by U-124 during WW II in 1942. Lying offshore in 120 feet of water, the Papoose also offers good visibility, thanks to its proximity to the Gulf Stream; the upside-down tanker often enjoys up to 100 feet of viz during the summer. The wreck of the USS Schurz offers similar conditions, and lies in 110 feet of water due to a collision with a tanker in 1918. Other casualties of war that have since become sand-tiger hangouts include the Atlas, torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942 and the Caribsea, sunk in the same year by U-158. The Atlas may suffer from reduced visibility thanks to its location near the Cape Lookout shoals, but has become one of the more reliable shark-spotting sites in recent seasons. The Caribsea is one of the most accessible sand-tiger inhabited wrecks, thanks to its position in just 90 feet of water. The Aeolus and the Spar are both examples of North Carolina’s artificial-reef program, and both are good places to come face-to-face with the area’s sharks. The latter is a 180-foot Coast Guard cutter, while the Aeolus is a 409-foot cable layer that now lies in three parts thanks to hurricanes in 1996.

Other wrecks along the North Carolina coastline may not be known for their sharks — although they always offer the possibility of a sighting — but should be explored for their historical interest alone, including the most famous of all the Graveyard wrecks, the U-352. Sunk in 1942, the German U-boat was a casualty of American retaliation for the barricade of the eastern seaboard. After U-352 unsuccessfully fired at the Coast Guard cutter USS Icarus, the tables were turned on the U-boat, which the Icarus consigned to the bottom of the ocean, where it sits in 110 feet.

Diving on the North Carolina coast is best between June and October, although divers should be aware that hurricane season affects the area from June to November, so check the weather carefully before planning a trip. During these months, visibility can reach up to 330 feet, while sea temperatures hover between 70 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the majority of the Graveyard’s wrecks, and particularly those with sand-tigers, lie at depths of 90 feet or more, divers must hold an advanced qualification or equivalent. Diving off North Carolina is demanding, with long travel times of up to two hours in either direction to and from the wrecks, occasionally rough surface conditions and constantly fluctuating visibility and water temperatures. But the rewards far outweigh the difficulties: the combination of the wrecks’ history with the wonder of the marine life that now inhabits them is a heady one, well worth the journey to experience firsthand.