Almost 40 years ago, boat captain Steve Nagiewicz took his first dive.
It was a scuba trip, a course at a resort in the Bahamas where Nagiewicz and his wife, Barbara, were celebrating their honeymoon in 1977.
It was calm, peaceful. He was hooked.
“I never realized all the cool things that were under the surface,” said Nagiewicz, of Brick, an environmental science and STEM educator at Atlantic City High School who also teaches marine science at Stockton University.
“As I got more and more into it, I realized more that you don’t need an expensive vacation to dive. You can do it in New Jersey,” he said. “New Jersey had a whole different landscape. The water wasn’t as clear, but it had shipwrecks.”
So after that first dive, Nagiewicz began researching shipwrecks. He has now turned what he learned into a book, “Hidden History of Maritime New Jersey.” The 173-page book, published by The History Press and released in April, is densely packed with information, from scuba diving basics to a look through the centuries at New Jersey history, via the ships that found their way to sandy depths.
Photos from New Jersey's maritime history
Some of the 80 photographs featured in Steve Nagiweicz's book, "Hidden History of Maritime New Jersey." Nagiewicz, of Brick, is an educator at Atlantic City High School and Stockton University. To learn more about the book, visit arcadiapublishing.com.
The book, Nagiewicz said, developed from his own personal research, a passion project put on paper.
“I started diving wrecks, and I was fascinated by the conditions they were in,” he said. “I realized that every one of them was a story at some point. And I’d start researching.”
His first wreck dive was to the SS Delaware, a Clyde Line steamship that sank off the coast of Bay Head in Ocean County in 1898. That wreck became one of his favorites, and he’s done more dives there than at any other wreck.
When it comes to men and water, you can learn a lot by looking below the surface.
In the book, Nagiewicz describes the Delaware wreck as popular and easily accessible: “As you swim past the bow, you can still see her winches, her boilers and then the fifteen-foot-tall single-piston steam engine.”
Nagiewicz gleaned some of the anecdotes and history of shipwrecks from boat captains or fellow divers. He then started digging more into the stories behind the ships.
Nagiewicz has gone on more than 4,000 dives, which is more than the 3,000-plus shipwrecks found in waters near New Jersey.
For his book, he concentrated on wrecks that had a large effect on the country’s nautical history. And most of the wrecks had an impact on changes that made ships safer.
“People say nothing happens in New Jersey, nothing exciting. Yet most of the boat safety rules have (come out of) New Jersey,” he said. “It’s because of these shipwrecks that people inspect the boats, that crews are trained in how to use certain equipment.”
The 1846 wreck of the John Minturn off the coast of Mantoloking in Ocean County sparked the development of the United States Life-Saving Service, an agency that would assist shipwrecked crews and passengers. That service would eventually merge with the United States Coast Guard.
Nagiewicz recently led the Stockton Survey Team to map the historic Robert J. Walker shipwreck off the coast of Atlantic City. That project was done in conjunction with the New Jersey Historical Divers Association, Stockton and individuals who’ve worked with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association. The Robert J. Walker has its own chapter in “Hidden History,” describing its Civil War connections and the process of mapping out the wreck using sonar technology and good old-fashioned dives.
TUCKERTON — Steven Nagiewicz talks about the historic shipwreck of the Robert J. Walker off …
As a boat captain, Nagiewicz said he would be asked questions such as, “Where are the best places to dive to catch lobsters?” He would know that the area around the boiler of a specific wreck would be a good place to start.
The book was a project 1 1/2 years in the making. Nagiewicz meant for it to be conversational, he said. It is not meant specifically for divers, boat captains and nautical enthusiasts, but for a broad audience that may be curious about what’s under the surface.
“So many people sit on the beach they look at the sunrise and sunset. For the most part, there’s thousands of shipwrecks there too,” he said. “It’s something they should be aware of, that there’s a history on the beach they may be sitting on, four or five tremendous disasters.
“It’s nice to know there’s a history there. “