When it comes to men and water, you can learn a lot by looking below the surface.
Take Gene Peterson, an Atlantic County man who seems to get lost under his bushy mustache.
But the Egg Harbor Township dive shop owner is among a group of New Jersey divers who have become legendary for their ability to get to sunken wrecks off the coast that were once thought unreachable. They’ve also built reputations by helping less experienced divers from around the world explore those wrecks.
“There’s great divers all over the world,” said Peterson, but in the world of wreck diving, “New Jersey certainly does have a notch.”
A wreck is probably within a mile or so of where you’re standing on any beach, said Dan Lieb, president of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association. “That’s how many wrecks have occurred in New Jersey waters.”
No one has a precise figure, but it’s estimated that 2,500 to 7,200 wrecks sit off the shore.
At least a thousand diveable wrecks lie off the South Jersey coast, detritus from centuries of war and commerce along an infamously dangerous lee shore.
World-class diving opportunities abound, from the Almirante, a “banana boat” that collided with a massive Navy tanker in dense fog about 10 miles from Atlantic City, to the Carolina, one of six ships torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1918 on what’s now called Black Sunday.
In other states, such as North Carolina, “you’ve got great wrecks,” said Morgan Bodie, a retired FBI agent who lives outside Forth Worth, Texas, but many aren’t within easy striking distance of docks.
Atlantic City and Cape May are convenient gateways to a sprawling, unseen graveyard, said Bodie, who travels to South Jersey three times a year to dive.
And then there are the divers.
“I don’t think people are as hardcore in any other state,” Bodie said. “The New Jersey guys are the ones that are famous for just getting out there. They took it to a new level.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, South Jersey divers used emerging technology to address acute hazards that had prevented recreational divers from accessing deep wrecks.
At the time, the hazard to deep dives was a potentially deadly condition known as nitrogen narcosis, or getting “narced out.”
It’s a loopy state divers fall into as ambient air pressure increases on descent. The narcotic effect, also called “raptures of the deep,” can cause a diver to lose focus in a situation where keen awareness is vital. There’s also the threat of oxygen toxicity, where a diver gets more oxygen than the body can handle.
To deal with those hazards, divers like Peterson altered the gas mixtures in their tanks. They paused at intervals on ascent, refining a method called decompression diving.
“They embraced math and science and showed everybody else ‘we are the studs,’” Bodie said. “It allowed them to get to deeper wrecks.”
Gary Gentile, of Philadelphia, is an expert wreck diver who’s written dozens of books on the subject.
The Jersey Shore, he said, became “a proving ground” for some of the nation’s best wreck divers.
Names like John Moyer, of Vineland, whose exploration of the Andrea Doria, a 700-foot, posh passenger liner that sank in 1956, has earned him a permanent place in the annals of modern wreck diving.
The storied ship now sits about 200 miles east of Asbury Park, about 250 feet below the water’s surface, a barely recognizable underwater memorial to more than 50 people who lost their lives in one of the 20th century’s most notorious maritime accidents.
The ship, which was headed toward New York City when it collided with another vessel, is known as “the Everest of wrecks” because it’s massive and because deep, turbulent waters make it absolutely treacherous to dive.
In 1993, a federal judge appointed Moyer the chief salvager of the site, entitling him to ownership of some of its most important artifacts. That same year, his team, including Gentile and Peterson, recovered a pair of 1,000-pound friezes from the wreck. They were the work of Italian ceramicist Guido Gambone and were part of the ship’s Winter Garden section, which Life magazine described as a “luxurious floating art gallery.”
Things don’t always go so well, though. In a required status report submitted to the court in December, Moyer said members of his team, South Jersey divers Steven Gatto and Thomas Packer, had two Andrea Doria trips scheduled for this past summer.
One scheduled for July had to be canceled due to weather. Another three-day stay at the site was aborted early after the pair found “visibility to be poor and underwater navigation very difficult,” the filing states.
They headed for shore and lived to dive another day. Not all divers there are so lucky. At least four have perished at the Andrea Doria site since 2000, according to the Divers Alert Network, a North Carolina-based nonprofit diving safety association.
The waters there are filed with sharks.
But that is the least of the challenges, Moyer said.
From the diveboat, the divers must traverse a chain that’s anchored to the wreck, negotiating powerful currents that seem bent on keeping them from accessing the site.
“It’s like fighting against a river,” he said. “When there’s a strong current and you’re fighting your way down the anchor, sometimes that’s the toughest part of the dive.”
Just outside the wreck, the water is often clear, affording about 25 feet of visibility. But when silt gets roiled inside the wreck, “it’s like being in a fog,” he said. Sometimes, “it’s more like a blackout.”
“You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face, and sometimes you can’t see if your flashlight is on or not,” said Moyer, adding there’s been times he had to “feel my way out of the wreck.”
Moyer said he’s continuing to research the wreck from dry ground in anticipation of future trips.
“We’re definitely going to be going out there next summer,” he said.
He declined to specify what, exactly, he’s hoping to do at the site. But the court filing makes it pretty clear: “recover the port side bronze letters ‘ANDREA DORIA.’”
Making a mark in wreck diving isn’t something that happens solely in the water. It also happens in the library, combing through archives, or scouring the Internet for details about a ship’s architectural layout. Ultimately, the goal is to put a name to a wreck that for decades was an obscure pile of debris on the ocean floor.
Ship identification is something Peterson, who runs Atlantic Divers, an outfitter and trip-planner in Egg Harbor Township, is known for.
Having identified more than a dozen wrecks off the South Jersey coast, he said the S.S. Miraflores, which sat in anonymity off Cape May for decades, may be the most important.
No one knew where the freighter and its cargo of fruit ended up after it was blasted by a pair of torpedoes from a German U-Boat in 1942, killing 34.
“It took a lot of effort to go out and find,” Peterson said.
Actually, finding it wasn’t the hardest part; identifying it was.
Sidelined with a back injury in 2007, Peterson began researching an anonymous wreck he had dived for years. At the time, he referred to it simply as “The Freighter.”
Dozens of dives failed to turn up artifacts that would have quickly put an end to the mystery — lettering from the ship’s hull or a plaque memorializing the company that built the vessel.
The coup came in 2007, when Peterson emailed an archivist at Glasgow University. A dive more than a decade earlier had unearthed a brass helm manufactured by John Hastie and Sons. The company was long gone, but the university was preserving its records.
Peterson emailed the helm’s serial number to the school. Records showed only three ships used a helm bearing the number. Two of them, Peterson determined, couldn’t possibly be the mystery wreck. The S.S. Miraflores had been found.
Maritime mysteries don’t always end with such a satisfying conclusion. Peterson said that often, he travels far offshore with a mess of gear and a set of coordinates, only to find “there’s nothing there.” “Then every once and a while we get lucky and we find something like the Miraflores.”
Those discoveries aren’t merely about being able to add a few paragraphs to the history books.
Just ask Robert Bing Jr.
Bing, of Houston, was 4 years old when his father, a Merchant Marine, set sail from Lousiana. He never came back.
“It was the first time he went to sea,” Bing said.
Decades passed. Bing knew his father was gone, but he didn’t know why.
“I thought about this every day for many years,” he said. “Every night.”
About two years ago, Bing was doing his own Internet sleuthing.
“I found out several people already knew something about” the Miraflores, he said. “I heard about Gene Peterson on the Internet.”
By April 2013, he was in Peterson’s home.
“He showed me a lot of artifacts that came off the boat,” said Bing. Among them was the brass helm so critical to the identification.
For decades, Bing had fantasized that someone would find the ship and end a mystery that had loomed over him for decades like an albatross. “You never dream it would have happened,” though. “But there you go. It does.”
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