Four centuries of transatlantic travel have left a treasure trove of secrets off the coast of Long Island. A handful of adventurous explorers are determined to unearth them.
It felt almost like trespassing. Captain Dan Berg motored his forty-foot Young Brothers fishing boat down the narrow canal, which runs like an alley between houses. His passengers squinted against the early morning sun. They gasped at the mangled docks lining the waterway, bruises from Hurricane Sandy. Facing shore, they could see that half of Paddy McGee’s Fishhouse on Waterview Road in Island Park had collapsed.
The morning was cold. The group moved into the boat’s small wheelhouse and secured the door with a bungee cord. Inside, their noise was less offensive to the thick silence on the water. At six a.m. it was the sort of silence that no one wanted to bump, that noticed every zipper and drag of an ice chest. Only the sound of the motor, tattering rhythmically like a diesel truck in idle, was permitted to stretch out.
The boat chugged under Long Island Boulevard and anticipation onboard grew. After all, the docks were not the sort of rubble this group of scuba divers had come to see. Theirs lay beneath the surface.
Moving through the Reynolds Channel and under the Atlantic Beach Bridge, Captain Berg followed the shoreline around Beach 8th Street, a thin stretch of yellow sand in front of Far Rockaway high-rises. On weekends in the summer it is common to see local divers wading in off of “Beach 8th,” as they call it, testing the cold New York waters.
Berg curved past the tip of Long Beach and kicked the motor into high gear. The bow lifted slightly and the Atlantic Ocean sloshed aboard. He headed southeast along the Rockaways towards the first shipwreck on the day’s itinerary: the Black Warrior, which sank in 1859.
Few New Yorkers are aware of the underwater cemetery known as Wreck Valley. But for local scuba divers, hundreds of skeleton ships lining the seafloor off Lower Manhattan are a treasure trove for exploration and pillage. The location of the boat graveyard is logical. For four centuries, ships have crisscrossed in and out of the city’s ports. They often collide in the narrow passageways between Staten Island and Brooklyn and further south between the Sandy Hook peninsula and the Rockaways. While their pastime raises legal and ethical questions about maritime law and conservation, divers in the area are, in many ways, managing the ocean floor on their own terms and claiming whatever they find that has been lost at sea.
“I don’t have any artifacts, per se,” said Steve Burton, sixty-three, a soft-spoken, white-haired man who works as a grounds foreman at the New York Institute of Technology and laughs when he is unsure of what to say. Burton organized the trip and hoped this might be the day he finally found something special in the sand.
The first scuba dive of the spring season is always full of surprise. Winter winds can bury or uncover new portions of the seafloor. After a super stormy winter like the one just past, this inaugural trip was especially exciting. The state of the seafloor—and the wrecks that lay there—was a total mystery. There could be new parts of wrecks exposed and new trinkets to find.
Burton dove for the first time on his honeymoon almost forty years ago. His wife bought him his own tank and breathing regulator the next Christmas. He took a hiatus from the sport when his children were young, but once they were grown he picked it up again. He joined the Long Island Divers Association and is now no longer a “tidy bow diver” who only dives in warm, calm waters. Instead, he dives off Long Island, New York and New Jersey whenever he can.
At 3:45 a.m. that morning, Burton had loaded his scuba gear into his white Dodge Dakota (a sticker on the back window with a silhouette of a diver reads “Get Wet”) and drove half an hour from his home in Suffolk County to Captain Berg’s house in Baldwin, Long Island, to meet the boat and his friends. In the wheelhouse, he set out a box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts and a bag of pretzels he brought to share.
An hour after leaving the dock, they arrived at the coordinates of the first wreck. Berg slowed the boat’s engines and switched the radar unit above his helm to its mapping mode. He moved forward as slowly and straightly as he could and the group huddled behind him. Sending out sonar signals below the surface, the machine began to reveal a picture of the seafloor. Pixel by pixel, there she was: the Black Warrior. In her day, she had been a 225-foot, steam-powered liner that carried mail from New York to New Orleans. After running ashore more than 150 years ago, she was now just a frame, like a whale’s ribcage lying long on the ocean floor.
“The silverware on this wreck is spectacular,” Berg told the group as the boat idled.
“That’s what you really want to find,” he continued. He described how the ship’s insignia, found on the handles of forks and knives, had helped divers confirm the identity of the wreck.
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The oldest recorded shipwreck in New York took place over three hundred years ago. Dutch Captain Adrian Block—Block Island, his namesake—came to Manhattan to reinforce the commercial line between Holland and Henry Hudson’s New World jackpot. But in the early winter of 1614, Block’s boat, the Tigre, caught fire and sank in what is now New York Harbor. Its boards broke ground in a new ship graveyard that would become the final resting place for hundreds of vessels.
By the 1620s, the Dutch had established New York as a hub of maritime trade and ports here continued to grow alongside the young colonies after the British took over. Following the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of America’s own, homegrown manufacturing industry, the city emerged as the dominant commercial center of the eastern seaboard. In the 1820s, the Eerie Canal opened up the farmlands of the Midwest to the world via New York’s harbor, and the Black Ball Line famously began ferrying people and cargo between New York and England on a regular schedule.
Floating traffic continued to expand on all fronts: domestic and international trading, military warships, and personal commuting. In 1826, according to maritime historians Paul Morris and William Quinn, there were sixteen steamboats plying regular coastal routes. By 1840, there were over one hundred. Unlike riverboats, ships coming in and out of New York had to be ready for the tumult and unpredictability of the open sea.
For scuba divers, the most famous and challenging shipwrecks sit elsewhere. The Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that sank in 1951 and is referred to as the “Mt. Everest” of wreck diving because of her depth and the difficulty of reaching her, rests off of Nantucket Island. The Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish ship carrying copper, coins, and jewels, sank near Key West in 1622. But the number and density of shipwrecks in New York and New Jersey’s Wreck Valley make it unique.
The tight curves around the islands are like harbingers of doom: Kill Van Kull, north of Staten Island; Hell’s Gate, off of Queens; and “the Devil’s belt,” a nickname for Long Island Sound. The result of almost 300 years of rush-hour traffic in treacherous waters has been hundreds, if not thousands, of shipwrecks.
“Many have never been found. Others are buried under the sand,” answered Berg when asked about the precise number of shipwrecks in Wreck Valley. “When you consider the size of the area, it’s almost impossible for any one captain to know where everything is.”
There’s the Lizzie D, nicknamed “The Rum Runner,” a tugboat that sank in 1920, where divers found crates of Kentucky Bourbon and Canadian Rye. The Larchmont, a steam liner, sank in 1907 and over 100 people onboard died. The USS San Diego, a popular wreck for local divers, was an armored Navy cruiser that escorted ships to Europe during World War I, until she was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1918. During World War II, German submarines again trolled the waters near New York City and shot down both commercial and military vessels, adding significantly to the number of wrecks in the area.
Resting in shallow water about thirty-five feet below the surface, and only half a mile off of Breezy Point, little remains of the Black Warrior. And so, during the regular season, Berg and his team do not typically bring many clients to the site. But, like any good caretaker, Berg checks on each wreck at least once every year to see how they are holding up.
A patriarch of the Long Island diving community, Berg has been leading dive trips for over thirty years. He has written three books on the history of shipwrecks and mapped the sites of hundreds of submerged ships. Under a black rain jacket, his grey sweatshirt showed a cartoon image of his boat—also named Wreck Valley—floating above a collage of tall ships and steamboats.
As the group suited up, Berg explained what they should look for on the bottom. They could expect to find the ship’s boiler, the tallest structure and easiest to recognize; a mast that points towards shore; and, behind the mast, the hub of the ship’s old paddlewheel. “Those are the three distinguishable landmarks,” he said. “And then,” he paused theatrically, “who knows what’s been uncovered?”
Burton put on a fleece shirt, pants, booties, and a thermal jumpsuit. Then he stepped into the final shell, a drysuit, designed to keep out the chilly waters. Two of his friends had different, lighter gear.
“Are you going in wet?” Burton asked his dive mate, Todd Brush, forty-six, a lanky, heavy equipment machinist from Kings Park on Long Island.
“Oh yeah, man. I’m at nine millimeters today,” replied Brush. Even with two wetsuits, one seven millimeters thick and another two, going in wet, without a drysuit, was bold.
“We’re going to freeze,” said Norman Rial, as he replaced his faded 49ers hat with his hoodie, a cap made of wetsuit material to cover his ears and head. He was also diving without the standard drysuit. “We’re going to absolutely freeze,” he said.
His dive buddies call Rial, forty-one, “The Hulk.” A fitness trainer by trade, his neck and shoulders are big enough to give him the look of a professional football player. The idea of recording history drew him to wreck diving. He raved about a presentation he saw in March on a German U-boat, U-550, found last summer by divers off the coast of Massachusetts. The divers who found the submarine compiled oral histories from World War II veterans and their families about the boat and nautical warfare in the Atlantic.
“That is the cutting edge of wreck diving,” said Rial of the project. “It’s the divers that interviewed those men and are preserving history that otherwise might not have been preserved.”
In a relatively lawless, underwater world, what gets preserved—and how—is often left up to the divers to decide. In the greater New York and New Jersey area, recovering artifacts is a favorite pastime for wreck divers and the chance to find something, some relic, was part of the appeal for this early season dive. If Hurricane Sandy had exposed new parts of the wrecks, there could be new treasures to find.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when scuba took off globally, new divers scoured old ships in Wreck Valley and brought home countless historical relics. Berg’s basement is now a personal museum. Shelves and cases of ancient trinkets are arranged with placards indicating the wrecks from which they were pulled: a spoon, a china bowl, a leather shoe with a loose sole. Familiar items from distant decades are now stacked together in one place.
While today’s divers are still looking for new artifacts, many wrecks in the region have been picked through by decades of divers. In 1994, Berg lead a major salvage operation. He and a team of divers lifted the Black Warrior’s ten-foot, two-thousand-pound anchor from the ocean floor. It now stands like art in his driveway.
Divers say it is not only about the keepsakes; it’s the stories behind the items they find fascinating. Rob Wianecki, a real estate attorney from Morristown, New Jersey, has been a member of Berg’s crew for fifteen years. On his iPhone, he flipped through pictures of the treasures he’s collected between images of his daughters.
Wianecki stopped at one of a gravy spoon recovered from a luxury cruise liner, the Oregon, that sank in 1886. “Some woman held that spoon,” he said. “This is how families came over here.”
Not all divers take souvenirs. Those who do say they are careful to leave behind human remains and avoid ammunition. Others believe divers should think twice about taking any relics at all. As a lawyer, David Concannon specializes in historical preservation and excavation cases. He spent his summers as a young adult diving off the New Jersey coast in Ocean City. He considers himself a veteran of the local diving community. After growing tired of the bad visibility and broken china pieces, Concannon moved on to deeper and more exotic locations. He has been to the Titanic multiple times. As he dove to other wrecks around the world, Concannon began to reevaluate the unabashed “finders keepers” culture he had known as a diver in New Jersey.
“It was all very normal to me, until one day, it was very strange,” he said over the phone. “You know those tribes in the Amazon that have never seen someone outside of their own forest and don’t know what’s going on? That’s New York and New Jersey wreck divers. The community is almost a throwback,” he continued. According to Concannon, divers elsewhere do not behave like pirates with, as he put it, the rules of a two-year-old: If I’m holding it, it’s mine.
“If you dropped your watch down a storm drain, it is not no longer your property just because you lost it,” he explained, arguing that basic property laws apply to wrecks, too.
It is a common belief among divers that the majority of wrecked ships have been formally abandoned by their owners and, as such, are fair game. In fact, this is rarely the case, legally speaking. In the event of a wreck, most ship owners file an insurance claim, and, after being paid, transfer ownership of the wreck to the insurer.
In 1987, the U.S. government passed the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which expanded and formalized its own claim to wrecks. The law gives the federal government title to any wrecks that are embedded (stuck in the mud) in state waters (commonly understood to be at least three miles off the coast). The law has yet to be fully litigated and some argue against its constitutionality. Still, several legal scholars cite it as an example in the growing legal movement for tighter U.S. government control over wrecks.
In 2004, the federal government passed the Sunken Military Craft Act, stating that it would never relinquish its rights to wrecked military crafts and that disturbing any military ships would be illegal. The law also gave the federal government the right to enforce these rules on behalf of any other country with military ships in U.S. waters. The law was passed just a year after the release of the New York Times bestseller “Shadow Divers,” which chronicled the discovery of a German U-Boat, U-869, off the coast of New Jersey by local divers.
Dan Lieb, director and curator of the New Jersey Shipwreck Museum, argued that preservation in-situ, the practice of leaving historical places untouched for conservation, is not realistic when it comes to the shipwrecks here, because of how heavily trafficked the waterways are today.
Lieb said that items sunken would be lost forever if divers like him did not bring them up. And besides, he doubts anyone would want the stuff anyway. “It’s mostly just a bunch of old junk,” Lieb said over the phone. “What about a car wreck and a pile of bent fenders? Is that an artifact or just a piece of junk? Is it really important? Is it historically significant? I think not.”
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Berg’s crew helped the divers get on their gloves and position the straps of their masks. It took almost half an hour for each one to get ready. Slowly, they ballooned with each layer and piece of equipment clipped to their sides. Every diver went through a mental checklist, touching and confirming the location of their tools: knives, lights, weights, and wreck reels. With the possibility of poor visibility at the bottom, each diver needed a reel of line to tie near the boat’s anchor, which they could unravel as they swam, as if leaving behind a trail of breadcrumbs.
Ready to go, Burton waited on deck as a member of Berg’s crew dove to secure the boat’s anchor line to the wreck below. Burton commented, jokingly, that it was taking him a long time. Maybe he was collecting all of the good stuff on the bottom for himself.
A few minutes later, an empty water bottle hit the surface, signaling that “the pool was open,” and the divers were free to go in. Brush waddled to the transom, put his regulator in his mouth, took it out again to thank the crew for their help, put it in again, and splashed into the bright water.
He swam headfirst into a dark green void. His hands moved quickly down the anchor line and he kicked his fins without hesitation, though he could only see for a few feet. Like a spaceship coming out at light speed, Brush only saw the wreck when it was right in front of him. According to the underwater camera strapped to his head, he took a few moments to examine the first chunk of disjointed metal. He swam around it once to figure out how to best secure the line from his wreck reel.
Once his line was tied, he could explore the rest of the site. He swam past pieces of barnacle-covered metal. Some were tall and rounded like building facades, others stump-like. He then moved through an open, sandy area before seeing wooden boards laid out on the seafloor, like railroad tracks stretching into the distance. Iron spikes stuck out of the boards and pointed to the surface. Brush tugged at a few, but 154 years of rust proved strong.
He turned around and retraced his path, reeling in his line and occasionally stopping to free it from a corner of the wreck. He swam past the point where he started and explored for a few moments in the other directions. When he circled back to the main anchor the second time, Rial was there and ready to surface, too. Brush untangled his line again, this time from Rial’s shoulder, before following Rial up the thick chain.
When asked how it was, Rial replied, “Besides cold?”
On a typical summer day at that shallow depth—less than forty feet—divers can stay under for over an hour, but the cold temperatures on this day brought them up quickly. After twenty-seven minutes, Brush resurfaced empty-handed, as did Burton. Their temperature gauges read between thirty-nine and forty-two degrees Fahrenheit.
Visibility at the bottom had been disappointing, too. “It’s twenty-five minutes of pea soup with little chunks of ham floating through,” said Brush of his video back on the boat’s deck.
Limited visibility, or “low vis,” is part of the gamble of diving around here. The group is used to it. Seen as part of the challenge of treasure hunting, there is pride in the cold and unpredictable conditions.
“You can tell who the northeast divers are in a group,” said Jaime Frost, forty-seven, a small redheaded IT specialist. “It definitely buys you some credibility,” she added, opening a post-dive Sam Adams. It was not quite ten a.m.
The Wreck Valley crew lit the grill and most of the group resigned themselves to hotdogs and sunshine. But Captain Berg had hoped to check a few more ships and Burton wanted to try again.
Berg took the boat just a few hundred yards to a second site, the wreck of the Cornela Soule. She was a large schooner with three masts, carrying granite stones when she ran ashore in 1902.
Reaching the location, Berg yelled from the wheelhouse to his crew member on the deck. “Ed, Ed, does that look like the Cornelia Soule you know?” he asked, excited by the image on the sonar scanner. The monitor showed uniform rectangular blocks, clearly manmade, among other scattered objects on the otherwise smooth seafloor.
“Yes, those are the granite pieces,” replied Ed Slatter, a quiet, bearded forty-four-year-old who has been diving with Berg since he first bought his own boat.
“But they’re facing the wrong way,” countered Berg.
“No, they’re not. That’s the back.”
“Well, we’ll see,” Berg said with a smile. Looking at the image of the seafloor, Berg thought the storm had shifted the granite blocks. Their arrangement in relation to the shoreline was different than he remembered. This meant other parts of the wreck could have been shifted as well.
Divers in the past had found deadeyes at this site: round metal objects, used for stringing the lines, that are part of an old ship’s rigging. Berg told Burton to swim along the wreck’s perimeter. The deadeyes would be on the outside edge of any new pieces of wood uncovered.
But after a short trip down, Burton came up again without a prize. Visibility there was even worse.
Wreck Valley motored back towards Long Island. The open ocean narrowed behind her as the city grew around. The friends onboard quieted. Some of them drifted to sleep, sitting on coolers, with their faces to the sun.
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MaryAlice Parks is studying broadcast journalism and documentary film at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, MaryAlice earned her bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Columbia University in 2009.
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer living in Brooklyn. She is a member of the Meerkat Media Collective, which recently completed Brasslands, a feature documentary about Balkan brass music.