Monday, July 25, 2005


Public to get chance to dive into history

By Donald W. Patterson
July 21, 2005

Barbara Buchanan recorded the moment in her logbook.
"(On) Oct. 29, 2004, I traveled back in time," Buchanan wrote. "My imagination was running wild."

That day last fall, Buchanan became one of the state's most unusual tourists.

She and about 14 others became the first members of the public to dive to a wreck off the North Carolina coast that state officials believe is Queen Anne's Revenge, the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard.

"Wow! What a dive," says Buchanan, an agent with Piedmont Travel, which has offices in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. "It was just an overwhelming feeling ... to dive on a piece of history."

This fall, others will get the chance to become underwater tourists, too.

In a program called "Dive Down," the state plans to allow recreational divers to visit the site off Beaufort Inlet. The cost will be $500 per person.

Visits are being arranged through 17 dive shops and clubs across the state, including three in the Triad.

They include Stingray Dive Club, where Buchanan sits on the board of directors.

"Once I let everybody know I had some spots," Buchanan says, "they couldn't wait to do it."

State officials say that since the wreck was discovered in 1996, access to the site has been tightly restricted. But that hasn't stopped people from asking to peruse the ship.

Previously, the answer had always been no -- not at such a historically sensitive site.

But now, after a year and a half study, state officials believe they can take visitors to the wreck without damaging it.

The study included the dive last fall that involved Buchanan, a dive travel specialist and underwater videographer and photographer, and other area divers.

The dives this fall will be considered a test run and will take place Sept. 18 to Nov. 10.

State officials say the dives will be closely supervised and limited in size. Only eight to 10 people at one time will be allowed on the site, which measures 30 feet by 20 feet.

At least two of the divers will act as docents, moving visitors from station to station."

It will be very similar to visiting a museum like Tryon Palace, except it is underwater," says Mark Wilde-Ramsing, who heads the Queen Anne's Revenge project for the state. "I think the benefits will outweigh any problems."

Others aren't so certain.

Critics of the plan include Mike Daniel, a Florida diver who helped discover the wreck, and Donny Hamilton, director of the nautical archaeology program at Texas A&M University.

Daniel and a partner found the wreck while looking for the El Salvador, a gold-laden Spanish galleon that ran aground during a hurricane in 1750.

He believes the state should recover more artifacts before allowing sport divers to visit the wreck. And he fears that some might pilfer it because of insufficient security.

Hamilton has complained to North Carolina legislators that they aren't doing enough to recover, promote and protect the shipwreck. Opening it to divers, he says, adds still another threat.

Efforts to reach Daniel and Hamilton for comment were unsuccessful.State officials contend the dives won't threaten the wreck.

"I don't see people taking things," Wilde-Ramsing says. "I just think this is a good way to promote conservation ethics and promote (the divers') understanding of the site."

Wilde-Ramsing said the state will use part of the $500 fees to pay for increased monitoring of the wreck. The rest will cover expenses for the 21/2-day excursions.

This fall's dives will involve 300 divers who will visit during a two-month period. Each diver will take part in classroom sessions on maritime history, underwater archaeology, coastal geology and maritime ecology, in addition to a practice dive.

The public dives will continue for a maximum of five years. By that time, state officials hope to have recovered the thousands of artifacts still on the bottom.

Those include anchors and several cannons.

The remains of the ship, which sank in 1718, rests in about 24 feet of water about a mile from Fort Macon.

Diving at the site requires an advanced open water scuba certification.

It's no place for a beginner. Below the surface, its an always murky, often turbulent world.

So says Rick Allen, a free-lance videographer who filmed the site for a UNC-TV documentary.

"Take your washing machine, fill it with coffee, jump in and turn it on," Allen once said. "That's what it's like diving at this site."

When Buchanan visited the wreck last fall, the day was chilly but clear. The water temperature was 68 degrees, visibility 10 feet, the tidal surge strong.

"As I swam over the cannon, ballast rocks, ship's rigging, barrel hoops and anchors... I felt I was a part of history," she says. "I'd have to say the QAR is my most exciting dive."


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