Saturday, January 12, 2008


Shipwreck divers share tales of the deep with Oyster River students


Foster's Daily Democrat
By Rebecca Hamm
January 12, 2008

DURHAM — John Chatterton and Ritchie Kohler, described as being among the most accomplished wreck divers in the world, spoke to a group of high school students about their discovery of a sunken World War II-era German submarine 60 miles off the U.S. coast.

The students in Judy Kucera's Readings in Nonfiction class at Oyster River High School met with the deep-sea explorers on Friday morning.

The men recounted aspects of their dives to the U-869, which was the subject of Rob Kurson's New York Times bestselling book, "Shadow Divers." Having read the book, the class asked the divers questions about their seven-year quest to identify the mysterious U-boat, dubbed "U-Who" by the dive team.

In 1991, Bill Nagle, captain of the diving ship The Seeker, led a team of recreational divers, including Chatterton and Kohler, to the site of a sunken submarine off the coast of New Jersey.

Chatterton and Kohler became friends during the expedition and the two have partnered for dives many times since.

The submarine, located 230 feet under the waves, contained the remains of 56 men. Neither historians nor the U.S. Navy or German Navy had any evidence of a U-boat located so close to American shores.

For six years the men, with the elite team of divers, made numerous dives down to the U-boat in a mission to solve its identity. The dive team made it a quest to discover the identities of the men whose bodies they found on the sea floor and how the sub came to rest there.

"They had no record of it. The answer was not going to be found in a history book … There were people on this submarine and it fell through the cracks of history," Chatterton told the group of students.

Although there were some hardships — the men faced harrowing underwater conditions and lost three fellow divers in the course of the expedition — Kohler said overall the experience was a dream come true.

"As a diver, this is something you hope for. You go to bed at night and dream of a virgin shipwreck."

When asked by a student what his favorite dive had been, Kohler said, "It kinda sounds flip, but it's the next one. We're always looking for the next one. As divers, we're always going a little bit further and a little bit deeper," he said.

The men said there a lot of challenges involved with deep shipwreck diving because divers are often in situations where time is of the essence and they need to stay calm.

"There are a lot of psychological elements. This is a hostile, intimidating environment and you're going where other people have never been. But, you can't be intimidated and you can't panic, because if you do, you're going to lose your life," said Chatterton.

The men underlined the perils of diving and said they meticulously prepare their equipment before every dive and make sure they coordinate a diving plan with each other before descending.

Although they generally donate most of their artifacts they find on the ocean floor to museums or to families of shipwreck victims, the men brought in a bowl with a swastika imprinted on the bottom, a browning pack of cigarettes and box of matches they found on the U-869 to Kohler said it's not uncommon to stir up sediment while diving, which can cause the diver to lose the sense of sight. "It looks just like chocolate milk. It's what you call a brown dive. You have to be an incredibly comfortable diver when you lose one of your senses like sight. Actually, you end up losing several senses. You can't smell because there's the mask and there's no tactile sense because the gloves are too thick."

He said divers eventually acquire a skill to maneuver out of those situations when all senses are impaired.

"Nothing starts your heart quicker than when you think there's an exit and it's a wall," Chatterton said. "If you touch something you never know if it's going to come loose. If you stir something up, you could lose visibility."

Despite the danger, the men have been on many of the most famous wrecks in the world.

Chatterton was a member of the first technical diving expedition to Ireland and the legendary RMS Lusitania in 1994. Several years later, at a depth of 400 feet, he was the first diver to use rebreather diving technology on the wreck of HMHS Britannic, near the island of Kea in Greece. He was also the sole American on a British expedition, sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, looking for the historic shipwreck Struma in the Black Sea near Istanbul.

Kohler has explored the SS Andrea Doria, and the RMS Titanic. Diving from the Russian research vessel Keldysh, he has also made multiple dives of more than 12,000 feet in the MIR submersible to explore the wreck site.

"When you go into the submarine, you feel empowered," Kohler told the class.

The discovery of the U-869 has been the subject of several documentaries including "Hitler's Lost Sub" and a special on the PBS series NOVA.

Chatterton and Kohler were co-hosts on the History Channel's Deep Sea Detectives, and both are consultants in the film and television industries. A movie of "Shadow Divers" is being created by 20th Century Fox. The two are currently working on a book about the famous ocean liner RMS Titanic.

Chatterton lives in Harpswell, Maine. Kohler makes his home in New Jersey.


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