Diving Days of Summer

Working a job that has an extremely unpredictable schedule (take for example walking in on a Monday and learning you’ll be on the 07:30 ferry on Tuesday) makes planning beyond vacations next to impossible. Most of my plans are get a stamp of “if I’m around, I”ll do this”.

Well the universe aligned and I was able to make it out on one of the SECONN charters! For those of you who don’t know, SECONN is the regional scuba diving club I’m a part of. I joined in 2014 and it’s had a strong hold on me ever since. Whenever people ask what I’d do if I magically was a multi-millionaire, I always say I’d work for some non-profit working on some conservation project. But in reality, I’d probably just do SECONN stuff 24/7. haha. 

Despite the forecast of some iffy weather milling about the area, myself and ten other divers boarded Cape Ann Diver II and headed out to Gloucester Harbor. First site for our day was the Chester Poling. Though it is a “must-dive” if you’re a New England diver, it was my first time! And it blew me away. SO NICE. The visibility could’ve been better, it was pretty hazy. But the wreck itself was super cool and the life on and around it could’ve captivated me for hours. Part of the reason I was a little extra excited about it was having just come back from Scapa Flow where most of the wrecks are turtled (aka upside down), the Chester Poling is sitting upright…it feels like you’re just floating right over where you can image men and women once walked.

Here’s some history on the Chester Poling that I wrote up for the SECONN website (more shameless advertising):

The Chester A. Poling is a steel tanker that became a victim of a New England storm on January 10th, 1977. She successfully made her delivery of heating oil to Everett, MA and was returning to Newington, New Hampshire when the combination of gale force winds and thirty foot waves literally split the Poling in two. The forward motion of the Poling  and with the force of the storm caused the stern to continue pushing into the bow after the initial crack, jackknifing the boat, and causing the two ends to separate. After abandoning ship, all but one of the crew was rescued. (For more on the history of the Poling check out this website).

During the storm, the stern sank into 75′ of water, however a few years later another New England storm would move it. Now known as the Blizzard of ’78, this incredible force of nature picked the stern up and dropped it into its current position where it sits in 90′ of water.

In the years tha​​t have followed, the Poling has transformed into an artificial reef. The stern generally has good visibility by New England standards. This allows divers to enjoy not only the wreck, but the local species that have claimed it as their home. Those who are lucky might spot the resident Wolffish! However, if you don’t spot him, you’ll most likely see cunner, flounder, schools of Pollock, Sea Ravens, Lobster, Sponges, Tunicates, Hydroids, Anemones, and other encroaching critters.

Located less than 20 minutes outside of Gloucester Harbor, the stern of the Poling has become a staple in New England wreck diving. Another few miles away, her bow lies turtled in 180’ of water. While the stern is penetrable by trained divers, the bow is completely inaccessible. It still draws technical divers, but it has been described as a hunk of metal in  dark, murky water.

http://www.seconndivers.org/new-england-diving/wreck-of-the-chester-a-poling/

Unfortunately, the inside of my camera got a little foggy, so the pictures aren’t totally focused, but I think that the foggy outer edges actually makes the images a little cooler. You decide.

Lots of cute little Blood Stars (Henricia sanguinolenta)
Shannon signing SECONN’s underwater geocache
Nudibranch eggs! Many of these delicate and beautiful strands were seen on the wreck.
The wreck is absolutely covered with these beautiful, tiny Tubularian Hydroids!

After floating around the upper deck, we reached the midships where she broke in half. This is where historically a resident Wolffish makes it abode. So Ryan got down and looked about… sadly there was no Wolffish, BUT there was a HUGE Cod. Only spotted with a decent light (shoutout to Light and Motion Solas 1200!) it was just chilling in a back crevice. It’s hard to imagine that they were once such an abundant species that geographic locations were named after it (aka Cape Cod)…but that’s a story for another day. Diving is an interested pastime, because you have to get really good at reading people’s body language. I was behind Ryan when he spotted the Cod and knew IMMEDIATELY that it was something extra cool hiding in the dark.

The Codfather hanging out under the wreck.
Ladder heading down below.

The water at depth was a balmy 47ºF, so we headed back up to the top of the deck and headed back towards the shot line. There’s endless things to see and poke about in, but my fingers were getting chilly and one of my buddies was in a wetsuit so up the shot line we went.

During our surface interval, the skies darkened and brought with it rain, thunder, and lighting. Nothing like a natural freshwater rinse for the gear! We were a little bummed it didn’t happen at the end of the day…oh how convenient that would’ve been! So we floated about waiting for the storm cell to mosey on…which it thankfully did.

So next stop of the charter was Paddock Rock. It’s an underwater pinnacle off of Manchester, Massachusetts whose shallowest depth is around 15′ at low tide and whose deepest depth is around 90′. The formation is stepped, with each step gaining 15-20′ in depth. Eventually it leads to a super cool trench that is covered with anemones, sea stars, nudibranchs, urchins, and more.

Green Sea Urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis)

We hung out around 30ft where the water was still relatively warm. It was caribbean clear, but we had a solid 30ft of slightly hazy vis. Enough for myself and my two buddies to not have to be hanging out right next to other to ensure we stay together. The upper portions of the formation were absolutely COVERED with Green Sea Urchins and sea stars (both Forbes’ and Blood Stars).

Forbes’ Sea Stars (Asterias forbesi) – you can tell them apart from the Northern Sea Star by the orange madreporite.
Paddock Rock is covered in this red encrusting algae and HUGE mussels.
Lobsters on parade!
Shannon was rocking a wetsuit – the good vis allowed us to keep the thermocline between us and dive at different depths.
Slime Worm!
Leader of the pack in silhouette.

I was swimming through the trench when I spotted a pale, first sized critter through the haze. Going on a hunch, I excitedly swam over to find a Sea Lemon Nudibranch! Or what I’m guessing is one, and if it is, it is definitely an intruder to these waters. But they have been spotted with more frequency in recent years.

The Blood Stars in this photo were closer to quarter size for reference.

It’s always fun when people tap you on the shoulder (or leg) and motion you to come look at something over there. This time it was the first flounder of the site! Nestled in and amongst the rocks, he was way more camouflaged than this photo would make you believe.

Shannon’s keen eye spotted this Winter Flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus).
So many colorful inverts!
Another Winter Flounder spotted hiding in plain sight.
Underwater selfies are a must when none of your dive buddies have cameras. 😛
Beautiful Northern Red Anemone (Urticina felina). That little Blood Star was the size of a nickel for reference.

While we were enjoying the warmer waters closer to the surface, Ryan looked into a crevice and started pointing…poked my head around and came face to face with a large American Lobster! Five Islands would call him one of the “Big Boys” (though it was probably a female). It was the kind that makes you want to take a picture, but not get too close just in case it’s feeling feisty…if one of those took my camera, I’d throw my hands up and say it’s yours. haha.

MONSTER American Lobster (Homarus americanus). Those claws were HUGE.
The Forbes’ Sea Star comes in a wide variety of beautiful colors!

After half an hour poking around the site, we headed back to the boat for the trip home. More grey skies accompanied us, but the rain held off for the trek back. If you are a diver and a critter lover, I highly suggest hitting up either one of the these dive sites (or both!), you will not be disappointed.

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