Exploring the World Beneath the Waves
Cape Cod Life / September/October 2016 / Nature, People & Businesses, Recreation & Activities
Writer: Rob Conery / Photographer: Charles Sternaimolo, Dan Cutrona, and David Wood
There is another world, a bigger world. It’s a world both alien and familiar, and it starts at the beach. It’s the world of diving, and while this world is often associated with crystal blue tropical waters, there are many great places to dive right here on Cape Cod and the Islands, from offshore and near-shore wrecks to freshwater ponds.
Sport diving is a relatively new, late 20th-century recreational pursuit, but its roots stretch to antiquity. By 1300 AD, Persian divers were already making rudimentary diving goggles out of the polished outer layer of tortoise shells.
What we now call scuba diving is a variation on the original Aqua-Lung, a piece of technology pioneered in 1943 by two Frenchmen, engineer Emile Gagnan and diver Jacques Cousteau. In fact, the word scuba began as an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”
With this in mind, meet three Cape and Islands divers who regularly enjoy stunning views of the region . . . from beneath the waves.
Of Splashdowns and Frogmen
Bill Jeter of Hyannis was a Navy frogman, before they even had SEALS. Jeter (pronounced JeTT-er, not Jeet-er) always carries two of everything, for backup and for safety. It’s his Navy training.
“I carry two computers, two knives, at least two lights,” says Jeter, a calm, soft-spoken man who at age 73 still makes at least 200 dives a year. “Two regulators, a backup system, a bailout bottle.” Little computers he wears on each hand monitor time, temperature, depth, and heart rate; diving is all about preparation.
Jeter joined the Navy when he was 18, and the training still informs his decisions. Another reason he’s extra careful: In the past five years he has lost two friends to diving accidents.
Frogman training in Virginia in 1959 was intense. Jeter describes six- and even 10-mile surface swims, navigating miles underwater in the dark, and running through an obstacle course with real bombs going off. At a time when the space race dominated the national consciousness, Jeter was one of the trained frogmen who would assist the Gemini astronauts after Pacific Ocean splashdowns.
After the Navy, Jeter raised a family in Pennsylvania, where for 34 years he ran a clinic helping individuals struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. He has two sons and eight grandchildren. He moved to the Cape full time in 2009 with his wife, Sylvia, because, he says, “It was our favorite place to come on vacation.”
Jeter enjoys all manner of dives. While he does plenty of saltwater dives—he cites wrecks in Vineyard Sound and rocky areas off Nauset Beach in Orleans as favorites, as well as shore diving from Woods Hole—he’ll also mix it up. He enjoys freshwater dives at places like Hathaway’s Pond in Hyannis and Sheep’s Pond in Orleans, and even gets into caves and caverns at quarries when he visits Pennsylvania. Then there are the night dives, cave dives, and winter dives under the ice.
“I like to go places where not many people go. And then—go slow,” says Jeter, who enjoys observing the color and movement of the peaceful, easy scenes he drifts over.
Thousands of dives have done nothing to diminish his enthusiasm. “There is a mystique,” he says. “It’s different. Quite mysterious. If you have curiosity in you, you want to see things.”
Seeking clues from the past
Jerry Cronin, 58, of Marstons Mills, has been diving since he was in his 20s, first working on dive charters and at diving shops.
Initially, he enjoyed what he describes as “some of the best lobstering in the world.” But as he got more involved with the sport, his interest shifted to exploration, finding the unknown and rediscovering history. Cronin’s passion is to dive on wrecks—sunken ships—in search of artifacts from the past.
He has completed many dives in tropical locations, which he enjoys for “gin-clear warm water, colorful fish by the millions, and coral of every type.” It is different here on the Cape, where a short summer and colder water—at depths greater than 30 feet, the water temperature stays the same year round, about 42 degrees, he says—mean divers need expensive dry suits and face a shorter season.
“The Cape is pretty much a sandbar,” Cronin says, “which is why most of us explore shipwrecks. Fish hang out near wrecks, which are usually loaded with lobster, plus there’s always the chance of finding cool artifacts.”
He frequently sees massive piles of granite and coal, common cargo around the turn of the last century, when ships carried both passengers and goods. “This was granite mined from New Hampshire and Maine,” Cronin says while pointing out an artifact he found at the ocean floor. “They used it to build Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C.”
Cronin says that he and his friends have discovered at least half a dozen wrecks, and explored many more. Part of the enjoyment is the ever-changing sea. Winter storms play havoc with underwater topography. A wreck buried for years—even centuries—can suddenly reappear, its bones poking through tons of sand shifted about in fierce winter gales.
Cronin is proud of his collection of sea-saved artifacts from his many dives, which he displays in his home. Among his favorites (and he admits the list is “endless”) are the huge brass letters from the wreck of the Port Hunter, which he noticed “after literally thousands of divers swam past them, but because of marine growth, they escaped detection.” He also displays the helm of a four-masted schooner, a treasure that took him two years of work over many dives to recover.
Freediving and spearfishing
Greg Bernard of Nantucket describes being “immediately immersed” the first time he tried diving. Pun intended. He was 19, and he has been diving for 23 years since.
His newest passion is freediving—staying underwater with a mask and fins for as long as a lungful of air can stretch. “It’s the closest thing to flying,” Bernard says. “I can fly for as long as I can hold my breath down there. Just me—nothing mechanical.”
Bernard extols the physiological and even psychological lift diving gives him. “You have to learn to lower your heart rate, to be completely mellow. You are super-packing your lungs with oxygen, forcing all that oxygen into your body. Afterwards there is a sense of euphoria.” He describes it as a natural high, feeling mellow and very tuned in to his surroundings, breathing more easily, seeing more clearly.
He heads out in his 15-foot Boston Whaler, a stable fishing and diving platform with gunwales low enough to allow easy boarding. While down below, he enjoys taking still photos and video, occasionally hurling himself right into pods of bubble-net-feeding whales to get point-of-view footage.
Bernard enjoys fishing with a speargun, where he can be more discriminating than a rod-and-reel angler, who pulls up whatever bites on his bait. While spearfishing for striped bass is illegal in Massachusetts, Bernard sees them, as well as many other species. “You see tautog, big black sea bass, ‘prehistoric’ scup,” he says. “The big ones have big eyes, too. So they can spot a hook and line.” The speargun allows Bernard to fish selectively, keeping the medium-sized “good eaters” and leaving the big fish, the successful breeders, in the water to drive the ecosystem.
Bernard worked in the Nantucket charter fleet, crewing on the Albacore with island legend Bob DeCosta and later lobstering commercially with Chuck Butler. Today he likes to dive along the jetties that protect Nantucket Harbor. He says a wreck off the end of the west jetty looks like an “anchor store” for all the lost ground tackle that has accumulated over the years.
He sees his share of lobsters when he freedives the jetties, but it’s when he heads offshore and dives on wrecks in 130 feet of water that he sees the real giants. “Literally 20-pound lobsters,” he says. They have a massive claw spread, he adds; “They look like elk ears when you hold them up.”
Of course sharks are never far from divers’ minds, and Bernard says one territorial but skittish sandbar shark patrols the jetties. “He’ll follow you around, kind of sneak up on you, but as soon as you spot him, he’ll back up and then vanish.”
Like Jeter, Bernard stresses safety in this inherently dangerous activity. “I cannot stress enough,” he says. “Take a class—it will save your life. There are a lot of obstacles down there—fishing line, anchor lines, handling your own equipment, controlling your breathing and heart rate. A lot can go wrong, and there’s very little margin for error.”
Even without the deep-water dives that necessitate decompression stops during ascent, diving can be a dangerous sport with “shallow water blackout” a threat even in less than 20 feet of water. Bernard does his freediving and spearfishing on Nantucket’s teeming jetties only on incoming tides, figuring that if anything should go wrong, he’ll at least be swept into the harbor and not out to sea.
“The right training and the right equipment are the keys to safe diving,” Bernard says. And keeping a cool head. After that, it’s all enjoyment: the incomparable thrill of being underwater and flying.
Divers and would-be divers can find instruction, rentals, and other resources right here on the Cape. Bob Peck of Adventure Diving Services of Cape Cod in Eastham has been teaching diving since 1974. To achieve full certification, divers must complete six sessions of classroom/academic training, followed by pool training, and culminating with an open water certification test. Peck says that while Adventure Diving offers all three components, many people choose to do the open water segment while vacationing someplace tropical.
Don Ferris, who has written several books on Cape Cod diving— including Exploring the Waters of Cape Cod: Shipwrecks & Dive Sites—provides dive instruction on Cape Cod and the South Shore. Another company, Aqua Center in Sandwich, focuses on instruction and dive travel.
Rob Conery of West Yarmouth is a regular contributor to Cape Cod LIFE and is celebrating the publishing of his new novel Winterland (2015).