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Shipwreck divers worry sanctuary limits will expand

Nearly 29 years have passed since the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was created off the coast of Cape Hatteras, and since then significant parts of the Civil War ironclad it protects have been recovered in federal diving expeditions.

That’s not all that has transpired. Other wrecks were discovered off the Outer Banks, oil companies had expressed interest in making explorations nearby and a new shipwreck museum on the tip of Hatteras Island is almost completed.

Now, plans to revise and update the management plan of the nation’s first marine sanctuary have some recreational divers and watermen concerned that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration may want to expand it.

“I’m totally against any more limited access and the inclusion of any more wrecks – that includes World War II wrecks,” John Pieno, a Hatteras dive business operator, said Thursday at a public meeting about the plan. “If we can’t shipwreck dive, it’s a detriment to our economy. The status quo is fine with us now.”

Steve Wilson, an Ocracoke diver and waterman, said the current situation with beach driving limits in Cape Hatteras National Seashore has undermined trust in dealings with the federal government.

“Recently we found to our dismay that despite any kind of guarantees, there are no guarantees,” he said. “I would say expanding the marine sanctuary could have consequences that are unforeseen and would be detrimental to the economy of the villages.”

The Monitor lies about 230 feet down in the Atlantic about 16 miles off Hatteras, and the sanctuary surrounds the wreck from the surface to the seabed in a column of water one nautical mile in diameter.

The Monitor, the Union ironclad made famous in a showdown in Virginia with the Confederate Virginia, sank in a storm on New Year’s Eve in 1862. The vessel’s remains were discovered in 1973 by Duke University scientists.

When the sanctuary management plan was written in 1983, it included regulations that prohibited certain activities without a permit, including anchoring, subsurface salvage, lowering suction devices into the water, detonation of explosives, diving by submersibles or individuals, seabed drilling and trawling.

“The question I often get is can you fish in the water of the sanctuary?” said David Alberg, sanctuary superintendent, in a presentation during Thursday’s meeting at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.

“The answer is, absolutely yes.” Vessels cannot cut off their power when drifting or stopping.

Diving can be permitted, he said, but typically NOAA provides an observer at no cost.

Alberg said that revision of the sanctuary plan is unrelated to any interest in offshore oil drilling.

In the late 1980s and again in the 1990s, oil companies expressed the intent to explore lease units located 45 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras, where industry experts say there is a huge deposit of natural gas. The leases are currently inactive.

Enlarging the sanctuary site is not out of the question, Alberg said in an interview after the meeting.

“That doesn’t mean that there will be an expansion,” he said. “It’s one of the things we’re going to address.”

Alberg said that all the public comments will be considered before the updated document is final. He expects the new management plan will be completed in 24 to 36 months.

NOAA has spent about

$14 million in its efforts to recover artifacts from the Monitor, Alberg said. So far, the propeller, engine, gun turret, guns and about 1,500 smaller artifacts have been brought up in several well-publicized dives.

Eventually, when the exhibit area is completed at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the anchor and chain, the Worthington pump, the white lantern, a rope and a stanchion from the turret, some condiment bottles, and pieces of coal from the ship will be transferred from the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., to the Hatteras museum, said Joseph Schwarzer, director of the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

Because the vessel is beyond the recreational diving depth of 130 feet, the Monitor is considered a specialized or technical dive. It’s not one a regular recreational diver would want to try, said Pam Landrum, owner of Nags Head Diving.

Despite that, some in the diving community are concerned that in revising the Monitor management plan, the government will put limits on more wreck diving.

The U-701, a German submarine sunk in World War II, lies nearby, 22 miles off Avon. NOAA has said it will soon be surveying the coast for as-yet-undiscovered allied wrecks.

“I think all shipwrecks should be accessible to all people,” said Landrum, who attended an earlier meeting at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. “I strongly believe that – they should be open to use.”

Landrum said most divers are responsible and respectful of the historic value of the wrecks, and don’t need to be babysat.

“What’s the use in having these regulations?” she said in a telephone interview. “They’re never going to be able to enforce them. I think it’s too many rules at this point.”


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