Diving the USS Monitor
Through a few lucky turns of circumstance I found myself standing on the back of a research vessel about to plunge into 240 feet of water to visit arguably the most historic shipwreck site in the nation
by Joe Hoyt
Joe Hoyt is National Maritime Heritage Program Coordinator at NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries. He began his career as the North American Rolex Diving Scholar of theOur World Underwater Scholarship Society, where he discovered a passion for Maritime Archaeology. A self confessed wreck junkie, Joe was part of the team that documented the USS Monitor’s wreck site in 2006 and he went on to be involved in the preservation and documentation of the Graveyards of the Atlantic – one of the most significant wreck sites from World War II.
During it’s epic clash with CSS Virginia on 9 May 1862 at the Battle of Hampton Roads USS Monitor helped to preserve the union during the American Civil War. With a completely novel and innovative design Monitor debuted heroically, ushering in a new era of naval warfare the world over. Later that same year during a winter storm on New Year’s Eve 1862 Monitor was tragically lost off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina along with 16 crew.
The final resting place remained unknown for 111 years until it was discovered in 1973. Recognizing the significance of the site, it was designated as the first National Marine Sanctuary in 1975 and a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Outside of the maritime history and wreck diving community most folks are hard pressed to name many historic vessels. Monitor is one of them. Very few ships capture the public’s attention quite like it. Resting in 240 feet of water in the Gulf Stream, the site location was largely inaccessible to divers at the time it was discovered. That changed with the emerging prominence of mixed gas and technical in the 80s and 90s. Divers could now safely explore parts of the oceans once out of reach.
In the late 90s and early 2000’s NOAA and the Navy embarked on an ambitious expedition to recover iconic elements of the wreckage to conserve and share with the broader public. It was during this time, as student of marine archaeology, that I had the great fortune to meet Monitor for the first time.
Through a few lucky turns of circumstance I found myself standing on the back of a research vessel about to plunge into 240 feet of water to visit arguably the most historic shipwreck site in the nation. I was 19 years old, trying to hide my shaking legs from the more seasoned divers standing beside me, when the dive supervisor called out “DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!”. We were liveboating, dropped in up-stream and had exactly 2 minutes to reach the bottom or risked blowing past the wreck in the current.
I was probably a good twenty feet underwater before the bubbles cleared and I could see my teammates on either side checking gauges and confirming everything was in order before settling in to a paratrooper stance as we plummeted towards the seabed. That day the water was crystal clear, which is never guaranteed at this site. I will never forget the sight of Monitor as it came slowly into view. First it was an amorphous shadow in the distance. As we dropped deeper, the current carried us closer. Little by little it took shape. A looming iron mass, the armorbelt stretched along the seabed, enveloping a massive cylindrical feature -the iconic rotating gun turret.
Our mission was to incrementally document the progress of the excavation being carried out by U.S. Navy divers working in concert with the NOAA team. As we swam towards the turret to begin collecting measurements and photographs, I reached out and touched the edge of the armor belt. Like most Americans I first heard the story of Monitor in elementary or middle school, later I read extensively about its history and its impact on vessel design and naval warfare. Now here it was. It’s incredible how much history can be contained in a hunk of iron.
I had the privilege to visit and study the wreck of the Monitor many more times thereafter, but nothing comes close to that first glimpse. It’s hard to overstate the impact that dive had on me as I ended up serving as an archaeologist for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary for twelve years. Likewise, the operational complexity of that mission spawned a cadre or research divers among NOAA and partner agencies that continues to collaborate to this day.
Monitor remains on the ‘bucket list’ for many divers, but the general public can experience this history as well. The materials recovered during those missions are in ongoing conservation and display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. The wreck itself remains a vibrant site and welcomes divers through a no-cost recreational permit. Whether you have the chance to visit Monitor with your family at the museum or strap on a rebreather and hop into the Gulf Stream I hope as many people as possible can experience that spark of connection with the past.
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Photos courtesy of NOAA