Trip Report KC97 Stratofreighter

kc97

It’s been a long time since I wrote a trip report, most likely because   over the years I’ve become a bit lazy plus a bit jaded. I’m not sure where to start so I’ll just go from the beginning.

The wrecks off Cape Canaveral Florida are as interesting as they are challenging. Most are deep and in the Gulfstream where a 4+ knot current is the norm. About 15 years ago we learned of a “mystery” wreck north of the port from a fishing boat Captain who subsequently moved from the area before we could charter his vessel to take us to it. Since that time the wreck has been on our “to do” list but for numerous reasons it just never happened. About a year ago we were involved in a project that brought us to that area as part of a search for missing aircraft but we never got to dive it. During that time my dive buddy Mike’s research led him to believe there was a possibility that our mystery wreck could be the PBM Martin Mariner flying boat which was lost while searching for Flight 19, a Bermuda Triangle mystery in which 5 military aircraft inexplicably disappeared and has never been found.

Michael Barnette is the consummate shipwreck historian and researcher. He is also like a pit bull. Once he sets his mind to something he doesn’t let it go until he prevails. I know because we have been diving together for the past 15-20 years and I have been the beneficiary of his research, getting to do real cool stuff like this many times. If I haven’t said it before, I will now. Thank you, Michael. But I digress ….

Monday the phone rang. “I think we’ll have a weather window in Canaveral this weekend. If we can arrange for a boat are you in?” The answer was “for sure”, especially if we can get a shot at the “mystery” wreck.

Jeff Marinko is a commercial spear fisherman and also one hell of a good captain. The plan was to meet at his boat in Port Canaveral 3:00 AM Saturday morning. We arrived 3:00 AM sharp with all our gear and a couple of bean bag chairs. Jeff was to do a few fishing dives and late morning or early afternoon Mike and I would attempt to de mystify the mystery wreck. The trip out was uneventful. Mike and I slept on the bean bag chairs and Jeff motored to our destination. The sun came up and Jeff did a few dives as planned and we then continued on to the deeper water 45 nm out where our mystery wreck awaited us. As we “marked” the wreck and figured our drift I looked at the rich blue color of the water. We were in the gulfstream and as predicted, the current was raging at 4 plus knots. Grappling with a shot line and poly ball was out of the question. It would be dragged under as soon as it hooked something.

The decision was made to “hot drop” the wreck. We geared up and Jeff did a few more drifts to figure where to drop us. Hitting a small target in 360 fsw is no easy task. Mike sat on the gunnel, camera in hand, scooter on his lap and I did the same standing on the stern. The sun was blazing, the heat was brutal. We were both drenched in sweat but the anticipation of solving the mystery trumped any discomfort.

“Dive, dive, dive.” We both splashed and pointed our scooters straight at the bottom. The bright blue water became dim and quickly turned into a dark gloom as we neared our target. As usual, the amberjacks came out to greet us. The drop was perfect. We saw some debris on the bottom and what appeared to be an anchor line. We followed it and quickly realized we were going the wrong way when the AJ’s were moving in the opposite direction. The wreck came into sight and like two school kids we were high fiving, fist bumping and making those noises that can only emanate from a helium filled loop. We thought we found the PBM Martin Mariner flying boat.

The plan was for me to keep time and to remind Michael of it as he furiously shot photos and documented as much of the wreck as he could. At fifteen minutes the deco was manageable but anything beyond that would turn into more than we were willing to do that deep and far out to sea. At 13 minutes I gave the two minute warning. At 15 minutes the SMB was already secured to the reel. I signaled Mike again and shined the light on him as he stowed his camera. When he gave the signal at 17 minutes I shot the bag. At the same time I pointed the scooter straight up and raced towards the surface as the reel played out line at a furious pace. I looked behind me and saw I was about 50 feet ahead of Mike who had that one eye in the mask look. I immediately backed off the trigger and played out more line off the reel in an attempt to slow down so he could catch up. We made eye contact and he signaled me that 4 sharks were there and one of them brushed his fin or leg as he ascended. No sooner than he communicated that to me I saw four, maybe five sharks closer than I like to see, especially that deep, that early in the dive. I thought to myself, “Oh crap. Here we go again. Two hours back to back beating these bastards off.”

Once we poked through the current sheer (opposing currents that drag an SMB horizontally) we settled into our deco ever vigilant for those toothy marauders that kept appearing, disappearing and re-appearing from different places and at different angles. They would come randomly from above, below, behind and in front. This was going to be a long, intense deco.

Suddenly the sharks became slightly less brazen and from the distance we could hear a faint clicking noise which I recognized to be that of a Dolphin. From nowhere several large Dolphins appeared and the sharks became obviously perturbed and widened the gap between us. The clicking grew louder and more intense as more and more Dolphin appeared. After a few minutes we were in the midst of an entire pod of about 30 or 40 of these magnificent creatures. They were clustered in groups of 3 or 4. There seemed to be four to six very large bulls that led the pod and in their midst were any number of “families”. Cows with nursing calves, clusters of younger, smaller bulls and juveniles surrounded us. They swam around us in a way I can only describe as the frolic you would witness at a marine mammal block party. I could not help but think this is the stuff movies are made about. I also kind of forgot about the sharks and when they finally re-entered my thoughts I realized they were gone. I peered into the outer edges of our visibility circle and they were nowhere to be seen. I chuckled to myself and thought “saved by the Dolphins”.

The Dolphins stayed and played among us for quite a while and then their numbers began to diminish. Pretty soon they were all but gone though we could still hear some of the clicking in the distance. I looked at my timer and realized they were probably with us for at least 10 – 15 minutes. Pretty cool I thought. Of course, much like the villain in a Bat Man movie the toothy marauders returned with a new found arrogance. One of them seemed to have a smirk on his face (if that is even possible) as he circled with his pals even closer than before. The big bastards were probably Gang Banger Sharks! The only thing missing were their “colors”.

Mike and I got back to back. Both of us had looks of disgust on our faces as we realized we were going to have to fend off these thugs for at least another half hour of deco. They were moving in and out pretty quickly but I’d guestimate there were probably about 6 of them coming at us from all angles. Trying to count sharks in these situations is akin to asking Custer how many Indians? You don’t really care because the only ones that count are the ones near you. You are oblivious to anything other than that which poses an immediate threat.

I’m not sure if it was a Crypt or a Blood but I sensed a presence behind me. I turned to look and saw the toothy critter with the smirk on his face perilously close both below and behind me. Not a good place for Mr. Gang Banger No. 1 to be. As I turned to use my scooter body as a shield the corner of my eye caught a large bull Dolphin swoop in between me and the shark and actually run interference for me. He must have been one of the Pods enforcers because the sharks wanted no part of him or his accompanying buddies. Could Spyder Man now take the form of a Dolphin?

To our elation the Dolphin Pod reappeared and the sharks moved to the outer periphery of our visibility circle and all but disappeared as the Dolphin playfully continued to dive bomb and swim by us as if putting on a show. They literally “body guarded” us for the remainder of our deco, never leaving us. In total they were probably with us a good hour or so.

The deco ended and we bade our new found friends farewell as we climbed back on the boat. Captain Jeff asked “how was it?” and like a little kid I just said something like “Great and better than great!” I’ll let Mike have the pleasure of filling you in on the details. Remember, we still thought this was the PBM Martin Mariner. Our elation was a bit subdued when we looked at an image and realized our find had two extra engines and could not be what we thought it was. Our dismay quickly turned to a new excitement when we realized there HAS to be a story here and a new mystery to solve. As per the norm, Mike the pit bull figured it out in short time and informed us it was a USAF Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter that was lost Wednesday March 30, 1960 after ditching in high winds. Two lives were lost out of a crew of 14 so this was potentially a grave site also. Here is a link describing the accident:

http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19600330-0

Below is the video footage Mike published after the dive:

Special thanks go out to Jeff Marinko, without whom this trip would have never occurred. Jeff’s expertise at the helm allowed us to hit a small, deep target in a raging current on the first try. Everyone tends to credit the divers but reality is that success depends on the Captain. As divers all we have to do is get to the bottom quickly. The rest is out of our control. The Captain must calculate wind, current, drift and depth to put his divers in exactly the right spot for a successful drop. Not an easy task when that target is 365 feet deep and the current is four plus knots!

I would also like to express my gratitude to the Gang Banger Sharks and the Deep Sea Rescue Dolphins. Nature is an amazing, wonderful thing and to interact with wild animals at this level is an exceptionally awesome experience. I often gripe about the presence of sharks on deco, but to be clear, I would never want to harm one in any way. They are an apex predator in an ecosystem which would suffer immensely without them. The Dolphins exhibited a kinship to man I have only seen in domesticated animals. They are truly one of nature’s gifts. We were very fortunate to have this interaction and experience with them.

If you are still reading, thank you.

Til the next time I’m moved or impressed,

Joe

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