From Maine to the Florida Keys
By Lynn Laymon
Several issues each year the pages of Dive Training carry Training Site columns that profile popular local dive spots where locals dive and instructors take students for open-water training dives. Most, but not all, of these are inland dive locations: lakes, quarries, rivers. This article is the first of a two-part feature that profiles coastal diving along and off the shores of North America. The second story will focus on diving from Florida’s Gulf Coast west to the Pacific Coast.
Maine to Key West, 2,069 miles (3,310 km) of coast; 28,673 miles (44,877 km) of shoreline. Hundreds, even thousands, of recorded dive sites. Deep, shallow, warm and cold. Shore diving, boat diving, drift diving and wreck diving. You name it; you’ll find it between Maine and Florida.
This portion of North America’s Atlantic coast includes Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. There are far too many scuba diving operations, dive centers and organized dive outings in these areas to mention individually.
We have divided the Atlantic coast into four regions: New England, the “Mid-States,” the Carolinas and Florida. Each has basic similarities, unique opportunities and definable challenges for divers of all skill levels.
All of these areas have things in common. First, this is the Atlantic Ocean; there is always the potential for rough seas. And generally speaking, the potential is greater during the winter months. Whether diving from the beach or rocks, or from a boat far offshore, always be aware of the potential for adverse conditions. On the other hand, you might get lucky and experience glassy-calm water conditions anywhere, anytime.
Rough or calm, the dive charter boats along the Atlantic coast are built for and experienced in operating in their typical conditions. If not familiar with the available charters, work through a dive center; they’ll help you find a boat that matches your style.
Another commonality is water temperature. It is going to be warmer in the summer and colder in the winter. The differential and extent will vary, but be prepared to dress for the conditions.
The diving in all of these regions also is influenced by the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is part of a larger clockwise rotating system of water currents that define water flow in the Atlantic Ocean. Beginning at the terminus of the Florida Current, the Gulf Stream carries warm, tropical water and the marine life that flourishes in it up the East Coast of North America as far north as New Foundland. The Gulf Stream’s width, distance from land and water temperature vary by season. However, this tropical freight train of water movement greatly influences diving along this coast.
Even with the Gulf Stream, other than off Florida and the Carolinas, the water along the Atlantic coast is seldom what you would call truly tropical. During winter months it is COLD; dry suits typically are the best way to remain comfortable. During spring, summer and fall the water along much of the coast is pleasant but still short of bathwater-tropical. Thick wet suits and dry suits are common in most areas.
Although the same ocean fronts the entire East Coast, the diving opportunities available in each region are decisively different. Let’s begin in New England and work our way south.
The New England coastal region consists of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. Together they account for 600 miles (960 km) of coastline, but a whopping 7,980 miles (12,768 km) of shoreline. (See sidebar “Coastline vs. Shoreline” on Page 44 for an explanation of the difference.)
For some hardy souls, the diving season in New England is year-round, but late May through September is more popular; the water is warmest and the seas calmer.
Water temperature along the coast varies by location. Shallow, protected coves are warmer. During the summer coastal waters reach into the 60s (high teens Celsius) while other times of the year you can expect 50s and below (low teens C); it is even colder at depth.
Tidal exchange is a consideration throughout this region as well; the farther north, the greater the exchange. With an average tidal flow of between 10 and 15 feet (3 and 5 m), when diving from shore divers must be aware of high and low tides and make sure that their entry location can still be used for exiting at the end of the dive.
Maine alone has 15 times more shoreline than it does coast. That is because of Maine’s many islands, bays and inlets. Theoretically speaking, shoreline equates to diving opportunities. And Maine has many.
Coastal Maine, one of the rockiest shorelines in America, has a very active diving community. There are shore dives galore and charter boat operations eager to show you the offshore sites.
Maine has an assortment of dive sites ranging from forgiving shore sites perfectly suited for new and occasional divers to boat charters that tailor the itinerary for everyone from novices to serious technical divers. The near-shore bottom contour tends to be an extension of the land from which it extends; oftentimes gently sloping and shallow. Much of the diving is done around the islands that dot the coastline. These often are characterized by ledges and drop-offs. Offshore sites range from 50 to 60 feet (15 to 18 m) to well beyond recreational diving depth.
The water off the New England coast is littered with shipwrecks, or blessed with wrecks as most divers say, dating from Revolutionary War days through WWII and more recent. One notable skeleton in Maine is the British steamer Wandby, which ran aground in 1921 off Kennebunkport. Accessible from either boat or shore, the Wandby lies in 20-25 feet (6-7.5 m) of water; much of its remains are blanketed in kelp. Unless you know exactly where you are going the Wandby is easy to miss, so it is highly recommended that on your first visit you dive with a local dive professional.
Diving the New England coast is not without hazards. Some dive sites are in shipping lanes. When diving anywhere that boat traffic is a possibility, it is critical that you tow a flag and float, and surface cautiously and near your flag.
You may also encounter lobster traps. It is OK to look, but do not touch or tamper with lobster traps. The taking of lobster while on scuba is also against the law in Maine.
The marine life you are likely to encounter in New England waters ranges from schools of striped bass, Pollock and lumpfish to crab, lobster, clams, mussels, flounder, skate and rock cod. In certain areas you’ll encounter seals and in others sharks. In fact, at least one charter operation runs shark cage dives off Maine.
Depending on water temperature, time of year and tidal flow, visibility off the New England coast can range from nearly nothing to 50 feet (15 m). During the late summer months, when the water is warmest, plankton blooms push visibility to the low end of the scale. As the water cools off during fall and winter, visibility improves.
Further south is New Hampshire’s 18 miles (29 km) of coastline. Although there are a handful of shore sites, the majority of the ocean diving available from New Hampshire is 10 miles (16 km) off shore around a cluster of islands named Isle of Shoals. Although some of the 12 islands are actually in Maine, they are dived predominantly from New Hampshire.
The Isle of Shoals has more than 10 dive sites, one of the more unusual being Seal Cove at Duck Island. Among three small islands, Seal Cove is only 20 feet (6 m) deep but the attraction is the 30-40 seals that inhabit the protected pool. A dive charter boat from the mainland is the only way to experience this encounter.
Massachusetts’ 192 miles (307 km) of coastline is a bit misleading since it does not include the shoreline of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and its other coves, inlets and bays. Massachusetts is alive with scuba opportunities.
Cape Ann, which is 45 miles (72 km) north of Boston, is a popular destination, with a wide variety of shore diving opportunities. Most are shallow with beach or rock entries. However, Cathedral Rocks plummets to 90 feet (27 m) within a couple of hundred yards of the beach. Most of the shipwreck sites are dived from boats.
The Boston Harbor area is mostly boat diving to shipwrecks and unique underwater rock formations. Brewster Islands provide opportunities for both.
Both beach and boat diving abound off Cape Cod. You can enjoy shallow dives in the warmer waters of Cape Cod Bay or brave the open Atlantic to the east and the Nantucket Bay to the south. Most of the wreck dives are off shore and are accessible only by boat. Both Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard, which are accessible only by air, ferry or private boat, offer diving as well.
The tiny state of Rhode Island boasts 40 miles (64 km) of coastline, with a combination of shore and boat dive sites, most from the Newport area. The underwater contour off Rhode Island includes cliffs and tunnels. During late summer the Gulf Stream brings juvenile tropical fishes to the area. They take refuge in warm, shallow coves and areas that provide protection from predators. In fall they perish as the water becomes too cool for their survival.
The official chart of Atlantic coastline lists Connecticut as having none; however, it does have 618 miles (989 km) of shoreline. This is due to the way coastline is measured; Connecticut is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by Long Island Sound and Long Island itself. Not having coastline does not preclude the state from having coastal scuba diving. Pleasure Beach in Waterford is one shore site and there are a number of shipwrecks that must be dived from a boat, many of them beyond recreational diving depth.
New York has 127 miles (203 km) of official coastline, nearly all along the southern shore of Long Island. The majority of the coastal diving in New York is either in the Long Island Sound or on the south side in the open Atlantic. Both shore and boat diving are available.
During the summer juvenile tropicals can be found in the waters off the eastern end of Long Island. I have seen butterflyfish, tangs and even a spotted drum.
Unless they’re from New England, most divers never give much thought to diving there. However, as you have read, scuba diving is alive and well in the northeast. Regardless of the state, you’ll find a beach or boat dive that will keep you entertained and expand your diving horizons at the same time.
The states of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, which combine for 301 miles (482 km) of coastline, make up the “Mid-States.” Like New England, much of the diving in the mid-states region is centered on sunken shipwrecks.
As we migrate south the water temperature isn’t quite as cold, but it typically still requires significant thermal protection anytime other than summer. During late summer the water temperature gets into the high 60s/low 70s Fahrenheit (low 20s Celsius).
Some dive year-round but the season really begins in April and lasts into November, with the summer months being the most popular. The vast majority of the diving is done from charter boats but shore diving is available in some locations. Late summer sometimes brings a plankton bloom, reducing visibility to uncomfortable levels. Water conditions are so changeable that it is best to consult a local dive store or charter boat operator for an up-to-date report.
The marine life you can expect in the mid states is like that found in New England, with a few more sharks thrown in.
New Jersey, which accounts for nearly half of the combined mid-states’ coastline, is known as the wreck capital of the East Coast. More than 2,000 shipwrecks are reported off the Jersey shore. Wrecks of diverse vintages are scattered from just off the beach to greater than 20 miles (32 km) out. Although a few are accessible from shore, most require a charter boat, of which there are many.
The depths of New Jersey wrecks range from shallow to deeper than the recommended recreational diving limit. Eighty feet (24 m) is a typical depth. Occasionally the ocean is flat-calm; other times it is what you might expect from the rolling Atlantic, and conditions can be challenging for those prone to seasickness.
Shore diving in New Jersey is typically done from a beach or, more commonly, in an inlet; Shark River, Manasquan and Train Bridge are most popular.
Dive charter boats run out of Indian River Inlet to a number of wrecks off Delaware’s 28 miles (45 km) of coastline. Water conditions and marine life are similar to that experienced off New Jersey.
Maryland lists only 31 miles (50 km) of coastline but has 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of shoreline. Charter boats operate out of Ocean City, taking divers to the offshore wrecks and a variety of artificial reefs. There is diving near the Chesapeake Bay but visibility often is reduced and pleasure boaters make it dangerous during summer.
The southernmost 112 miles (179 km) of mid-states coastline belongs to Virginia. Several dive charter boats operate out of Virginia Beach, taking divers to wrecks near the Chesapeake Bay and further off shore in the Atlantic. Depths range from 25 feet (8 m) to more than 200 (61 m).
Although there is some inlet and shore diving, the mid-states coastal area is predominantly about wreck diving. There are plenty of wrecks from which to choose and many dive charter boats eager to take you there.
North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia make up the Carolinas region. Like New Jersey, the waters off the Carolina region are known for wreck diving; all sizes, types and vintages. Also similar to New Jersey, the ride to the dive site can be an adventure in itself.
Dive charter boats in these areas cater to everyone from novices who just want to see what Carolina diving is all about, to hard-core wreck divers seeking artifacts. To avoid getting on a charter that is beyond your capability divers unfamiliar with the area should hook up with a local dive center before booking a charter.
Farther south down the coast the water temperature begins to warm, especially during the summer season; in this region you can expect to see the high 70s, even low 80s F (mid- to high 20s C), by late summer. Likewise, visibility typically tends to improve; 50-plus feet (15 m) is not uncommon on a good day.
With 301 miles (482 km) of coastline, North Carolina accounts for more than half the coastline of the region. Rewarding shore diving is available from Nags Head to Wilmington, offering jetties, wrecks and artificial reefs.
The list of offshore wrecks visited by dive charter boats is impressive. They date from pre-Civil War times to ships that have recently been sunk as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program. Depths range from 40 feet (12 m) to well beyond recreational diving depth.
Myrtle Beach and Charleston are diving’s primary hot spots along South Carolina’s 187 miles (299 km) of coastline, offering divers of all levels a variety of boat and beach diving. South Carolina also has an active artificial reef program.
Marine life in the Carolina region is more tropical than farther north. On the wrecks it is not uncommon to encounter amberjack, angelfish, barracuda, jewfish, sharks, spadefish, sea turtles and even lionfish.
With 100 miles (162 km) of coastline, Georgia is the southernmost state in the Carolinas region. Although you don’t hear much about it, Georgia diving is like that found in the rest of the region. Although there may not be as many recorded shipwrecks, Georgia has its share. It also is home to the largest live-bottom marine sanctuary in the United States the 17-square-nautical-mile Gray’s Reef where divers have the opportunity to encounter more than 150 species of fishes. Dive charter boats run to Gray’s Reef from the Savannah and Brunswick areas.
Florida, with 580 miles (928 km) of coastline from Jacksonville to Key West, has long been a diver’s delight. As we move south, the diving makes a slow but steady transition to what many consider tropical.
The Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Daytona areas are known for their artificial reefs, which attract huge schools of fish. The phrase “sea of fish” is often heard from returning divers gushing over their diving experience. Summer is the best time to dive these 60- to 100-foot- (18- to 30-m-) deep sites; the water is calm and commonly reaches 80 F (27 C) or warmer. Visibility ranges from 25 feet (8 m) to more than 100 feet (30 m); it gets better the farther off shore you go. These areas offer little shore diving but dive charter boats operate throughout. Farther south the Space Coast Titusville, Merritt Island and Melbourne offers divers several WWII wrecks and limestone ridges that require a boat to access.
Vero Beach is one of the few locations along Florida’s Atlantic coast that offers good shore diving, both reefs and 16th-century wrecks. Rows of rocky reefs parallel the beach just several hundred feet off shore. Depth varies from 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9 m) and visibility averages 25 feet (8 m) in calm conditions. Shallow sites and offshore boat sites also dot the coastline along the Fort Pierce area.
The diving off Stuart and Jupiter is like that in West Palm. The warm, clear water of the Gulf Stream comes nearer to shore at West Palm than anywhere else in the state. A few months each winter water temperatures dip into the 70s but the rest of the year they hover in the mid-80s.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, West Palm is known worldwide for its drift diving. The reefs and wrecks are in 30-100 feet (9-30 m) of water and within a couple of miles off shore. All are reached by charter boat.
The beach along the Pompano/Ft. Lauderdale area is fronted by a series of parallel reefs within a mile off shore. Not far beyond are wrecks and artificial reefs galore. Diving depth varies from 30 feet (9 m) on the first line of reefs, to 60 (18 m) on the second to more than 100 feet (30 m) on the deeper wrecks. The close-in reefs can be dived from the beach; drift diving from a boat is popular at the outer sites.
The beaches just south of Port Everglades John U. Lloyd State Recreation Area, Dania and Hollywood offer over 9 miles (15 km) of shore diving. The same series of reefs found to the north continue into this area providing shallow dive sites close to shore.
Along the coast between Miami and Key Largo in the Keys an active artificial reef program provides divers with a variety of reef and wreck boat-diving experiences. The better wrecks are deep 70-200 feet (21-61 m) but not that far from shore. During the parts of the year when the Gulf Stream meanders closer to shore, visibility easily averages 100 feet (30 m).
Key Largo is the first stop for divers venturing into the Keys, and rightfully so. Key Largo has one of the most developed reef systems anywhere in the United States. Much of that system lies within the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the adjacent Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Between them they provide divers with 179 square miles (465 sq km) of protected diving.
It is in this area that the water begins to fit my idea of tropical. Although thermal protection is needed during the winter months, most divers go with a skin suit or less during summer. Except for a couple of the deeper wrecks, diving depths in this area are 50 feet (15 m) or shallower; many are 15 to 25 feet (5-7.5 m).
Next stop on our trip south is the Upper Keys the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada. Here you can expect coral gardens, mini-walls and wrecks. The Upper Keys is also known for underwater treasure hunting. Its offshore waters are the confirmed final resting place for several Spanish galleons.
Surface conditions, visibility and water temperature are like the Key Largo area. Dive charter boats are plentiful and operate from many locations throughout the Keys.
The area around Marathon is called the Middle Keys. Here the reefs typically are a little farther from shore but the drop-offs get more dramatic. Two of the more popular and impressive reef areas are Sombrero Reef and Looe Key; both are teeming with coral and tropical fishes. Bahia Honda State Park is in the Middle Keys.
Sugarloaf Key south to Key West is the Lower Keys. Like the rest of the Keys, this area offers divers a variety of wrecks and reef diving, from 15-foot- (5-m-) deep finger reefs to 130-foot (39-m) walls. There are plenty of dive charter boat operators to serve you and much to do when out of the water.
A Long and Exciting Trip
We have just covered 2,074 miles (3,318 km) of coast; 28,584 miles (45,734 km) of shoreline, and we rarely traveled more than 100 miles (162 km) without a dive site within a boat ride away. From Maine to Key West the Atlantic Coast has something for every diver. The opportunities are there; don’t hesitate to expand your diving horizon.
Coastline vs. Shoreline
Coastline is the general outline of the seacoast. Coastline of bays and sounds is included to the point where they narrow to the width of one unit measure; in those cases the distance across the bay or sound at that point is included in the coastline measurement.
Shoreline of outer coast, offshore islands, sounds, bays, rivers, and creeks are included to head of tidewater, or to the point where tidal waters narrow to the width of 100 feet (30 m).
Source: Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service.