The USS Oriskany
As our group from Texas headed out on the H2O Below for 2 dives on the USS Oriskany, we were all discussing what condition the aircraft carrier might be in and what marine life might now call this once floating behemoth home. We had just been given the boat safety briefing from Captain Douglas Hammock, and were ready to hit the water. We had to cool our heels however because there was still an hour and a half boat ride before we reached the moorings. I had arranged this trip for Tom’s Dive and Swim through MBT Divers out of Pensacola, FL. but MBT charters with the H2O Below to get divers out to the site. It seems a very convenient and equable relationship.
The H2O Below is a 36' Newton dive boat, and is certified for 24 divers. Even though they limit the number to 16 the boat can feel a little cramped when everyone is gearing up and moving around the deck. The H20 Below also caters to tech divers but this was our first trip out using MBT Divers and the H2O Below so we were sticking to recreational limits. Just so you know though, they limit the number of divers to 11 if tech diving and limit the number of dives to 1 with a total run time of 1 hour 45 minutes.
The H2O Below has 2 fresh water showers on the aft deck and wash-down facilities as well as a large ice cooler with plenty of room for diver’s food and drinks. They do provide water and fruit between dives and hotdogs on the way back to shore. The boat also has a marine head in a cramped forward cabin. Just make sure someone is standing guard and is honest enough to let you out once you are done.
While researching this trip, I was continually warned to avoid so-called "cattle boat" operators. These charters put large groups of divers on the site making the experience more like an amusement park ride than a wreck dive. As I found out, another important issue is how many dive boats will be on the site at the same time. Still, it seems that many of the charters frequenting the Oriskany have an unspoken arrangement of when they leave the docks so as to stagger entries and exits on the site. Some boats leave at 6:00 am while others go out at 8:00 am.
Once we arrived at 9:30 am, 2 earlier boats were pulling anchor leaving us an open mooring. The bigger unknown is the number or arrival times of private boats which can appear at any time of the day to put more divers on the wreck. Once on site, a boat dive masters quickly hit the water and tied us off. He then gave us a short briefing regarding conditions and we were ready to go. There were already 5 dive boats onsite with roughly 20 divers in the water. Fortunately most were ending their dive so it was not that crowded. Still, upon descending there were divers everywhere. Slowly though, as divers from other boats ascended, we were left on the wreck almost completely alone. By the end of my first dive, my buddy was the only other diver around.
By the end of my 52 minute first dive, I had taken roughly 30 photos and could not wait to get back in the water for more. Visibility hung around 60-70 ft and water temp was in the low 80s although there was a thermocline just below the smoke stack dropping the temp down to the mid to high 70s. Once topside, the crew of the H2O Below had watermelon and orange slices for us plus plenty of water. Everyone was excited and chatting about what they had seen and where they had been on the ship.
One item of contention was the charter wanted us back in the water after only an HOUR surface interval. Considering the depth of the Oriskany, a longer surface interval would have been ideal. As we descended we could see how the limited S.I. was also limiting our time at depth. Using a 2 hours surface interval would have given us more time and still gotten us back to shore before the dive shop closed for tank fills. The lesson learned, keep an eye on your time at depth and make sure to ascend in a safe manner to get to the surface under NDL limits.
After our 2nd dive, we headed back to shore and were back at our hotel by 3:30 pm after dropping off our tanks at MBT Divers. It had been a sweltering day and we were all exhausted. We decided on an early dinner and a good night’s sleep. We had to pick up our tanks at 7:15 am and get back to the boat by 8:00 am so we wanted to be rested for the dives the next day.
The 2nd day of diving was much better than the first. This time there were only 11 divers on-board giving us ample space to gear up. We also knew what to expect and where we wanted to explore. Again, once we approached the mooring, we could see 8 dive boats onsite but after a few minutes of circling, 2 boats headed out and we were able to set our hook. On the first dive, some of us decided to go a little deeper (126 ft) and then head up from there. There was a nasty thermocline at about 75 ft which sent a chill down my back, but the visibility increased dramatically (100+ ft). It was astounding; you could see a large section of the flight deck and looking back almost the complete conning tower was viewable. This really put the size of the vessel into perspective.
On our last dive, my buddy and I decided to dive shallower (100 ft) and move up the conning tower taking photographs and noting what coral growth has started developing. As far as we could tell the coral growth and marine life is just beginning to take hold and it will take some time to see any real progress. Since the sinking of the Oriskany in May of 2006, little in the way of coral growth is observable. You could see where organisms were beginning to grow but it has a long way to go. But, because the process has definitely started, small fish, urchins, arrow crabs, bristle worms, etc… do call this ship home. This has brought small schools of tropical fish as well, and we even saw some amberjack and tuna. During a surface interval, one diver even spotted a small shark. There are plenty of jelly fish however so make sure and where a wet suit.
One thing I did note was for the possibility of conducting more technical dives on this wreck. Seeing the visibility below the thermocline and how much deeper beneath the flight deck this ship plunges really left an impression on me. I can’t wait to get a group together to go a little deeper.
All in all, we had a great trip. There are definitely aspects I wish were handled a little differently but for my first trip on the Oriskany, I thought it well worth the effort to get out there. MBT Divers and the H2O Below were both great operators. Everyone was very kind and wanted to make sure we had a good trip. I would recommend both and would use both again. For technical type dives however, I will probably look elsewhere. Limiting the dives to 1 and the run time to 1 hour and 45 minutes doesn't seem as reasonable as their recreational charters. Still, I was very happy with the services I received.