Cape Ann Dive Conditions
There are two diving seasons on Cape Ann, May through October “Summer” and November through April “Winter”. Summer diving has water temperatures ranging from 44 – 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Diver’s who have dry suits usually wear them year round, and wetsuit divers are comfortable with a two piece 7mm (14mm on your torso) neoprene wetsuit, hood, boots and gloves. Visibility ranges from 15 – 40 feet. The summer marine life is abundant. Schools of Pollock, Striped Bass, and Dogfish swirl through the water column, and Flounder, Skate, Sculpin, Sea Ravens, Ocean Pout and of course Lobster hide among the rocks and kelp. It is not unusual for divers to do two dives of about 45 minutes to an hour this time of year.
Winter diving’s water temperatures range from 45 – 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and visibility from 0 – 60 feet. We tend to have more storms during this time of year, so visibility is frequently reduced. However, when we do get a quiet spell, the water becomes gin clear, revealing panoramic views of your favorite dive sites. Divers are wearing dry suits, and usually do one dive instead of two. The marine life isn’t quite as varied this time of year, the fish have moved on, but the invertebrate life can be quite pretty. We also have Harbor seals that visit during these months.
The following articles about diving Cape Ann were written and photographed by Dave & Sue Millhouser. Many of their articles have been published in Magazines such as SCUBA Times, Discover Diving, and Underwater USA They have graciously allowed us to reprint them here for your enjoyment.
Weekender, The Wreck of the Chester Poling
Dave & Sue Millhouser
Descending through the green algae bloom like an airplane letting down through clouds, suddenly at about 30 feet, we broke out of the haze. The water cleared dramatically... and spread below us, as far as we could see, was the spectral wreck of the Chester Poling.
Approaching from the stern, it looks like she's under way. Upright and nearly intact, the Poling sits on a white sand bottom in 90 feet of water, off Gloucester MA., or at least half of her does.
Snapped in two by a vicious Nor'easter in January of 1977, her Mayday set in motion a heroic rescue effort that saved all but one of her 7 man crew. The bow turned turtle, sinking in deep water, but the 165' stern section drifted close ashore.
Pulling down the line, we passed one of her twin stacks. There were a few anemones growing on the outside.. but the opening was full... a bouquet.
The fantail's deck structures remain as they were. Chafing gear, winches and bollards are eerily intact, ready to tie up one last time. The life boat launching mechanism stands on the deck where seamen waited for a swinging helicopter basket... and where one missed... and died.
Moving forward, there is a companionway that leads to the crews quarters and engineering spaces. Though not terribly complex, it's still best left to experienced divers.
Just ahead a number of hatches that provide direct access to the engine room. You can drop vertically all the way to the space between the 2 big diesels. Although there's some silt at the bottom, there's no reason ever to lose sight of your entrance.
Forward of the stern superstructure is the tank deck. Running it's length, all the way to the broken end, is the catwalk. Perhaps the most stunning part of the wreck.. every square inch is covered with colorful marine growth... a photographers paradise.
The hull has settled into the sand to her normal water line. The broken end is spectacular, clean and sharp, a 20' vertical drop to the sand bottom. The most attractive parts of the wreck only require a 75' dive.
A real treat even for folks who dive just for the beauty of marine life, often the first sign that you're over her is a tremendous school of Pollack that shows up on the depth finder. The 281 foot coastal tanker was an ugly duckling during 50 years of seafaring.. but in her final resting place has become a tribute to nature's artistic ability.
Weather permitting, visibility can be as much as 70' during Winter and Spring. Summer's algae bloom drops the average to 30 feet or so. No experience in diving has moved us as much... as the feeling of descending through haze to the thermocline, and breaking into gin clear water with Chester Poling visible below.... looking for all the world like she's under way to some ghostly port.
Chester Poling rests off Gloucester harbor, less than 15 minutes from where many of the charter boats dock.
Situated on Cape Ann Massachusetts, 30 miles northeast of Boston, Gloucester, the nation's oldest fishing harbor, boasts a wide variety of things do. From shopping and whale watching to fishing, wind surfing and swimming, there's lot's to do for the whole family.
Accommodations range from seaside luxury hotels, to campgrounds, with similar range in restaurants. Summer weather is usually good, but Spring and Fall often provide the best diving (and pricing). Winter can provide spectacular visibility for the hardy.
In addition to the Poling, a number of wrecks are spotted around the Cape's rocky shores, as well as a huge variety of beach diving and snorkeling. Regardless of wind direction, there is a usually a safe place to dive.
New England's Wall Dive Halfway Rock
Dave and Sue Millhouser
Warships! Nerves were stretched taut as the rigging on the Constitution, as lookouts called out bearings and distance on the pursuing ships.
Under normal circumstances, the two rapidly approaching British warships would pose minimal danger, if she couldn't outfight them both, then she would easily outrun them.
April 4, 1814 wasn't a normal day for the American ship. She'd just made landfall at Cape Ann and turned southwest towards Boston, when she spotted two sets of sails, hull down on the horizon. Although this had been one of the war's most successful patrols, harassing British shipping in the South Atlantic, Constitution was limping home with a cracked mainmast.
The frigate Constitution was a uniquely American creation, big and fast. One of the "fearsome 44's", she could outgun or outrun anything the British Navy had. Her hull design was far ahead of its time, a precursor to the Clipper ships 20 years in the future.
Only a massive "Ship of the Line" dared slug it out, but none could catch her. So feared were these American 44 gun frigates, an order had been circulated to all British captains... under no circumstances should they engage Constitution or her sisters, unless they had two or more vessels.
They had two..... Junon and Tenedos. With a damaged mast, Constitution lost the speed and maneuverability that made her such a dangerous opponent. Enroute to blockade the port of Boston, the British crews were electric with excitement at the possibility of taking one of the big Americans.
For the first time in a distinguished career, Constitution was in trouble.... and for the only time... she ran. Turning southwest towards Boston, Captain Charles Stewart piled on all the sail she could take. The crew franticly lightened ship, pitching over the side water casks, food, and in a last desperate measure.. the alcoholic "spirits".
As she rounded Halfway Rock, a freshening breeze gave hope. Captain Stewart, who went on to be one of Constitution's greatest skippers, was too experienced to trust a single gust, and gave up on reaching Boston, using the wind to scoot into Marblehead Harbor... only about 2 miles from the rock.
Marblehead had no fortifications, but the British didn't know that. Townsfolk left church services to get their muskets... intending to defend her from the hills overlooking the harbor. The British stayed offshore. When the breeze was right, Captain Stewart sailed quickly to nearby Salem, and hunkered down under the guns on Juniper Point. Constitution waited till Junon and Tenedos gave up, and sailed to Boston for repairs.
Halfway Rock has seen it all. The name comes from being almost exactly halfway between Cape Ann and Boston, it's been a crossroads of New England sea travel for 450 years. On a clear day Boston is visible southwest, Gloucester to the northeast.
Several of the historic fishing schooner races included the rock as part of the course. International yacht races have used it as a finish line. In 1898 the paddlewheeler Portland steamed past, all lights ablaze, before disappearing forever into the great blizzard that was later named after her.
The rock hasn't changed.. in a famous painting called Constitution Escapes to Marblehead the 1814 Halfway Rock looks exactly as it does today. Constitution's wake smacked into a cleft on the north side that drops into the water... and continues down for 80 feet.
As you leave the surface, it descends vertically through an inter tidal zone of swaying kelp and Pink Hearted Hydroids to a bare rock surface. It's not bare for long.
Huddled groups of Frilled Anemone appear, brown bodies with their white tentacles reaching for plankton. Eyed Finger Sponges stick up like brown Saguaro cactus'.
Under the thermo-cline, suddenly the wall becomes a pink blanket. As far as you can see, the granite is covered with puffs of soft coral. In some of the few open spots, there are a few bright red and white Tealia, the largest local anemone... able to sting and eat fish. Stalked Tunicates bob and weave in the surge, while their squat red Sea Peach cousins just sit.
During the summer, when you can finally make yourself turn away from the wall, there is usually a school of Pollock swirling just off the rock. Fluorescent Comb Jellies often speckle the water column.
And turn you should... this is the place where you see the occasional Big Guy. The last bit of land before the Continental Shelf.. once in awhile such pelagic giants as Basking Sharks and Giant Ocean Sunfish happen by.
The New England version of Wall Diving... Halfway Rock attracts a stunning quantity and variety of marine life. It's the only place in the region where you can go nearly vertical, from the inter\tidal zone to 100', almost without swimming. Valve some air from your BC and ease on down.
As you near the bottom, there are big overhangs, and small caves. Lobsters cower deep in crevasses, and Cod hide in holes (sometimes like Ostriches... with their head in and tail sticking out). Like jet fighters, Dogfish flash into view and disappear into the dark.
Since the rock is several miles offshore (Marblehead is the nearest town) visibility is often significantly better than beach dive sites. Often during the summer, it exceeds 30 feet beneath the thermo-cline, and winter can be better.
One of Halfway's charms is that it has something to offer every skill level. Snorkelers enjoy paddling in the cleft, and can often see the divers exploring below them. A majority of the walls most beautiful creatures can be seen in the top 40'.
For the more adventurous, having the wall for reference makes doing deep dives a bit safer. Near the bottom there is little color, but Sea Raven's, Skate and Ocean Pout prowl about. Once you've passed 80 feet, the rock begins to taper out onto a flat bottom that resembles a parking lot on a cold rainy night.
130 feet is possible. In New England diving, "deep", "dark" and "cold" are interchangeable adjectives. Narcosis seems to come earlier in cold water.
Most of the really attractive sedentary marine life is found on the Northwest side's vertical wall. This is probably because it's protected from the surge of the thunderous winter storms that often pound Halfway from November to May.
Some divers circumnavigate the rock, or concentrate on the grottos of the western side. There seems to be less quilting of marine life, but fish are everywhere.
Halfway Rock is a wall dive in every sense of the word. It rises like a monolith from 130 feet, the surrounding bottom is flat gravel or granite. The top of the rock juts 10 to 20 feet above the surface, and is about 60 feet in diameter. Roughly circular, it drops off steeply at every exposure. The northwest side is nearly vertical, with overhangs in some spots.
Current is not usually a problem here.... but it's always smart to check. There have been a few unwelcome surprises, followed by long swims. Keep the Dive Tables in mind. Many New Englanders don't often dive deep enough to get into decompression trouble. This is one of the places where you can... if you don't pay attention.
During the 450 years that western civilization has existed in New England, this rock has been a reference point for travellers. When the Pilgrims passed, on their way to fish Cape Ann, when East Indiamen returned to Salem laden with oriental treasure, when convoys of troopships formed up for the long haul to Europe in two World Wars... it looked as it does today.
There are few places left that have seen so much history, yet remain unchanged. From season to season, and year to year, the marine life adapts... animals and colors ebb and flow... but the rock is the same. Not just for Westerner's 450 years, or the Native American's 1,500... but for eons.
Only for the last 40 years has it been possible to see the remarkable beauty hiding just beneath the surface, unsuspected by all those generations.
New England's Stealth Fish
By Dave and Sue Millhouser
One of New England's most interesting forms of marine life manages to be, at the same time, stealthy as a Ninja warrior, and outrageous as a punk rocker.
Sea Ravens (Hemitriptus Americanus) conceal themselves artfully in the kelp catching food merely by inhaling unsuspecting fish that dawdle by. Divers can be within inches of one without suspecting a thing (a fatal mistake for a small fish). Even when you're looking for them, they can be hard to spot. Despite varying in color from blood red to chocolate brown...purple or yellow, more often than not, they see you long before you see them. Away from the concealment of kelp, these creatures look more like a punk rocker than a fish.
Sea Ravens are part of the Sculpin family. Their relatives range all the way from the bottom of the deepest fresh water lake in the world, to the coral reefs of Australia. One member of this family is found at the bottom of Lake Baikal in Russia, another is the poisonous Stonefish of the Austro/Asian coral reefs, and yet another is the beautiful Lionfish of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
The Sea Ravens pictured here can be found from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Chesapeake. These were photographed in the shallow waters of Massachusetts Bay, but others have been found at 600 foot depths off the Canadian fishing grounds. Almost always found on rocky bottoms, concealed in kelp, they appear to prefer water colder than 60 degrees, and seem to move farther offshore as water temperatures climb during the summer.
These fish are interesting to photograph because of the way they react to perceived threats. When attacked by something he can't (or won't) outrun, a Raven swallows large quantities of water, swelling to what he hopes is intimidating size. Like many other threatened fish, he raises the dorsal fin, but his is unique. Split into two segments, the rear half is fleshy and soft, but the front, extending all the way forward of the gill slits, is very bony and sharp. The spine of the dorsal is covered with a mucous rich in bacteria, so any cut you get is likely to become infected.
The Raven's unique appearance sets it apart from other members of the Sculpin family. Distinctive features include fleshy, leaf like tabs on the head and jaw, the ragged outline of the first dorsal fin, and the prickly texture of the skin. The head is large, with bony protuberances. The eyes continue in the pattern of skin coloration (and can produce haunting photographs).
A voracious eater,... not only does he inhale small fish, he eats whatever invertebrates can be found on the bottom. An impressive mouth, with several rows of teeth, enables him to eat sea urchins, mollusks, crustaceans ... and almost any bait offered.
One of the Raven's virtues is that he stays put (presumably figuring he's not been seen). This makes him a wonderful photographic subject, he models tirelessly.
It comes as a surprise to discover that a fish so lacking in overt charm would be very choosy. The male fertilizes 15,000 or so eggs inside the female. She then searches for a particular kind of finger sponge (Chalina). Every time she finds one she feels is appropriate, she deposits 250 or so of the fertilize eggs at it's base. That's a great deal of work, and allot of chasing around. Normally the eggs are laid between October and December (could it take that long to find the sponges?), hatching in March.
Sometimes growing as large as two feet, and 5 pounds, the Sea Raven is supposed to be good eating. He's not harvested commercially because, like most Sculpin (and unlike the writers), he has more bone than meat.
If you dive the Atlantic very often you've surely been close to Ravens many times. There are few experiences that rival the feeling you get when a piece of kelp turns into a large fish, and swims off. Raises your heart rate every time.
Look for them next time out. The effort involved is sure to pay off. Even if you never spot a Sea Raven, your explorations of the kelp will surely turn up other interesting types of life seeking protection in the vegetation.
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Paddock Rock From Underwater USA August 1993
Only a diver knows the feeling. A backward roll off a boat anchored in the open sea.... descending to a bottom that's never been seen before... with only a guess at what you'll find.
The dive began as a dark spot on the chart. Steve Smith, Captain of Gloucester based Cape Ann Diver, noticed a small area where the bottom appeared to rise from 78 feet to 13... quickly. It only took a few passes over the area before the depth finder spiked, the anchor was dropped and backed tight. For better or worse, we were hooked on "Paddock Rock".
The name doesn't turn up in any local histories, so we know nothing of it's origin. Visibility was 40 feet, with a bare granite bottom easily seen. It was the second dive of the day, suiting up went quickly... and quietly. None of us had ever been here before, or heard of anyone who had. Even though we were only a couple hundred yards from a popular site called "Egg Rock", this was unknown territory.
As we pulled down the anchor line towards the rocky bottom, everything looked pretty much as expected. Bright sun on light granite, with a variety of brightly colored Northern Starfish. The anchor was trapped by a small shelf near the top of the submerged rock, so we ascended as we passed it. Up over the top, and down the sloping seaward side.... pretty much as expected..... until... the whole world disappeared into a black hole. The slope became a sheer drop, and then an overhang. From 30 feet to 78, the drop was more than vertical. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, it became clear it wasn't just a wall, but a huge crevasse. The bottom was white rippled sand, and on the other side another wall rising almost as steeply towards the surface.
The boat's depth finder hadn't even hinted at this. The trench went farther than the eye could see, both to the left and to the right. It was as if we'd stepped off the rim of the Grand Canyon, the chasm so uniform it might have been cut by God's own trenching machine. Both walls were covered with soft corals, sponges and anemonae. Fan Worms (Christmas Tree worm's plain cousins) dot the wall, and one diver reported the "Mother of all Scarlet Psolus". These bright red relatives of the sea cucumber aren't that rare, but it's nice to find them in an area where they're not covered with silt. Cunner flitted in and out of holes, like tiny advance men for the lobster who will move in later this Spring. The sun and surface seemed a long way off, viewed from the bottom of the 20 foot wide chasm.
Valving air into our BC's to slow the descent, we drifted slowly downward, and rode a gentle current along this giant natural mural. Bottom time was short, the day's first dive had been on a fairly deep wreck, and this dive had become deeper than we'd planned. There was no opportunity to explore either end of the trench, or do much more than cruise briefly and head back to the anchor line and home.
Who knows if others have been in this trench. If they have, we'd never heard of it. For thousands of years it's been there, pretty much exactly as we saw it. Dozens of times we've cruised near, or over it... never suspecting.
Few other sports offer this kind of opportunity... a chance to be the first person ever to see a part of our world. There's nothing quite like it. How remarkable that, for us, it happened so close to a part of the country that's been heavily populated for 350 years.
"Paddock Rock" shows clearly on the charts near "Egg Rock", off the coast of Manchester, Massachusetts. Egg Rock extends 20 feet or so above high tide, and is a fine dive site, with smaller walls, nooks and crannies on the seaward side. Both are a short run down the coast from the mouth of Gloucester Harbor.
Part of the excitement of diving in this part of the world is returning to a place repeatedly, through the seasons, getting comfortable enough with it to notice small changes, new life. Certainly we hope to make Paddock Rock one of those spots.
An even greater source of excitement, and adventure, is finding new places.... descending in mystery to see things that may never have been seen before. A rare privilege that divers and a few others can know. How many other places, just as spectacularly beautiful, are within a few minutes boat ride?
Wherever you live and dive, once in a while take the time to explore that unusual blip on the depth finder, or a remote piece of shoreline. Who knows??
30 miles northeast of Boston, sticking like a thumb into the Atlantic, Cape Ann offers a variety of beach and boat diving, with plenty to do for non-divers. Paddock Rock is only a few minutes run from the mouth of Gloucester Harbor, and is very close to a number of well know dive sites and wrecks.
Rockport and Gloucester have a number of fine motels and restaurants. For non-divers (or tired divers) there is sightseeing, fishing and whale watching. A number of dive boats operate out of Gloucester MA, and can be booked through Cape Ann Divers, the full service dive shop in Gloucester (978 281 8082). Some run 7 days a week, and accept walk ons. Most are licensed for 6 divers, so it's best to call ahead.
There are several boat ramps on Cape Ann, the closest to Paddock Rock is at the Gloucester High School. Although it's clearly marked on the charts, you'll need both a good depth finder, and pilotage skills to find the rock the first time.
Dave & Sue Millhouser