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 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 before we reached the moorings.
I had arranged my trip with Tom’s Dive and Swim through MBT Divers out of Pensacola, FL. but MBT charters with the H2O Below to transport divers out to the site. So, three different outfits to get onsite but it all worked out with few issues.
The H2O Below is a 36' Newton dive boat certified for 24 divers. But, even though they limit each trip to 16 divers, the boat can feel a little cramped when everyone is gearing up and moving around on deck. The H20 Below caters to tech divers, which was great to hear for future dives, but this was our first trip out using MBT Divers and the H2O Below so we were sticking to recreational limits. One item to note though, they reduce the number of divers down 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 have wash-down facilities as well as a large ice cooler with plenty of room for diver’s food and drinks. They 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 boats." 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 to stagger entries and exits on the site as much as possible. 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 with an open mooring.
Once on site, the 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 and we didn't think it would be that crowded. We were wrong however and upon descending we found 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 dive buddy was the only other diver around.
The top of the smokestack is at almost 70 ft and keeping within recreational limits of 130 ft we were left with 60 ft of the conning tower and part of the flight deck to explore. There were several doors leading to passageways we could enter and exit but there were several others that had been welded shut or were simply not accessible. Most of the ship’s equipment has been removed but there was plenty of memorabilia still present providing an opportunity to envision the workings of a US aircraft carrier. I actually watched a man and woman pry off pieces of junk from one of the Oriskany’s inner walls. Even though it was worthless, they had to have it. They obviously weren’t thinking about the hundreds of other divers who would dive this wreck the wreck in the future. If each diver who visits the site does the same, there will be little left for anyone else to see – “Can you say China Fever?”
By the end of my 52 minute dive, I had 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 to fill tanks. 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 onboard 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, we headed a little deeper (137 ft) and then ascended 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 beautiful providing an opportunity to see a large section of the flight deck and almost the complete conning tower. This really put the size of the ship into perspective.
On our last dive, my buddy and I decided to dive a little 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 taking hold and more and more marine life are beginning to call this ship home. This has brought small schools of tropical fish as well, and we even saw amberjack and big tuna. During our surface interval, one diver even spotted a small shark. There are plenty of jellyfish however so make sure and wear a wetsuit.
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, I will probably look elsewhere. Limiting the dives to 1 and the runtime to 1 hour and 45 minutes doesn't seem as reasonable. Still, I was very happy with the services I received.