Devil Fish

Wreck Diving in Beaufort
by Emma Kelley -- October 17th, 2014

There was something enormous playing at the edge of my visibility.  Suspended thirty feet below the surface of the sea, I tried to make out the unmoving shape below me.  In the chilled, cloudy water, my gloved hand loosely gripped the anchor line of the Captain’s Lady, our dive boat for the day.  My dive buddy and I slowly descended deeper towards our destination: the wreck of the W. E. Hutton.

The W. E. Hutton, once called the Portola Plumas, was an oil tanker built in 1920.  On March 18th, 1942, the W.E. Hutton was traveling in the waters off North Carolina, captained by Carl Flaathen.  This was during the height of the large-scale, German U-boat offensive on the United State’s eastern coast.  The U-124, was also off the NC coast, captained by KL Johann Mohr.  Mohr had already sunk three ships in the past two days, and just before midnight, U-124 torpedoed the W. E. Hutton, sinking her.  Twenty-three of the crew survived, but thirteen perished.  In June of the following year, the US Coast Guard demolished what was left of the wreck.  The remaining rubble now lie fourteen miles from the Beaufort Inlet, under seventy feet of water.

Over seventy years after it’s demise, the W. E. Hutton is now a bustling home for coral and fish.  It is also a spot frequented by SCUBA divers, including MEM students enjoying fall break….

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MEM students SCUBA diving over Fall Break. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

A few other MEMs and I decided to spend part of our break exploring some of the famous wrecks along the North Carolina coast, which is how I found myself descending down to the wreck of the W. E. Hutton.  The large object that first came into my view was one of the two boilers still intact among the rubble, each one covered in coral.  Wrecks like this provide a hard surface on which reefs can form.  Swimming along the wreck with us was a wide variety of fish.  We saw spottail pinfish, black sea bass, Atlantic spadefish, porgies, and much more.

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Spottail pinfish and coral. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

My favorite finds on this first wreck were a toadfish and a spotted moray eel, neither of which were as happy to see me as I was to see them.  I also spied one small lionfish.  Although they are more numerous further South, lionfish are found as far North as Maryland.

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A toadfish in the wreck of the W. E. Hutton. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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A spotted moray eel. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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A spotted moray eel. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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An Atlantic stingray. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

Our second dive spot of the day was a wreck with a much less violent history than the W. E. Hutton:  the USS Indra.

The USS Indra was commissioned in 1945 and spent the majority of her life in Asia, later serving in the Vietnam War.  In 1992, she was sunk to create an artificial reef off the NC coast.

The Indra was in far better shape than the W. E. Hutton.  We glided along her top decks, up to her bow.  All the while, huge schools of small, silver fish swam in an amorphous swirl around us, evading a school of Greater Amberjack, each one 2-3 feet long.  We also were passed by a school of Spanish Mackerel, the same species we were selling in tacos at the Seafood Festival last weekend.

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Inside the school of silver fish. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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Holes in the top deck of the USS Intra. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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Coral and fish along the top deck of the USS Intra. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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A school of fish swimming above the bow of the USS Intra. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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A Greater Amberjack swimming by to check us out. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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A school of Spanish Mackerel. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

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Me at the bow of the USS Indra. Photo credit: Stephanie Panlasigui

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The USS Indra. Photo credit: Emma Kelley

As we glided along the right side of the Indra’s top deck, my buddy caught my attention and pointed to a large figure cruising out of our visibility – a shark!

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A sandbar shark? Photo credit: Emma Kelley

It was not a sandtiger shark, which I had hoped to see, but most likely a sandbar shark.  Unfortunately, it kept its distance.  Bummer.

After too short a time exploring the Indra, we surfaced and enjoyed a sunny boat ride home to Beaufort.

Stay tuned for more fall break adventures!  This weekend I’m leaving the coast and headed for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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