Diver down

Strap on your fins, tighten your buoyancy compensator vest, and adjust your mask. Take one last breath of salty sea air and jam the regulator in your mouth. Give the signal and take the plunge….

You’re diving off Savannah. You’re entering another world.

If this is your first dive here, there are a few things you should know. The first should be obvious to anyone who’s ever waded off Tybee Island: the water here isn’t the clearest in the world. Most local scuba diving expeditions will take you at least five or ten miles offshore. You have to go that far to get any kind of visibility.

You’ll also have to face some serious currents, depending on where you dive and when. But if you’re willing to cope with brownish-green water and kick a little harder to get where you’re going, you’re in for some truly amazing diving.

What makes Savannah diving so special? The fish, for one thing. The underwater population here is packed with variety — and changes with the seasons.

In summer, the shifting Gulf Stream brings an explosion of colorful tropicals to the area. One day you might fly underwater alongside a magnificent Manta Ray, enthralled by the hypnotic flapping of its wide wings; on another dive, you might encounter another gentle giant — a 30-foot-long whale shark — as this biggest fish in the sea passes through the area in search of its microscopic food.

Sometimes, the fish here are so thick you can barely see. Local diver Troy Montgomery remembers one dive:

“I was surrounded by a huge tornado of amberjack. They completely enveloped me and turned as I did, tightening and expanding their circle as I opened up or closed my physical space,” Montgomery says.

“I can tell you that it felt as though I was welcomed to their world, that they were happy to see me and they wanted to play. The experience could only be described as borderline spiritual.”

Other divers describe the clouds of tiny fish that often obscure the sunlight shimmering down from the surface.

Key Largo dive instructor Scott Fowler recounted such a phenomenon he experienced during a recent dive at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary twenty miles off Sapelo Island:

“If you can imagine a shimmering silver curtain right in front of you, kind of blocking your view. Sometimes you have to wave your hand through them to get them to part so you can see other fish,” Fowler says. “People travel thousands of miles and pay all the money to travel to Key Largo, when there’s a lot of stuff going on here that’s just as colorful and pretty.”

By far, the most popular dive sites off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are the artificial reefs — vessels and other objects intentionally sunk to create habitats for fish and marine mammals.

According to Henry Ansley of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, there are more than fifty ships lying in Georgia state waters, ranging in size from small barges to 100-foot-long tugboats and huge 440-foot Liberty ships. Divers also enjoy swimming through fifty old New York City subway cars and an equal number of Army tanks resting on the seafloor. South Carolina waters are home to similar dive destinations.

The wrecks and other sunken objects attract spawning fish and other opportunistic organisms. According to local dive master Gene Miles, “if we didn’t have the artificial reefs, you wouldn’t have many bottom–dwelling organisms. You’d have a sea of sand. The wrecks are our way of attracting life.”

Many divers also enjoy the beautiful sea sponges, waving sea fans, and schools of fish that swarm around Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. On a 2004 dive aimed at assessing the health of fish populations in the sanctuary, volunteer diver Sarah Goldman describes her time at Gray’s as “really cool diving. You get a mix of the tropical fish you’d see in Florida, and then also the more northern fish. It’s a neat mix.”

Goldman and her cohorts from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, or REEF, made 24 dives in the sanctuary over the course of eight days in late August. I accompanied the REEF volunteers on one of these days, and marveled at the sight of thousands of fish swimming by so quickly the divers barely had time to make notes on their waterproof slates.

Strong offshore currents are another hazard. Diver Troy Montgomery recalls spending some dives “either latched on to a wreck or with my finger tips dug deep into the sand, feeling like a shirt in a stiff breeze.”

Divers must also contend with scores of anglers seeking to hook the same fish scuba folks want to see underwater, and it’s all too easy for divers to become entangled in cast-off fishing wire — or get hit by a passing vessel if they surface too far from the dive boat. On one recent trip to an artificial reef, my dive group encountered 15 small boats, apparently fishing in a tournament. We were forced to turn around and dive somewhere else.

There are plusses, too. Diving offshore here is much easier and cheaper for local folks than piling into the car for a long drive to more popular Florida dive sites.

Dive master Gene Miles points out local wrecks are also more accessible to intermediate divers than are the more advanced wrecks of the sunshine state.

“It’s just a different kind of diving,” says Miles. “If you’re looking for something different, that’s what we have. Diving in Florida is like Wal-Mart. Everybody has the same thing.”

Michael Jordan holds a PADI Advanced SCUBA Diver certification. He has written for the national magazine Rodale’s Scuba Diving and coordinated the area’s first underwater satellite live shot from Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary on WSAV.

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