Diving Into History

Explore America’s history underwater at some of the best wreck diving sites in the country.

For history buffs, there’s nothing more exciting than the experience of a piece of the past. And what if you could explore famous battleships and decades-old sunken schooners? Wreck diving lets you do exactly that and more. A kind of recreational scuba diving, it focuses on exploring shipwrecks. The United States offers a variety of interesting wreck dives around the country.

Outer Banks, North Carolina
For centuries, the treacherous waters off the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks have claimed hundreds of sea-faring vessels. Known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the coast is a haven for wreck divers. The premier wreck of the area is a historic World War II German U-Boat, the U-352.

On May 9, 1942, the U-352 was prowling North Carolina’s coast for enemy targets when it opened fire on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Icarus, but the Germans’ torpedo missed. Icarus retaliated and sunk the German submarine. The U-352’s conning tower is still intact, giving wreck divers a truly intimate look into the past.

Another sunken gem in the area is the W.E. Hutton, better known as the Papoose. During the early stages of World War II, German U-boats sank numerous Allied merchant ships. In the confusion, the wreck of the W.E. Hutton was misidentified by U.S. Navy as that of Papoose. 

The upside down 435-foot tanker is a wreck diving favorite, thanks to clear waters from the Gulf Stream and a plethora of aquatic life, including sand tiger sharks. 

Oahu, Hawaii
Oahu’s waters are steeped in history, and several wartime wrecks lie on the ocean floor surrounding the island. Many shipwrecks are not open for divers to explore, including some vessels in Pearl Harbor. But the Vought F4U Corsair fighter aircraft and the USS YO-257, a former U.S. Navy yard oiler that was stationed off Diamondhead State Park, provide epic experiences for wreck divers. Purchased in 1989 by Atlantis Submarines and relocated 100 feet underwater, the YO-257 is a highlight of Oahu. For wreck divers, the YO-257 offers a rare gift: a picture-perfect swim-through on the ship’s stern.

The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes is the largest group of fresh water lakes in the world, and its chilly waters preserve hundreds of shipwrecks, some dating as far back as the American Revolutionary War. Explorers still search the lakes’ waters for undiscovered shipwrecks, even using sonar to uncover lost pieces of history.

Most wreck divers flock to the lakes in July and August for the rare chance of swimming alongside wooden schooners like Lake Superior’s 135-foot Bermuda, which is perfect for novice divers, and Lake Huron’s 138-foot Cornelia B. Windiate.

The Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve in Lake Superior is especially famous for wreck diving and the 100-foot American cargo ship Alexander Nimick is a favorite among divers. The Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve in Lake Michigan alone boasts of 13 historic dive sites. The Sandusky, the preserve’s oldest wreck that sank in 1856, sits upright, complete with a prominent jib boom and bowsprit, and a unique ram-shaped figurehead.

Pensacola, Florida
A mere 38 kilometers off the coast of Pensacola is the world’s largest artificial reef—the sunken aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. Built just after World War II, the USS Oriskany, or “Mighty O,” had a successful career, earning two battle stars for service in the Korean War and 10 battle stars for service in the Vietnam War.

The USS Oriskany, nicknamed “the Great Carrier Reef,” appeals to a variety of diving levels and is one of the most popular diving destinations in the United States. Wreck divers will be pleased to discover an array of vibrant marine life. And, because the ship was sunk in 2006, its condition makes it an underwater photographer’s dream come true.

Exploring the remains of a historic ship on the ocean floor teeming with sea life is unlike any other experience. So, it’s no surprise that wreck diving continues to grow in popularity.

If you want to go on a wreck dive, you must have open water diving certification and, depending on the level of the dive, may need to complete a wreck diving specialty course.


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.