Old ship tempts divers to unsafe depth

PENSACOLA — For many scuba divers, the thrill of visiting the sunken aircraft carrier U.S.S. Oriskany is touching the deck.

But Hurricane Gustav pushed the wreck deeper, putting the deck just out of safe reach of recreational divers and threatening the appeal of the underwater tourist attraction.

When the ship was sunk in May 2006, the flight deck was 135 feet down, 5 feet outside the recreational diving limit, but instructors said it still was relatively safe for tempted divers to make the touch.

"People just had to touch it," said Eilene Beard, co-owner of the Scuba Shack. "And we'd say, 'Okay, bounce down there and touch it and get back up here so you don't use all your nitrogen.' "

But after Hurricane Gustav pushed through the Gulf of Mexico, the sunken ship shifted about 10 feet deeper.

To an untrained diver, 10 feet may seem insignificant, but instructors fear it could affect the appeal and safety of the local attraction.

"That extra 10 feet made a huge difference," said Jim Phillips, owner of MBT Divers. "What makes the aircraft carrier different than any other ship out there is that flight deck. And everyone wants to touch that flight deck. Now that it's at 145 feet, it's luring divers a significant amount past that 130-foot limit."

Diving the Oriskany was the clincher for New York resident Bradley Gaiser. It was part of the reason the 47-year-old master scuba diver and his bride wanted their wedding in Pensacola recently.

He'd made the dive before. He'd traveled through the top of the impressive sunken wreck. He'd seen the array of marine life. But this time he was back to touch the famous flight deck.

"A lot of my students want to know how deep I can go," Gaiser said. "There's no reason to go down there other than to say that I did it."

Without proper equipment and training, the added pressure of reaching that depth can be dangerous to divers.

"The farther you go down, the more you push your limits," said Beard, who also is chairwoman of the Escambia County Marine Advisory Committee.

Specific combinations of oxygen and nitrogen are mixed for different depths, Beard said, and exceeding the 130-foot mark can be very dangerous without preparation and training.

At farther depths, the bloodstream absorbs more nitrogen, which can lead to nitrogen narcosis, a feeling of drunkenness and skewed judgment, or decompression sickness upon ascent, where nitrogen bubbles can build up under the skin, tissues, joints and against the spinal column.

Deeper dives also reduce "bottom time" — the amount of time available to dive based on the amount of oxygen and nitrogen consumed.

Unfortunately for Gaiser, bad weather kept him from making the dive. Gaiser is a trained technical diver who is certified to dive to depths of 200 feet.

And so is his friend Gerry Mosconi, 48, who also traveled from New York and made the morning dive. While certified to dive outside of the recreational limit, Mosconi said he resisted touching the flight deck because he had not brought the proper equipment and was not willing to take the risk.

"There's that sort of people who take a car out and see how fast it will go," Mosconi said. "They're not trained for it. They can't handle it. Sometimes they get lucky, and sometimes they don't."

A May 2007 report by the Haas Center measuring the Oriskany's impact on the local economy estimated that in Escambia County 37 jobs and $2-million in local output were generated.

Area shop owners feared that news of the shift might deter potential divers. After Gustav, business tapered off, Beard said. But she said she's been overwhelmed lately with calls from people asking about its condition.

"Now we have to re-educate people on it, but it's still a perfectly viable dive," Beard said.

Old ship tempts divers to unsafe depth 11/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:49am]

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