History and mystery beneath the waves

The confluence of human history and aquatic opportunism takes center stage at the Aquarium.
Three exhibits replicate famed shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast. Sunken vessels such as these form the foundation for complex marine communities, much as natural reefs do elsewhere in the ocean. Corals, barnacles and sponges attach to the debris. Small fishes seek shelter in the recesses. Gradually, larger predatory fishes, octopus, eels and sharks expand the food web.

The fishes, sharks, invertebrates, sea turtles and other animals vary in each exhibit according to where the wrecks they represent rest in the underwater ecosystem.


German U-boats sank scores of cargo ships, tankers and passenger liners along the East Coast during World War II, a reality still not widely known more than 60 years later. On May 9, 1942, the U-352 fired on the Coast Guard cutter Icarus 25 miles off Cape Lookout. The Coast Guard fired back, and the submarine lost the resulting altercation. It went to the bottom in about 100 feet of water, the first U-boat to be sunk by the Coast Guard.

A three-quarter-size replica of the U-352 as it looks today lists to starboard at the bottom of the 306,000-gallon Living Shipwreck. The fearsome-looking sand tiger sharks, schools of colorful fishes and other animals that populate the Living Shipwreck are typically found around this wreck and others offshore.

The extensive and varied marine community makes the U-352 a popular recreational dive site. In the Living Shipwreck exhibit, divers chat with visitors through underwater microphones. Three viewing windows – one of them 65′ long – frame the constant swirl of color and motion around the submarine. A concave cylindrical window at one end imparts the sensation of being inside the tank.

Wreck of the Caribsea

The Caribsea was carrying manganese from Cuba to Virginia when the German U-boat, U-158, torpedoed it  near Cape Lookout on March 11, 1942. The 251-foot freighter went down in 85 feet of water, taking 21 crew members to their deaths.

Ocracoke native James B. Gaskill, the ship’s engineer, was among the victims. According to Ocracoke accounts, the Caribsea’s nameplate and Gaskill’s engineering license washed ashore on the island. The nameplate now hangs in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ocracoke Visitor’s Center. The cross on the altar of Ocracoke’s United Methodist Church honoring Gaskill is said to have been carved from a wooden spar salvaged from the lost ship.

The Carbisea also is popular with recreational divers. The 12,000-gallon Wreck of the Caribsea exhibit at the Aquarium hosts some of the ocean’s more colorful swimmers – blue tang, black-barred soldierfish, Spanish hogfish and queen angelfish – as well as a host of other animals.

Queen Anne’s Revenge

A 1996 diving expedition near Beaufort Inlet came across an intriguing field of cannons, ballast stones, anchors and navigation instruments, dating to the 1700s. The artifacts tentatively have been linked to a pirate ship once commanded by the infamous Blackbeard. The Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of Blackbeard’s fearsome fleet, was last seen sinking in the inlet after running aground in June 1718.

Regardless of whether it once belonged to Blackbeard, the Beaufort Inlet wreckage is a fascinating glimpse of maritime history and near-shore marine life. The Underwater Archaeology Branch of the N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources is excavating and conserving artifacts while researching the provenance of the centuries-old items. The state periodically allows restricted, guided educational dives on the site. The website has more information.

The 50,000-gallon Queen Anne’s Revenge exhibit re-creates the compelling scene as it looked when divers first came across it. Bonnethead sharks, sea turtles, cobia, black sea bass and other animals circle replicas of cannons, ballast stones and encrusted anchors, scattered about on the sandy sea bottom.