Jersey Subway Cars? What a Dive!

To attract fish, divers and anglers, New Jersey dropped old NYC subway trains off its coast, including Deepwater Reef. Below, Sea Lion Capt. Al Pyatak shows off an artifact pulled from the Brunette wreck, one of 5,000 in Jersey waters.
To attract fish, divers and anglers, New Jersey dropped old NYC subway trains off its coast, including Deepwater Reef. Below, Sea Lion Capt. Al Pyatak shows off an artifact pulled from the Brunette wreck, one of 5,000 in Jersey waters. (New Jersey Division Of Fish And Wildlife, Artificial Reef Program)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Even 65 feet below the ocean, New York subway riders can be pushy.

Here's what happened: As I was exiting the train in New Jersey, near Brielle on the northern coast, a jellyfish with ropy tentacles smacked into my mask. I tried to elbow him aside, then shooed him more forcefully. Eventually, he drifted his way (down) and I went mine (up). The characters you meet on submerged trains these days.

Of course, that's the whole point of artificial reefs like the subway cars -- to attract marine life that would otherwise avoid such barren ocean areas. And New Jersey, despite its heavy boat and barge traffic, is hardly SeaWorld. Because the glaciers ended at Long Island, Jersey's sea floor is like a desert, with few aquatic formations to draw fish and crustaceans. So, goes the thinking, if Mother Nature isn't going to build a reef, man will.

"The artificial reef construction is a win-win situation," says Hugh Carberry, reef coordinator of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife. "The marine life have a habitat to attach to, and the fish use the reefs for refuge. The divers use it to explore, or to go spearfishing or to hunt for lobsters."

Artificial reef programs are widespread; basically, if a state has water, most likely it will dump a man-made object in it. For example, Lake Erie contains faux reefs made of rubble from Cleveland Stadium, and Texas, appropriately enough, formed a rigs-to-reefs program that recycles its petroleum platforms. In May, the 888-foot USS Oriskany, a retired aircraft carrier, was sunk about 24 miles off Florida's Pensacola Beach in the Gulf of Mexico, creating the world's largest artificial reef.

Of states with the most artificial reefs, New Jersey ranks third in the nation, behind Florida and South Carolina. Jersey has 15 sites between Sandy Hook and Cape May, and since the program's start in 1984, 140 ships have been deployed to their watery graves. Vessels, though, are not the only objects to be dropped in the ocean. Other popular materials include Army tanks, reef balls (concrete fish habitats), tires, septic boxes, concrete and, yes, subway cars. (To protect the environment, all foreign objects are scrubbed clean, and any toxic or dangerous fixtures are removed.)

New Jersey received its first shipment of public trains in 1990 from Philadelphia, and five SEPTA cars now lie on the Sea Girt Reef site. Fourteen years later, says Carberry, "the trains are 70 percent intact and fully colonized by reef life." In 2003, when New York City Transit approached its neighbor about unloading 250 steel Redbird cars, Jersey jumped. The trains, which had served the IRT lines for 40 years, were dropped in bundles of 50 at five offshore locations: Cape May and Deep Water reefs (off Cape May County), Atlantic City Reef, Garden State North Reef (off Ocean County) and Shark River Reef (off Monmouth County). Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia each secured a load as well. Yet it was the subway cars in Jersey that had me reaching for my mask and regulator.

More than a decade ago, I learned to dive in the North Atlantic's chilly, shadowy waters, but since then, I've been spoiled by the Caribbean's warm waters, lollipop-colored fish and endless visibility. Now I was ready to return to my training grounds and test my (softening) scuba skills. Plus, for once Jersey was getting dumped in, not on.

* * *

I met our group of seven from Atlantic Divers, a local operator that runs frequent trips, before the summer sun was fully awake and dawn's mist had lifted. The Sea Lion was docked in Brielle, a beach town about 70 miles north of Atlantic City, and by 6:30 a.m., the 36-foot boat was fully loaded with tanks, scuba gear and coolers. Our plan was to explore two kinds of sites, a natural wreck and an artificial reef -- and trust me, there's an ocean of difference.

Leaning on a railing, Capt. Al Pyatak gave a quick rundown of the rules and regulations, explaining the delicate toilet and the food-evacuation plan (stick your head over the side). He then took his place at the wheel for the 90-minute ride out to our first dive, about 13 miles offshore.

As the shoreline dissolved into abstract lines and squares, I chatted with Mike Nugent about the appeal of Jersey diving. The 50-year-old construction contractor, who's spent 20 years diving these waters, said he prefers the slightly ominous Atlantic waters to the sunny Caribbean's "bathtub diving."


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