New Jersey Scuba Diving
Local Diving Conditions
Diving in the Caribbean is wonderful. The weather and the viz are practically guaranteed, and the reefs will be right there where you left them last time. You can plan a whole vacation months in advance, safe in the assumption that it will almost certainly work out, or at least it won't be the weather that does you in.
If it were only like that here. Diving in New Jersey can be a very hit and miss proposition. There really is a lot of great diving here, but nothing in the North Atlantic is guaranteed. A week's worth of bad weather, or a month, or a whole summer of sunshine and glass seas, there's just no telling.
The diving season in New Jersey begins in June for most of us. Hardy souls in drysuits will dive all year long, but with a good 7mm wetsuit, early June is still chilly. By late July the ocean has warmed up nicely, and it keeps getting warmer through September, and doesn't really get cold again until October or even later.
So the peak dive season is June through November, right? Well, not quite. Early August starts hurricane season, and by late August it is in full swing. A couple of good storms, and everything is so roiled up that there is almost no point in trying to dive anymore. That's not to say that there can't be a good year with no hurricanes. Barring storms, with a drysuit you could reasonably expect to dive from late April to early December.
Monthly surface water temperature data from the Long Island weather buoy (44025). Bottom temperatures are considerably lower in the summer months.
Winds & Waves
Winds are named for the direction they blow from, not to. Therefore, a west wind blows out of the west, toward the east.
Waves are created by wind. The factors in the mechanics of wave creation are wind speed and direction, and fetch. Fetch is the distance over which the wind acts on the water. The longer the fetch, the greater the wave-building action. Similarly, the greater the wind speed, the greater the wave-building action.
Since our ocean lies to the east of the land, and most diving is done close to shore, a west or north wind will have a very short fetch, while a south or east wind will have a very long one ( the entire Atlantic ocean. ) So a west or north wind is far less likely to produce a rough sea than a south or east one. In fact, a west wind will often act against the incoming deep sea waves, and blow them down close to shore, making a relatively calm area that a boat can "hide" in on an otherwise rough day.
Waves are classified into two types: wind waves and swells. Wind waves, also known as chop, tend to be relatively steep, and of short period, meaning they are close together, generally about 5 seconds apart. Swells (or rollers) are the large rolling hills of water that you sometimes encounter, even on calm days. Swells tend to have long periods of 8-10 seconds or more, but are neither steep nor fast-moving. They often come in patterns, with several small ones punctuated by one or two big ones, then repeat. While wind waves tend to be locally generated, swells come from the deep sea, where they started out as wind waves and coalesced as they traveled. Swells here may be generated by storms off the Carolinas, or even further. Large long-period swells cause surge on the bottom - a back-and-forth motion that tends to stir up sediments and ruin visibility.
Sea conditions will consist of some kind of chop superimposed over the underlying swells, not necessarily moving in the same direction. Sometimes the waves are mostly chop, sometimes mostly swells. If you look at the wave reporting data from the buoys, you can determine this. Of these two types of wave, chop is much more unpleasant, although either will make you seasick if you are prone to it. Therefore, a day with 5 foot seas in mostly gentle swells might actually be better than a day with a nasty 3 foot chop.
Generally, winds below 10 knots from any direction will result in a nice day. 10-15 knot winds from the north or west are tolerable, but from the south or east are likely to result in somewhat rough conditions. Winds of 20-25 knots from the north or west may result in tolerable conditions near shore but not offshore; from the south or east, such winds bring violent 4-6 foot seas. Winds greater than that from any direction will probably result in very bad or even dangerous conditions.
Wave Characteristics & Dive Conditions:
|Height||Period ( seconds )|
|( feet )||5-6||7-8||8-10||10+|
|1-2||Very Good||Very Good||Very Good||Very Good|
|2-3||Good||Good||Very Good||Very Good|
|4-5||Poor||Poor *||Poor *||Fair *|
|5+||Bad *||Bad *||Bad *||Poor *|
|* expect bottom surge & poor visibility|
see Wind & Waves
From Day to Day
The North Atlantic is extremely changeable. The aspect that most governs where and when you will ( or even can ) dive is the wave height or the surf. If the surf is pounding on the shore, then it is a good bet the inlet will not be a good dive, let alone the beach. A big surf will even ruin conditions way up the river, say at the Railroad Bridge.
The wave heights on the open ocean will dictate your boat diving. In 1-3 foot seas, the boats can go just about anywhere, all the way out to even the farthest wrecks. In 3-5 foot seas, some boats will do that anyway, but don't count on it. Instead, a closer-in site will be your most likely destination, although perhaps as far as the Pinta or the Mohawk. In 5-6 foot seas you are going to the Delaware, and you'll wish you'd stayed home. Bigger waves than that, and you shouldn't even leave port, although some captains will try. While this may seem like admirable determination on their part ( more like irresponsible greed in some cases! ) you're better off just not going.
So how can you tell if its a nice flat day, or a sickening 5 foot chop and roll? You really can't, not without being out there. Elsewhere, I have placed links to the marine forecast for the area, but that tends to be less than usefully accurate, and sometimes grossly in error. The regular weather forecast is useless beyond a one or two day projection, and that doesn't tell you much about the sea state.
Fortunately, there is some predictability in the conditions over the course of the day, from morning to night.
Daily Weather Patterns
In a coastal area like New Jersey, the dominant winds are created by differential warming of the land and sea by the sun. Air warms over the hotter land and rises, and cool air from over the sea sweeps in underneath to replace it. These on-shore winds build over the course of the day, and so the waves they induce also build over the course of the day, then die down over night.
I have found that the best diving conditions in New Jersey are either early morning, or night. This is when the daily cycle of wave heights is at its lowest. Fortunately, the time restrictions on the inlets and beaches usually coincide with this.
Another factor which greatly affects wave height is wind direction. Winds from the north or west will tend to blow the waves down, while winds from the east or south have the opposite effect. Often a west wind will create a sweet spot right in-shore, in the "shadow" of the land. Winds over 20-25 knots from any direction are a bad sign.
For boat diving, your chances are better in the morning. In the afternoon heat, the winds and the waves build to their biggest proportions. Especially if you plan to go to a more distant site, do it in the morning, by afternoon it may be impossible. Often, the worst sea state of the day occurs in late afternoon or dusk. Another common New Jersey weather pattern is the local afternoon thunderstorm. As the air begins to cool in the late afternoon, the chance of rain increases, and New Jersey gets some first-rate thunder and lightning. This could ruin even a good day with nice flat seas.
All of this is the sort of thing that the weather forecast is useless in predicting. Of course, if there is a major storm pattern in the area, its effects will completely override these, but then you probably won't be diving anyway.
I have found no correlation between good visibility and anything else at all. Calm seas certainly don't hurt, but the worst visibility I have ever been in was with a 1 foot surf on the beach. There is however a very good correlation between bad visibility and storms, which is why a single hurricane can end the season.
Other factors which influence visibility are: algae blooms, spawning seasons of some invertebrates, which can fill the water with tiny swimmers, jellyfish ( yes, so many you can't see through them, luckily they don't sting, ) other divers churning up the bottom, and just plain gunk in the water. I don't know how to predict most of these, except to say that if you dive a lot, sooner or later you will see some good visibility. Sometimes in the ocean, the visibility will be different in different depth layers. I have seen the viz go from 3 ft on the way down the anchor line to 20 ft on the wreck.
Visibility does tend to get better and more reliable the further out you go from the shore, but that's not a rule either. There is also a tendency for improved visibility as you go south ( and east, for Long Islanders ) away from the turbid outflow of the Hudson River. With rare exceptions, pollution is one thing that is not a problem.
Looking down on the bow of the Dykes, with simply incredible viz.
Don't expect this very often !
By the way, just what is the definition of good visibility in New Jersey waters? I'd say 6-8 ft in the inlets, and anything over 12 ft at sea. That's what makes me happy, but I have willingly dived in less, a lot less. The best I have seen yet was about 40-50 feet, not even far offshore.
Note: If you are claustrophobic, or uncomfortable with the idea of sharing your pool with about a zillion tiny wigglers that you don't even know a name for, then you should think twice before diving these waters.
see Water Composition
Shore diving is very much dependant on the tide. Tidal inlets and rivers will flow with the tide, such that a river may even flow upstream for a time when the tide is incoming. Normal river currents are far too strong to swim against, and will simply sweep away a loaded diver. Many inlets have time restrictions for divers, so you will have to take the local laws and the tide tables into account to work out a good dive time.
However, there are two times when the currents drop to near zero. Those are dead high tide, and dead low tide. Of the two, dead high tide is usually better, simply because there is more water, and it is cleaner ocean water rather than silty river water. You will get about a half hour window on either side of dead high tide during which you can either drift in the weak current, or swim against it. After that, you'd better get out.
Tides are fairly irrelevant for boat diving, with a few exceptions: on the shallowest wrecks, high tide will have less surge from the surface waves than any other time. This also applies to beach dives. Also, anywhere near the entrance to New York harbor the tide may generate a strong long-shore current, washing either into or out of the basin. This encompasses the area from Sandy Hook to Rockaway, sometimes further.
Unlike ( or just like ) the Caribbean, diving New Jersey is actually better at night in many ways. That's obviously not true if you are out to survey a shipwreck, but for inlet diving there is no comparison. During the day, the day critters will be wide awake, and you won't be able to get near them, while the night critters will be down in their holes where you'll never see them.
At night, you can go right up to the sleeping day critters and pinch them, even the fish. Some even seem mesmerized by your light, which will also draw in many small invertebrates by itself. Meanwhile, the night critters will be out prowling around, including the king of all night critters, the lobster. And if you shut off the light and wave your hands vigorously, the bioluminescents will put on a show for you.
Actually, if you go down deep enough at sea, the difference between day and night becomes less pronounced as the surface light is filtered out by the somewhat-less-than-perfectly-clear Atlantic water. Basically, any time that the sun is not shining brightly high overhead is going to be nighttime on the bottom. For this reason, you should always carry a light, day or night.
Inlet & Beach Diving
If you are used to falling off a boat into the clear, warm, sunny Caribbean, and then being helped back into the boat after a nice drift, then a Jersey inlet dive may be something of a shock to you. Inlet diving requires more confidence and diving ability than almost any other kind of recreational diving.
Entry and exit in full scuba gear tend to be a lot more strenuous and difficult, whether on rocks or sand. Good balance and a fair amount of strength and agility will probably be required. In addition one needs to watch the actual time and tides, and contend with a changeable current, darkness, extra gear and flag, and lowered visibility compared to the tropics. Also, buoyancy control and proper weighting* in the shallows is trickier than in a deep dive.
All of this can easily add up to stress, exhaustion, overload, panic, and a dangerous situation for an inexperienced diver. I've seen it happen, and every year another poor beginner gets into the news by dying in one of the rivers. If you've never done a northern inlet dive, then don't try one without an experienced buddy who has dived that particular spot before and knows what he is doing. Many of the local dive shops conduct organized dives of this sort where you can get some experience. The PADI Advanced Open-Water course will also give some of this training. It also helps to have a willing friend for a shore crew, to help with gearing up, entry, and especially exit.
It is important to plan your entry and exit locations taking the current into account. Try to have the current carry you from one point to the other. If you miss your tide timing, you will be in for a difficult swim. If you are late, and you end up being carried out to sea by the river, swimacross the current until you get out of it, and climb out on the beach. If you are being swept inland, just grab on to a bulkhead or something, and wait it out at the surface, or climb out there if you can. Never try to swim against a strong current, you will only exhaust yourself, and that is where the real danger begins. At the mouth of the inlet, the river current will often give way to the ocean beach current, which runs parallel to the shore. Whatever you do in this situation, stay out of the boat channel.
A final danger in inlet diving is fishermen. While most fishermen have no problem pulling their live hooks out of the water for a minute to let you pass, there is always the chance of a jerk who just doesn't care, or isn't paying attention. You will also find a lot of old lost hooks in the river to avoid. If you get hooked, it will most likely be in your gear, not in you. Unless you can get off immediately, just cut the line. For this reason, always carry a sharp knife. Sometimes the same guy that will hook you in the first place will hang around to give you grief later. Diplomacy is key here, a good dive is ruined by getting in a fight afterwards. If you still have it, give his lure back to him. Sinkers found during the dive can also be used to placate an irate fisherman. In the many inlet dives I've made, I have been hooked several times, with no real harm done.
On the plus side, shore dives are usually shallow, so at least air and nitrogen are not a concern - you will run out of time ( or tide ) or get bored long before hitting any other limits. In an emergency, or if you feel the need to just get out, odds are there will be some sort of dry land close at hand, and the surface should never be more than 30 feet away. It would be unusual to make more than a one tank dive, given the time constraints.
Once you know what you are doing, inlet diving is safe, a lot of fun, and cheap too - just the cost of the air in your tank. The rocky areas make homes for all sorts of sea life, with many photo opportunities. Every river is different, and every inlet has two different sides to explore. There is also the possibility of recovering lost articles, like bottles, fishing rods, lures, wallets, lawn furniture, dive gear, anchors, and anything else that someone might drop into the water. If you like to hunt, you can easily turn a profit on the excursion by catching fluke, blackfish, and lobsters. Its worth the extra effort.
* If using a wetsuit, add eight to ten pounds to your usual weights on the first try; you can play with fine tuning after that. In any case, you'll want to be somewhat overweighted, so you can settle on the bottom in the current without a problem.
see Coastal Composition
Dive boat operations in the Northeast are significantly different from those you may be used to in the tropics. For this discussion, "Northeast" may be taken to mean any place north of Florida, or south at least to North Carolina.
The typical going rate for boat diving in New Jersey is about $65 for a one tank excursion, $90-100 for a two tank excursion. With recent fuel prices, you can expect a small surcharge as well. Longer, deeper, or special trips may cost more. A non-refundable deposit or credit card number is generally required to make the reservation. Once on board, the crew will do all they can to make your trip a good one, so don't forget that it is customary to leave a tip for them as well - at least $5-$10, more if one of them did something special, like retrieve what you dropped overboard, or save your life. Tips go to the chief mate, not the captain.
Departures are generally in the 7:00 - 8:00 AM range, earlier for offshore trips. You should have all your gear stowed aboard the boat a half-hour before departure. This allows time for paperwork, briefings, and a thorough "idiot-check" to make sure you have everything. The earlier you arrive, the better place you will get. Do not be late or hold the boat up. Time you waste holding up the departure is time you will not be diving, if the boat waits for you, which it probably will not. Also, every morning is a race with all the other boats out to the best spots; be late, and you will probably find someone fishing there already. Also, don't count on getting back at the scheduled time - there is no telling what delays may occur out at sea.
As a rule, Northeast dive boats provide transportation only. There will be no gear to rent on the boat, nor are tanks provided, although rentals can often be arranged through a local shop. There may be a few spare weights around the boat if you are a little light, but otherwise you must have all your own gear, and make sure you brought it with you ! Gear should be packed in a compact container as shown above ( $5 at Target. ) On boats with bench seats, your "wet" gear should fit below the bench. Trash cans and towers of milk crates are generally not welcome. And that expensive bag your dive shop sold you - leave it home - nobody uses bags around here. Suits and dry gear can go in the cabin, at least until it is wet. You can use your dive bag for that.
Bare feet are a hazard on and around boats. On a rolling, pitching boat, toes are always in danger - it is very easy to stub, break, or crush one, or rip off a toe nail. Bare feet can be extremely slippery on a wet deck, and you can get terrible splinters from a wooden dock. Finally, feet sunburn. Shoes that completely cover your toes, with grippy rubber soles are best, not sandals. You don't need to buy anything special - an old pair of sneakers or even work shoes will work, anything you don't mind getting wet and ruined. I usually sacrifice my oldest pair of shoes every season, and throw them away at the end.
Bracelets, rings, necklaces, expensive watches - jewelry has no place on a boat. The only thing you can do is lose it overboard. Rings are especially dangerous - if a ring catches on a screw head or railing when the boat rolls, it can rip your finger off. This is not an old wive's tale, it really happens. So leave all your jewelry back on land. You wouldn't want to take it scuba diving anyway.
Sunburn is a major concern on any boat. On the water, you are catching rays not just directly, but also reflected off the waves, glass surfaces, clouds, and haze. Even in temperate climates, you will burn incredibly fast. Sunscreen is not enough. A wide-brimmed hat ( not a baseball cap ) and a long-sleeved shirt are your best protection. Keep to the shady parts of the boat, and if it has a sundeck, stay the hell off it. A good pair of sunglasses will make your day better as well.
Typically, food will not be provided by the boat. Water is always available, and some boats may provide candy or light snacks, other beverages, and/or cooking facilities ( grill, microwave ) but as a rule, you will be responsible for feeding yourself. And I guarantee that you will be ravenous after emerging from your first dive, so do pack a good lunch. Most boats provide a community cooler and ice that you can use for your lunch, and a game cooler for your catch, so leave your own cooler in the car - nothing fills a boat up faster than a lot of useless coolers. The crew may joke about eating your lunch while you are in the water, but that is not as prevalent as you might think. ( I like chocolate chip cookies myself. )
"Divemastering" as it is known in the tropics is nonexistent in the Northeast. There are no guided tours or hand-holding here. If you are new and need a buddy, one of the crew may consent to take you around, but that is not their job, and you should remember them kindly at tip time. The crew's job is to work the boat: handling docking lines, driving on long runs, hooking up and releasing the wreck, keeping watch, and helping you in and out of the boat, but once you enter the water, you are on your own - there will be no divemaster in the water. Under our conditions, that would not work anyway.
It is inconsiderate and inappropriate to bring 36% Nitrox ( "whiner mix" ) on a New Jersey dive boat. 36% is limited to a safe depth of only 95 feet, which severely limits where the boat can go, and northeast weather is far too unpredictable to be hamstrung like this. By rights, if the group wants to go offshore, then the 36-percenter should be told that he is just not diving, but it never works out that way. Instead, every other person on the boat gets detoured to a destination where that one person can dive too. People with more sensible mixes, like 32%, are even more screwed, since they are now wasting their expensive fills inshore when they wanted to go offshore. 36-percenters are often left at the dock if they are caught in time. Do not bring 36% Nitrox on a dive boat unless you are the owner of the boat. Save it for the Caribbean.
Seasickness is the bane of all scuba divers. Here are a number of preventatives:
Chinese Medicine - pressure points in the wrist that are supposed to relieve the effects of seasickness. I don't believe it.
Dramamine - to be effective, this must be taken the night before, as well as again in the morning. It is not effective on all people, and some actually get worse. There is no harm in doubling the dose if you are very worried.
Eat Right - avoid greasy rich foods and excessive amounts of coffee and sugary / acidy fruit drinks. Do eat something though, an empty stomach can be even worse. Cereals, toast, bagels, etc are good things to eat before a dive trip. Bring some extra along -saltines and pretzels are excellent for settling a stomach ( see below. ) Water is the best drink - don't get dehydrated ! Get enough rest before the trip, and needless to say, avoid alcohol.
Sea Legs - just get used to it. The more time you spend out at sea on boats, the less prone you will be to seasickness. The first trip of the season I am often a little queasy, and after that I'm fine in all but the worst seas. Don't give up after one bad experience, it may take several trips, but most people eventually get used to being at sea.
So none of these things worked - some ways to make yourself feel better:
Throw up - yes that's right, go back to the transom of the boat and let it go. Throwing up is a release for your body, and you will feel much better afterwards. No one will make fun of you ( because we've all done it, ) unless you throw up on the deck, in which case the crew may be upset. Drink water afterwards to rehydrate. Dry heaves are worse than anything, so if you have to, eat something just so you can throw it up.
Get some air - go outside and breathe. Get away from closed spaces, the boat's head ( toilet ), food smells, cigarette smoke and engine fumes. Lying in a bunk below is much more miserable than being outside; the air is usually the best on the bow. Try to stand on your feet and watch the clouds and the horizon - they move least. The closer you are to the water, the less the apparent the rocking motion of the boat will be.
Dive - if you are not feeling too badly and can fight your way into your suit and gear and fall overboard, you will feel worlds better by the time you get down to 20 ft ( you may hurl in your regulator, but that's ok, they're built for it - just swish it around to rinse it out. ) If you still feel bad once you have been in the water for a few minutes, then abort the dive, but it is much better to be enjoying yourself on a dive than nauseous topside waiting for trip to end.
Some boats are better for seasickness than others. Different hulls move differently in the water, and may affect you differently. Most people do better on bigger boats, but not all. Wide heavy wooden boats with full keels are generally the most stable, while lighter fiberglass and metal boats tend to move more. Round-bottom boats are very rolly, especially when the wind blows them broadside to the waves. Fast planing hulls can give a much rougher ride than slower displacement hulls, but they also get you out and back faster. If you have a problem with seasickness, try a number of different boats, and find the ones that agree with you and the ones that don't.
Of course, if you really can't cope, you can always take up cave diving.
I'm from [ Ohio, Florida, Michigan, California, Spain, Brazil, etc ] and will be vacationing in New Jersey and would like to go diving ...
I get this inquiry all the time. Diving here, compared to most vacation destinations, is cold, dark, deep, strenuous, and difficult. Chances are, if you already own all the cold water gear, and dive with it where you live, then you will be ok here. I'm talking about folks from Canada, New England, the UK and Scandinavia, and similar places where cold-water ocean diving is practiced. On the other hand, doing a few cold-water dives in a quarry in Ohio ( or wherever ) is in no way qualification for the North Atlantic.
If you are strictly a tropical diver, then I must strongly discourage you if you think that you can simply rent gear and hop in the water for a day here. It does not matter how many entries you have in your log book, this is not what you are expecting, you will not enjoy it, and you will endanger yourself and those you dive with. There is no hand-holding here. There is no divemaster to lead you through your dive, navigate and watch your profile for you, and lead you back to the boat. Once you go in the water here, you are on your own, and in the low viz you will quickly find out just how imaginary the buddy system really is.
It is possible to rent dive equipment in New Jersey, as most shops keep rental gear on hand for instructional purposes. Dive shops are listed in the Directory section of this website. However, operators around here are not like in the tropics, where you can rent gear in the shop and then cross the street to the dock where the boat is waiting with your tanks already onboard. Shops and boats are typically separate entities here, and you will have to make all the arrangements yourself.
If you have never worn a heavyweight wetsuit and weight belt before, your first North Atlantic dive is no place to be learning. Showing up at the dock with all rental gear instantly raises a red flag for any responsible dive operator. Unless you can demonstrate a level of experience and ability that shows that you are not going to be a hazard to yourself and everyone around, no one is going to risk taking you out. Even if you do, the planned destination may not be any place that a newbie could be safely taken to, and it is unlikely that a boat full of regular customers is going to be rerouted for your sake, so the answer will probably still be no.
Finally, the weather here is often less than cooperative, and Murphy's Law says that the week that you come ...
As for snorkeling, there is really no snorkeling in New Jersey. The water is neither clear enough nor shallow enough to see anything. Occasionally I see kids snorkeling around a jetty or inlet, but it is nothing like what you might find in the tropics, and certainly not worth coming all this way for.
Sorry to be so discouraging, but for vacationers from elsewhere, diving in New Jersey is simply not a good option, and I would not plan on it. Even if you are qualified, you may have difficulty booking a spot on short notice. For those who enjoy the sea, there are miles of beautiful beaches and boardwalks, and great fishing, both from the shore and from a huge fleet of charter boats. Believe it or not, tourism is the state's biggest industry, and there are a lot of great reasons to vacation here, but scuba diving is probably not one of them.
Go fishing instead - you don't have to get out of the boat !
I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.
Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted