About 10 miles east of the Jacksonville Beach Pier, 60 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, the wreckage of a World War II oil tanker lies deteriorating and unrecognizable on the ocean floor.
Grouper swim in and out of its broken hull, now covered with coral. And on any given weekend, ghostly black figures bob in the water, armed with oxygen tanks, cameras and fishing harpoons.
The S.S. Gulfamerica wreck, now draped with some of Northeast Florida’s coral formations, according to local conservationists, bursts with beauty and life, while looming with a dark history as a gravesite. The Gulfamerica was torpedoed in 1942 by a German submarine on its maiden journey from Texas to New York, carrying about 100,000 barrels of oil. According to media reports, the lights of Jacksonville Beach illuminated the hull of the oil tanker, allowing the German’s a clear shot, and 19 seamen died.
Among the hundreds of dive sites glittering under First Coast waters, a few notable shipwrecks and airplanes fell to their final resting places under peril. Underneath sea anemones and sponges, stories of tragedy turn a sublime day of scuba diving into a more haunting excursion.
Captain Steve Park, former owner of Atlantic Pro Divers who still runs charters through the dive shop, lives harrowing stories like the Gulfamerica weekly on his charter dive boat, Native Diver II. Park, known as the “Godfather of Jacksonville Scuba,” started diving and spear fishing at age 8 with his father Ozzie Park, who was the area’s first dive instructor in the ‘50s. With underwater exploration in his blood, Park revels in finding new ships and searching for treasures—like souvenir beer bottles scattered among the wreckage.
“If you did find some [treasure] you might not want to tell anybody,” he jokes about the rumors of lost gold off the Florida coast.
One wreck shrouded in secrecy among local boat captains, fearing it will become over-fished, is the Peconic steamer, also known as the Razor wreck. The boat lost 20 sailors when it capsized in 1905 off the Georgia coast in a gale, according to the Association of Underwater Explorers. The wreck now rests about 32 miles off of Fernandina Beach, and got its name as the Razor wreck from fishermen who lost their catch from sharp edges of the hull cutting their lines. To be sure, the dangers of wrecks go beyond sharp edges, and true wreck diving requires advanced certification.
Aside from shipwrecks, about 30 airplanes dot the seafloor between St. Augustine and Brunswick, in an area known as “the graveyard.” Then there are friendlier ghosts, like those of gridirons past, lingering around sites like the old Gator Bowl press box, an artificially placed reef, now packed with huddles of fish.
While Park chuckles at the idea of ghosts, he admits, “Strange things happen on the water.”
Every Father’s Day, Park and his son remember Ozzie Park by diving his favorite reef, also his final resting place. Park tells the story of a surprise guest that appeared the day he and his family went to spread Ozzie’s ashes.
“A porpoise swam up and put his mouth and nose on the dive platform,” he says. “Every time something like that happens with a porpoise, my son and I look at each other like, ‘There he is.’”