Intro / Background
Hot on the heels of my Bikini Atoll trip, Tyler and I had a big adventure planned closer to home and this one was a long time in the making as well.
A long time ago, I had read the first dive report on the USS Moray (SS-300) from 2012 and knew that I wanted to dive it. Tyler and I have always talked about how to get there, how to dive it, etc. but there is a really big challenge standing in the way of anybody that desires to dive the wreck: it is a permanently closed area of San Clemente Island named Wilson Cove.
The only way to get access is to receive special permission from the US Navy which isn’t on the “easy” plan. After some luck and persistence, we were finally able to dive the USS Moray on Jul 11-14, 2023.
Below are details of the trip, the boat & dive operations, and photos of the wreck. I’ll create a separate post for the photogrammetry model which was the primary goal of the dives (and is going to be epic and involves 4,000 photos)!
Scheduling / Getting Access
San Clemente Island is the only ship-to-shore bombing and warfare exercise location.
Wilson Cove is the center of operations for the Navy. Most other areas of the island have a schedule when recreational users (divers, fishermen, etc.) can be in those areas. Below is an example schedule (Note the “red” area for W/C or Wilson Cove and “Always restricted”.).
While we were on-site, the island was busy and we saw several ships and military jets as they were conducting numerous exercises.
Tyler has had a good relationship with the Navy History & Heritage Command (NHHC) from his reporting of various airplane wrecks near San Diego. We have continued to report all of our new wrecks to the Navy and supply pictures, identification information, etc. In the fall of 2022, I decided to just take a chance and email our contacts and ask if we could have them “sponsor” us to dive the Moray with the primary goal of building a photogrammetry model.
I was surprised when I quickly heard back that they would help us. We waited while the gears of the Navy turned. We heard from our contact that some personnel had changed on the island and that they were getting in touch with the new team. After some more waiting, we were put in touch with the San Clemente Island people to schedule a dive!
There are many logistical challenges with this type of expedition. Even after you get permission, you need to coordinate people’s schedules, the boat schedule, hope for good weather/conditions, etc. Finding a dive operation that can handle a team of technical divers on a multi-day trip and work with Navy personnel is no easy task but I knew exactly who to contact: Ray & Kyaa at Sundiver.
Tyler had some vacation days in early January so we set the schedule with the Navy and worked with Ray & Kyaa at Sundiver to schedule the boat. We also assembled a dive team of 6 divers. The weather was looking really crummy with rain and wind and then forty eight hours before our departure time, the Navy pulled the plug on the operation (not due to weather).
Dejected, we started thinking about whether or not this trip would ever happen. In late January, we re-synced with Tyler’s vacation schedule and set new dive dates with the Navy for Jul 11-13. We got everything lined up and waited. And waited. I emailed our two main contacts 3 months in advance, 1 month in advance, and 1 week in advance just to ensure that we were still on the schedule.
At one week out, we had a hitch. Our contacts said that we had access but we weren’t on the official schedule yet. As the days ticked by, I kept emailing to find out status. The week prior included the July 4th holiday so things were a bit backlogged. Finally, on Friday July 7th (three days before we were supposed to leave), we got on the schedule but only for the first day of diving (July 11th). We were going to be on the Sundiver and stay out for all the days. We considered different scenarios and finally decided that we would stick with the plan and hope that the Navy gave us permission for the other days.
Right before we left, we got final approval for all three days and they even got us permission to stay at a mooring ball in Wilson Cove which greatly simplified logistics.
Suffice it to say, this is literally probably a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip and you are 60 miles from the mainland with a plan to stay out there for the entire 3-4 days.
If something breaks or goes wrong, you better have a spare. I brought pretty much two of everything: two complete drysuits and undergarments (and spares / repair kits), two complete camera & housing setups, two sets of video lights, spare batteries for everything, charging cables and adapters, spare masks, fins, camera cards, etc and my trusty rEvo. Since there is a compressor on board, but not a booster, I brought 4 x O2 bottles, 3 x Dil bottles (10/50 mix), a 21/35-ish deep bailout, a 70% rich bailout, and a AL40 of O2 in case we needed it.
I checked and then double checked everything and laid it all out in the garage to verify before packing it into my car.
We had six divers all with similar amounts of gear and swamped the entire back of the Sundiver boat:
Boat & Dive Operations
We were going to be relatively remote and doing relatively serious technical diving. The stern of the Moray is about 190 feet deep and we were planning 90-120 minute run times. I have done some very serious and complex dives with Ray & Kyaa at Sundiver and I had been planning a trip to the Moray with Ray for years. Ray and Kyaa had three additional crew to help with watch, dive operations, etc. : Craig Lang, Domenic Galenti, and Isaac Waurio.
The dive team consisted of the following:
- Tyler Stalter
- Lauren Martin
- DJ Mansfield
- Anton Kozhevnikov
- Andy Huber
- Brett Eldridge
As far as I know, after the first five divers in 2012, we are the only other people to dive this wreck and Lauren is the first female to ever dive it!
Our plan was to depart on the Sundiver on Monday night, July 10th and arrive at San Clemente about 5am on the 12th. We were cleared for dive operations from 6am to 6pm on July 11-13.
We had to call in to the island operations center every day when entering the Leeward-1 zone and then check out after dive operations ended for the day. We then would transit a short 5-10 minutes to the mooring area in Wilson Cove.
For diving, we used a combination of a drop line and anchoring. We would place a downline with a ball at the wreck, then check it, and then Ray / Kyaa would expertly anchor the Sundiver so that it would be close to the ball. Most divers had scooters and I brought one but don’t like trying to deal with a scooter and shoot thousands of photos for a photogrammetry model. Therefore, Lauren was kind enough to “tow” me from the Sundiver to the downline and then back again.
We did two dives per day with about a 3-4 hour surface interval between dives. On the third day, we had a pretty good current picking up and winds were picking up and forecasted to get howling so we did one dive and got out.
Pictures below are from dive operations by DJ Mansfield and Tyler Stalter
Slow motion video of Andy entering the water by Tylerr:
Kyaa would cook up fresh breakfast before the morning dive and then lunch in between dives and then a tasty dinner. One day, Craig caught some fish which Kyaa cooked up for fresh fish tacos on the way back home on the last day.
The USS Moray (SS-300)
The USS Moray (SS-300) is a Balao-class submarine. She was laid down on 21 April 1943, launched on 14 May 1944, and commissioned on 26 January 1945.
There were a total of 120 Balao-class submarines built between 1942-1946. They are 311 feet long and have a beam of 27 feet.
During my flight-cancellation induced long layover in Honolulu, I took the opportunity to tour the Bowfin which is another Balao-class submarine at Pearl Harbor. I’ll post photos of that visit in the future. I also had a chance to dive the USS Apogon in Bikini Atoll a week prior.
Here is a lnk to a PDF with the detailed ship plans for the sister ship, SS-298 USS Lionfish.
The Moray got off to a poor start when she collided with a coal barge on 1 Feb 1945 just 6 days after being commissioned!
She served in the Pacific fleet and saw some action when she attacked a Japanese convoy of ships in July 1945 and ended up sinking a whaler. She was decommissioned on 12 April 1946 and joined the Pacific Reserve Fleet.
She was sunk as a torpedo target on 18 June 1970.
Today, as mentioned, the USS Moray sits in 190 feet of water just off the coast of San Clemente Island and is in restricted and tightly controlled waters. In the past, divers have attempted to “sneak” a dive on theMoray and been chased off by the Navy. As far as I know, the only people to dive the wreck prior to our visit were the 5 divers back in 2012.
She sits on an uphill slant with the stern being the deepest section in about 190 feet of water and the bow is about 165 feet deep. She is on her starboard side.
The guns and the props were removed before she was staged for the torpedo testing on 18 June 1970. According to a document that Steve Lawson sent me, the “ex-MORAY was sunk in 160 feet of water on the coastal side of San Clemente Island in June 1970 by two Torpedo Mk 46 warheads.”
One interesting note is that I only saw one opening in the hull and the series of photos of the sinking that Steve Lawson sent only show one hit. I’m not sure if the first torpedo missed or if they only fired one. However, there is an interesting second “hole” that became apparent in the photogrammetry model.
The torpedo hit a little forward of amidships and resulted in a large hole on the port side of the ship. which is clearly visible today.
You can poke around the area of the explosion but can’t really penetrate the sub. The wreck is covered in fish.
I’m assuming that this is at least partially due to the fact that the area is off limits for recreational use. We occasionally were buzzed by a sea lion but the real highlight was that we saw a couple large mola mola on multiple dives. Lauren also identified a “threadfin bass” on the wreck that is a rare sighting in Southern California as their typical habitat is warmer waters down south in Baja, Mexico.
I spent the first four dives taking photos for a photogrammetry model and the fifth dive taking some still photos. I have included photos of some of the key areas of the wreck below. I’ve also included some photos from other dive team members as noted.
Wreck Overview Video
First, here is a video of the entire wreck that Tyler made on his scooter and sped up by 10x. This is a really great overview:
Some photos of divers on the wreck by Anton, Tyler, and DJ, and me are below. As you can see, we had very different conditions between day 1 dives (blue water) and day 2 dives (green water).
Stern Section – note the lack of props.
Bow Section with Torpedo Tubes
Conning Tower with Gun Mount
Natural Light Photos
A few times during my dives, I took some photos without any artificial light. The benefit is that you don’t get any backscatter, but the downside is that you don’t get a lot of color.
We were very fortunate to see a couple very large Mola Mola (sunfish) on our dives and we captured some video and still photos:
Photos below are from Lauren Martin and myself:
Moray on the USS Moray
And, of course, what would any trip to the USS Moray be without a picture of a Moray Eel on the wreck:
We left the island about 11am in order to beat the wind and swells. We enjoyed our fish tacos and had a bit of a bumpy and rock-and-roll ride home but nothing too bad. We even got to see some dolphins come visit.
Dive team and Capt Ray Artnz safely back home at the dock (left to right: Tyler Stalter, Andy Huber, Anton Kozhevnikov, DJ Mansfield, Brett Eldridge, Ray Artnz, Lauren Martin):
As with any project this big, there are a lot of people involved. I wanted to specifically call out some of them:
- First, my wife. This trip came right after I had just spent 2 weeks away from home on a trip to Bikini Atoll. Her patience, understanding, and support for my crazy “hobby” are amazing.
- Second, thanks to Tyler Stalter, my dive and research partner. This trip would not have happened without his relationship with the NHHC and his encouragement to keep the end goal in mind even when we were faced with big obstacles.
- A big thanks to Capt. Ray Artnz, Capt. Kyaa Heller, and the dive crew of Craig Lang, Domenic Galenti, and Isaac Waurio. The trip was amazing and there isn’t another dive operation that I would use for this type of expedition. The downlines were perfect every time and the deck support for dive operations was outstanding.
- Thanks to Ivor Mollema and Meredith Blair Atcheson at the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). They sponsored our project, liaised with the on-island personnel, and helped with access.
- The on-island operations teams were amazing to work with and we are very grateful for the opportunity to dive the sub and for the mooring at Wilson Cove. Specifically, DeForest “Deke” Joralmon, Ph.D. (Environmental Operations Manager) and George T. Stevens IV were instrumental in securing access.
- Finally, a big thanks to the dive team. We worked flawlessly together to achieve our objectives for the trip. I know taking 4,000 photos for the model imposed limits on dives and I appreciate the flexibility.
Proceedings of the First Conference on the Environmental Effects of Explosives and Explosions (May 30-31, 1973) by George A. Young, Naval Ordinance Laboratory. Supplied by Steve Lawson.