A S S O C I A T I O N   OF   U N D E R W A T E R   E X P L O R E R S  

Date: Mon, 04 Jun 2001 00:57:58

AUE Weekend Dive Report June 2-3, 2001
Cities Service Empire

The Cities Service Empire was a 465-foot long tanker, owned by the Cities Service Oil Company. Built in 1918 at Sparrows Point, Maryland, the ship was originally named the Ampetco. February of 1942 found the Empire steaming from Port Arthur, Texas, to Philadelphia with a full load of petroleum products. Off Cape Canaveral, the Empire was spotted by the U-128, which, just two days earlier, had sent the Pan Massachusetts to the bottom (the Pan Massachusetts was the first merchant vessel sunk off Florida during World War II). The U-128 placed two torpedoes into the Empire's starboard quarter from long-range, instantly igniting the tanker. Shortly thereafter, the Cities Service Empire slipped beneath the surface, coming to rest on the bottom in 240 feet of water.

AUE has been trying to dive this wreck for quite a while. However, the total lack of charter boats in this area, as well as consistently bad weather, have kept us away. Finally, our perseverance paid off. This past weekend, AUE was able to get two dives on this wreck which can be described in one word: phenomenal.

We have heard many tall-tales about this wreck, including claims of numerous visits from other well-known divers. Yet, just about every description of the wrecksite we have heard from the wreck being in two pieces, to it being "picked clean" of artifacts are extremely erroneous.

I will refrain from detailing Saturdays dive as I spent the day with my girlfriend; one weekend day every three months should be sufficient, right? Sunday proved to be an even better day than Saturday with abundant sunshine and calm seas. Our team of three Mikes and one Mark loaded up and motored out of Port Canaveral, anxious to complete the 30-mile run to the wreck. Reaching the site, we found that we only had about 1.7 knot of current (much less than the 3.7kt current experienced on Saturday), allowing us to make our drop much nearer to the wreck; on Saturday, both the marker jug and the upline (with two jumbo poly balls) were promptly pulled under due to the current. After gearing up, MikeP put us in position as Mikey, Mark and I prepared to jump in. Upon getting a head start upcurrent of the wreck, the three of us dropped into 80-degree surface waters with Mikey carrying the bitter end of our upline. Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by small amberjack that swam out from the wreck to greet us. We were just off the starboard side and easily swam over to set down on the deck of the wreck just forward of where the aft superstructure used to reside. It was a tad cooler on the bottom, with my bottom timer eventually reading 63 degrees. We efficiently tied in and I then found myself looking right at a loose porthole on the deck next to the line. Two minutes into the dive this was going to be good...

The wreck of the Cities Service Empire runs SW - NE and sits bolt upright on a sandy bottom in approximately 240 feet of water. The stern deck gun still points astern, adorned by a large thicket of Oculina coral that has enveloped the breach of the gun. All decks above the main deck have been flattened; only the scattered vertical bulkhead supports remain, presenting a ghostly scene. Due to her current disposition, it is a safe bet that the wreck was depth charged several times after her sinking, as every fixture and vertical structure appears to have been vibrated loose. Portholes and other brass goodies lie loose amongst the stern area. Approximately 80 feet forward of the stern, one can witness the impact area from one of the torpedoes. It appears as if someone took a bite out of the starboard side of the wreck as an entire tank has been removed and flattened down to the sand. The shear drop-off extends around the perimeter of the tank and into the centerline of the ship. The force of the explosion blew out the hull on the opposite (port) side, with one hull plate peeled outward and upward like tinfoil. I proceeded to swim forward, following the remains of the catwalk that ran along the center of the ship. Debris with large brass valves could be seen everywhere. Soon, I found myself in another large debris area that extended the full width of the ship. The entire forward superstructure and bridge had been lowered to the main deck level, further supporting evidence that the wreck was depth charged. As I swam about the remains I quickly spotted one of the ships telegraphs. To put it bluntly, I freaked. I checked out the immediate vicinity and soon discovered the ships helm, binnacle stand with the compass bowl and cover lying next to it, as well as a second telegraph on the portside. I looked up and saw Mikey fifty feet away, slowly swimming forward. I began to crazily flash my light at him to get his attention. He promptly saw my signal and quickly swam over, probably thinking I was having a seizure or being attacked by a rabid moray eel due to my irrational behavior. I quickly highlighted the telegraph with my light and screamed with mad laughter through my regulator.

Mark soon joined us and began to document the area with his digital camera. I tried to point out all the accessories, fully aware of how rare it was to see an "intact" bridge area. The glass cover of the compass had been smashed, again possibly due to the shockwaves from depth charging. I slowly poked about the area, noting numerous portholes that ringed the bridge debris area. In order to not offend anyones sensibilities, I wont mention if any artifacts were recovered though I do recall my liftbag getting "snagged" on something

All too soon, we had to swim back against the current to our upline. The team all reunited like clockwork, with a minute or two to spare in order to free the upline. Mikey and I soon popped the upline loose as we began our drift along the wreck. Due to the wreck sitting SW - NE, a diver can view a good portion of the wreck while being swept along by the northward-moving Florida Current. Once off to the side of the wreck a bit, we could see the extent of the damage resulting from the torpedo attack. The portside hull from the torpedo hole forward is slowly peeling off and falling down into the sand like a large banana peel. Adjacent to the hole, the hull plate is already flat on the sand while forward of this it slowly rolls and reconnects with the hull. The skeletal framework of the ship was greatly exposed due to these missing hull plates. It was a very cool scene and, in my euphoria, I constantly tugged the line to excitedly try and explain to Mikey with crazy hand signals what we were looking at.

The Empire is a great dive that is unfortunately hard to get a ride to. The only negative quality to the wreck was a glaring absence of marine life. While there were the scattered tropicals observed along the decks, few, if any grouper or larger predatory fish were observed. Even the few amberjack seen appeared freakishly small.

In any case, our team is anxiously looking forward to more dives on the massive wreck of the Empire, as well as a couple of other deeper wrecks in the vicinity that have definitely not been explored by divers yet.

Until next weekend