As a land locked youth in New Jersey, with the closest water being the Delaware river, and that was within walking distance, the opportunity to dive usually meant the river, or a bathtub. Going to the Jersey shore for a dive was almost exclusively out of the question.
How It All Started
My interest in diving started in the mid 1950’s with the family taking vacations to Florida. Back then, the 2 1/2-day drive was an experience within itself. I even remember cows on the road in some forgotten Georgia town. But the real thrill was finally hitting the Florida border. We were close now, but not as close as it sounded. Florida is one heck of a long state!
Getting closer to Ft. Lauderdale, we would pass the occasional dive store and I would just stare. In the window would be a small yellow tank with straps, lots of straps and maybe a 2-hose regulator. Even while at the hotel, getting to a dive shop was not easy. A 9-year-old is not allowed to drive in Florida. Not sure about Georgia though. Being 9 though, it wasn’t difficult to make friends. With our green masks with plastic lenses and green rubber fins, we would play frogman in the pool all day or look a 3-inch fish in 3 feet of turbid water at the beach. Once I even saw a small barracuda but was told by my mother not to mention it or my sister might not go in.
My non-vacation diving time was spent watching Sea Hunt every Saturday night. Even during a great summer game of bicycle tag, I would quit (to remarks like “chicken”), to go home and watch Mike Nelson. Never missed an episode and always dreamed of those 200 feet visibility. Many years later I would see it first-hand.
Each year we vacationed for 3 weeks in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida up until 1965. By then I had my own tank and a Scuba Star regulator which by today’s standards would be deemed unbreathable and unexhalable. Still, it was mine and the dives at Pennecamp and off of Ft. Lauderdale were beyond description. I was in heaven. Even though I had quite a few dives in New Jersey I will never forget my very first dive in tropical waters. The site was directly out from our hotel from where I had actually watched the dive boat numerous times with my father’s binoculars days before.
There wasn’t much of plan. The man who had given me some additional lessons the day before said follow me and that’s what I did. I had no watch or pressure gauge, just a J rod to pull when I thought it was needed. After about 10 minutes I was told we should head up. I pulled the rod just because I thought I should and went back to the boat wondering why we all quit after such a short time. On the way back one of the other divers, who did not have a watch either, asked how long the dive had been. The leader of our pack said 45 minutes and my jaw dropped. In my mind it had really only been 10 but the overwhelming beauty and experience just left me with no sense of time.
Quarries In New Jersey
Back in New Jersey, my area had numerous quarries, most of which were either off limits or a gray area of legal use. Almost all were hangouts for drinkers, swimmers and whatever else people did in and around these secluded places. One summer I recall preparing for days for the journey to a quarry which had always looked interesting, but signs said, “No Entry”. It was actually a quarry in a quarry. We had to climb down a rather difficult path to get to the water. It was hot, really hot and we had to make 2 trips hauling gear. When we finally started to suit up, a voice came across from the other side. At first, we couldn’t see anyone. Then the person became clearer. There was something about the clothes he wore and his general appearance. My friend Steve looked over at me and said “cop”. We made it back up with all gear in one trip, wetsuits on and sweating, threw everything in the car and floored it.
We went back again next summer and to our surprise had probably the best quarry dive ever. Visibility was an astounding 60 feet or better. The overall depth was never much, and we had an opportunity to follow railroad tracks, enter what was probably a mess hall, swimming in the rafters, around a steam shovel and generally enjoy a perfect dive. Even after surfacing, not a soul around. The next time was not so great. Expecting good visibility again and our driver promising he would go down a steep road, we packed up and headed off. When the guy with his ’57 Chevy saw the incline and the state of the road, he said no way. Great! So, we hauled everything down including a little blue and yellow rubber raft which I was so anxious to use. Upon arriving at edge, the water was as thick and green as anyone could every dream. If you wanted to get pea soup, this was it. Hot as could be, dehydrated and near death, we hauled everything back up the road and headed to Jimmy’s Custard Stand where I chugged down 2 large orange drinks none stop. I have never been that thirsty before or since.
There’s another quarry that no one was allowed in, but we thought it would be easy to go anyhow. This quarry had slot machines dumped in its eons ago as part of an illegal gambling cleanup. At the time the police threw the machines in, no one thought there would be recreational divers in a few decades. Steve and I thought we would at least look at the place before trying to get in. One Saturday morning we drove nearby, parked the car and started to walk back the road. We got less than halfway before we were formally stopped by someone who must have been some sort of authority. I still have never even seen this quarry.
Of all the quarries, Stewartsville, NJ was the most used by everyone and anyone. Some summer days, especially the middle or end of the week, diving was not too bad. Weekends were of course loaded with swimmers and sun bathers. But one day, after getting a few friends together for a dive, we found someone had dumped a few truckloads of dirt to block entry down the road. So, another favorite spot was supposed to off limits. No problem just knocked down a small tree, some bushes and drove around. The road and quarry were such that unless someone came all the way back, no one could see what was going on. Steve, Ron and I made many dives there.
Wonderful Dive Spots Outside Of New Jersey
Not only New Jersey had these wonderful dive spots, but Pennsylvania, just across the river, had a few also. One was Wind Gap, a very deep slate quarry. I dove there only once to what was then my greatest depth, all of 80 feet, swimming under a ledge of some sort with visibility just enough to see the diver’s fin, which I was all but holding on to, in front of me. Unfortunately, just a few weeks later a young boy drowned while diving and that quarry was shut down. This obviously scared a lot of people and better steps were taken to keep everyone from all quarries. Stewartsville now had a gate with no way around it.
As my quarry “expertise” grew, I heard of new quarries to conquer. Oxford had a supposedly good one. Off limits of course but remote enough that access would be clandestine. Another dive buddy by the name of Bob had a plan to have a small tire tube tied to a rope so we could use it as a down line. Another long trudge with our gear and sweating more water that the quarry had, we suited up, sweating more and went in. Overweighted, overheated and inexperienced we soon found the small tube coming down along with us. This upset Bob who suddenly looked like he wanted nothing more that to get back to the surface at almost any cost. My first reaction was to drop his weight belt, but he somehow made it clear that these were too expensive and even though things were getting worse, we both managed to kick our way back up, exhausted but not drowned.
My second dive at Oxford was a bit better. A different buddy and the weather not as hot. We had an interesting dive with zip visibility until we swam under a layer of algae, and it just opened up. The depth was around 60 feet by then and a sheer wall presented itself going down to an unknown depth. We swam along a bit and pretty much ended our uneventful dive.
I got a call from that same buddy, can’t remember his name, who said there was a quarry down around Trenton somewhere. So, we packed up and headed off. When we arrived there were some rather questionable characters, both male and female swimming (sort of) or whatever. The quarry itself was small and the road back, remote. Shortly after submerging, visibility poor, we ran into a car that looked newish. We were able to rip off the rear license plate and after some underwater communicating, tried to open the trunk, both not wanting to think what we might find. We couldn’t so we had no worry about what could be in it. That was the highlight of the dive but on the way home, driving toward Flemington we stopped at the State Trooper Headquarters to show them the license plate. It was made clear that we should not have been diving there but they took the plate anyhow. We were warned never to go back, and we didn’t. Later we heard that it was a stolen car, so we did a bit of good in finding it.
Another quarry dive I remember making was at Raven Rock. This was the smallest water hole I had been in. Again, swimmers were around, and they warned us it was a bottomless pit. Strange but it seems all non-divers think water is a bottomless pit. It was Steve as a buddy again. Visibility was zero, light was really poor from a rock overhang. We grabbed hold of each other so we would not separate and went down feet first. Dark turned to darker and darker to black. All of 10 minutes bottom time and we said, “No way”.
Becoming A Dive Instructor
My quest to become a dive instructor made it necessary to get a recognized certification so I signed up for an evening class NAUI course at a local school. This led to helping out in future courses which lead to a quarry near Frackville PA. The instructor in charge was very good at teaching but apparently not so good a paying bills. He was banned from most dive boats in New Jersey and New England and most local swimming pools. So offbeat quarries seemed the only option.
The Frackville quarry with no trespassing signs was well hidden from any road so all the cars and divers were more less safe from the authorities It was the smaller of the quarries in the area, shallow but remarkably unique. For some reason, still unknown to me, it was crystal clear. 250 feet plus visibility clear with absolutely nothing growing it except for a weird green cloud not more than a few feet in size the middle at the bottom. It was a typical gray slate quarry but not a single speck of algae anywhere except for that cloud. No one seemed to suffer any ill effects so it must have been safe. That was around 1972 so I am sure by now the quarry is either a housing development or ruined with garbage.
In 1973 I arrived on Bonaire. Out of cowardice or being spoiled, not sure which, I doubt I will dive in quarries again. I do have a friend Harry in Alpha, who I think has dived that quarry with the slot machines. Maybe if he can get me in, I’d try one more quarry dive.