It was April 11, 1942, the height of the US war against the Axis powers. To avoid drawing the attention of German U-boats prowling the Atlantic shoreline, the Dutch freighter SS Hebe steamed through the darkness along the South Carolina coast, unaware the British sub hunter HMT St. Cathan was patrolling nearby.
About 45 miles from Murrells Inlet, the vessels collided, sinking 110 feet to the ocean's floor a quarter mile apart.
The two shipwrecks, known as the Twin Cities, are among the many world-class dive sites in the offshore waters of South Carolina. Among the treasure trove of wrecks are a Civil War blockade runner, Great Lakes icebreaker, mid-19th century paddle wheeler, five-deck passenger ship and a wooden schooner.
Adding to the underwater bounty are 45 artificial reefs created by the SC Department of Natural Resources. The man-made dive sites-strung along 211 miles of shoreline from Little River to Hilton Head Island-were established using an assortment of deployed materials, including ships, tug boats, shrimp trawlers, Navy airplanes, Army tanks, Vietnam-era armored personnel carriers, subway cars and specially designed concrete and steel structures shaped like igloos and inverted cones.
After three months of being deployed, algae, soft corrals and barnacles begin to attach to the surface of the structures. Within six to eight months, they're covered in marine growth.
"In a year's time, you'll have a complete reef community-vertebrates, invertebrates, predators and prey," said Bob Martore, artificial reef coordinator for the DNR. "The smaller fish look for prey protection and food. The larger fish prey on the smaller fish."
Working in collaboration with the SC Army National Guard, the DNR has been adding new material to the sites along the coast since 1997. The reefs are located as far as 30 miles offshore and range in depth from less than 10 feet to 120 feet, offering diving opportunities for both beginner and advanced open water scuba divers.
Long claimed by the sea, the reefs have become a thriving habitat for a variety of sea life, from sharks and barracuda to flounder and spadefish.
But it's the wrecks that draw artifact hunters looking to score a piece of history. Among the most popular is the Hebe, loaded with Venezuelan beer when it went down in the clear, deep blue waters off Murrells Inlet in 1942.
Scuba Express offers trips to more than a dozen artificial reef and wreck sites, including the Hebe, a two-and-a-half- to three-hour boat ride from the marina. This full-day, two-tank excursion is for advanced recreational divers.
At this site, visibility can range from 25 to 100 feet. As you descend along the anchor line, the bones of the hulking 267-foot steel ship begin to appear far below, surrounded by hundreds of giant amberjacks, black sea bass and lion fish. The haunting scene becomes more eerie as you approach the wreck, extending out of sight on the seabed.
Huge boilers rise out of the collapsed main deck, shifted slightly to the port. The ship's mast, lying on its side, extends out on the sea floor. Brown glass beer bottles, imprinted with the words Cervezeria Regional, Maracaibo, can be found in the sand around the cargo hold.
Currently, South Carolina is the only state that permits the recreational collection of artifacts and fossils from submerged sites. The state has jurisdiction of offshore waters out to three statute miles. Because the Hebe is much farther offshore, a permit is not required.
For more information:
How to obtain a state Hobby Diver License.