SWAINTON – Treasures from shipwrecks off the coast of Cape May County were unveiled June 30 when five master divers shared artifacts in an exhibit presented by the Cape May Maritime Museum & Education Center at the Museum of Cape May County, 504 Route 9 North. 

"A Fascinating Look into the Shipwrecks off the Coast of Cape May County" showcases artifacts collected over the years from a variety of sunken vessels, including those which were torpedoed or mined by German U-boats during World War II.

Other vessels featured in the exhibit were sunk during storms, or as a result of collisions.

The exhibit will be on display at the museum until Oct. 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"It's like going back in time, a time machine," diver Rustin Cassway said, as he described how each dive was "different and each is an adventure. You never know what you will find. You are literally going back in time. For instance, we found a set of keys, with a room key on it, and you wonder what is the story behind it. It's been there since the ship sank."

Cassway was joined by Brian Sullivan, Jonathan Sachar, Bart Maloney and Gene Peterson during a special preview of the exhibit for museum members and other invited guests.

The men spoke about their experiences diving on wrecks such as the Champion, City of Athens, the Ethel C, Miraflores and China Wreck.

"It's not Disneyland," Cassway added. "When you are diving and find something, it's really special because only a small number of people have the opportunity to see it."

The men dive regularly, in water 90-250 feet deep. Cassway said the wrecks are often found by scallop fishermen because of the way they rake across the ocean bottom.

"When they hit a wreck, they lose their rake. They'll make a note of the coordinates so they don't hit it again, and will give the information to divers like us to go and check it out."

Scallop fishermen aren't the only ones impacted by wrecks. Lobster hunters often can find huge lobsters hiding in the wrecks such as the passenger steamer City of Athens, which sank in a collision with the French armored cruiser La Gloire on May 1, 1918.

Today, the remains provide the artifact hunter an infinite store of rifle ammunition, bottles and assorted war surplus, some on display as part of the exhibit as well.

Another display in the exhibit is from the China Wreck, otherwise known as the Principessa Margherita di Piemonte.

Located just east of the mouth of the Delaware Bay at Hens and Chicken Shoals, this wreck foundered on March 12, 1891. 

The ship was laden with Ironstone china, hence its nickname. 

The Principessa Margherita di Piemonte was an Italian ship that was sailing from Plymouth, England, to Philadelphia with tons of stoneware and pottery.

Thousands of pieces of china have been recovered on this shallow wreck. 

Many of the wrecks happened in the 1800s, Cassway said, before navigational tools were as sophisticated as they are now.

"The ships would be cruising around and crash into each other, then sink," he noted. "During World War I, the Germans sank a lot of ships; they did it again during World War II when they sank about 250 ships off our coast."

Maloney, from Bellmawr, has been shipwreck diving 45 years and scuba diving for 58 years.

At 71, he said it's exciting to be the first to discover a new wreck when it's loaded with everything it sank with.

"Usually there's a team of us, and we are vacuuming the dredging spoils into bags that we push up to the boat to go through," he said explaining the process of finding artifacts. "We'll go through the sand and find odds and ends, personal items and ship fittings.

"We found a brass tag once that helped us identify what wreck it was," he noted about the Champion, a paddle wheeler which sunk on Nov. 7, 1879, when it collided with the schooner Lady Octavia. Twenty-eight passengers lost their lives.

This deep-water paddle wheeler lies at 115 feet of water, which is usually clear.

Divers are underwater for about an hour, according to Maloney, and the water may be murky or not, depending on the distance from shore, what the weather has been like and other factors.

"If it's rained a lot, the water tends to be murky," he noted. "The further out you go, the better it usually is."

Maloney, and some of the other divers, got their taste for diving from a Philadelphia TV show called "Sea Hunt," featuring actor Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson, a former U.S. Navy frogman who is a well-known expert on diving often difficult or dangerous projects.

The action adventure television series aired in syndication from 1958-1961 and Nelson educated non-diving characters and the audience in various aspects of diving and the underwater world.

"When I was 12, I almost drowned, so my mom had me take a swimming course," Maloney said. "We watched Mike Nelson and tried scuba diving just from watching his show. My first ocean dive was in 1964 and all I found was a newspaper and a clam shell. I was so disappointed."

His first shipwreck was The Almarinte, which sank off the coast of Atlantic City. "It also was my first night dive," he recalled.

The Almirante was built in 1909 and sunk on Sept. 6, 1918, in a collision with the USS Hisko.

This 3,121-ton passenger freighter was also known as the Flour Wreck since flour was part of its cargo and it washed up on nearby beaches.

This wreck sits in 65 feet of water. It still contains a cargo of china, tiles, kerosene lanterns, milk bottles and plenty of brass.

The wreck has a lot of structures for lobsters to hide in and large mussel beds.

The Flour normally has better visibility than the surrounding wrecks because it sits on a shallow ledge according to Peterson.

Sullivan said he was 14 when he first went diving. "We used to dive until the tanks ran out of air," he added. "Then I learned from Gene (Peterson)."

Peterson became certified as a diver in 1972, and two years later, he began instructing others in the sport. "It's gotten a lot safer over the years," said the president of Atlantic Divers Inc. “There’s more technology being used to monitor your dive, training is better, and the equipment is better as well."

Peterson, 61, owns a dive shop in Egg Harbor Township and still teaches and dives.

He remembers being the first diver on the Carolina, which sank 60 miles off the coast. This passenger freighter was built in 1896 and powered by coal-fired steam.

The 380-foot freighter was shelled by U-151, part of the six vessels sunk during what is known as Black Sunday. It now lies in 240 feet of water.

Besides finding artifacts, Peterson said diving also helped him to connect with some of the families who lost a loved one on the Miraflores. The wreck lies 53 miles off Cape May in 165 feet of salt water. In February 1942, the Miraflores left port in the Gulf of Mexico and was lost without a trace. Thirty-seven crew members went down with the ship after being torpedoed by the German sub U-432. 

The Miraflores shipwreck was identified in 2008, 66 years after it left port, according to Peterson. The divers connected with the only known survivor and also helped close a chapter in the life of the daughter of the ship's carpenter, who perished with the ship. She received a piece of the wood decking framed in a glass box.

"We placed flowers over the site, offering a moment of silence for those that perished off the coast on that February night in 1942," Peterson said. "May we never forget the privileges we have given to us by those that suffered and died for our freedom."

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.