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USS San Diego

USS San Diego
WWI Comes to Long Island

By Michael Salvarezza and Christopher Weaver
Image: Courtesy National Archives
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East Coast Diving | Shipwreck Corner | Shipwreck Gallery

The USS San Diego lies in restless peace some 13.5 miles south of Fire Island Inlet along the southern shore of New York's Long Island. For SCUBA divers, this is one of the premier wrecks along the East Coast of the United States and one that has garnered its fair share of publicity over the years. Lying upside down in 110 feet of water, the wreck provides a fascinating dive to divers interested in history, wreck diving, lobster hunting and exploration. Let's explore the colorful history of this magnificent shipwreck.

On April 28, 1904, the Union Iron Works company in San Francisco launched the San Diego under its original name, the California. She was immediately impressive, measuring 503'11" in length and 69'77" in width. The California had a displacement of 13,680 tons and her twin props could push her at speeds of 22 knots.

The California was commissioned on August 1, 1907 and was pressed into duty with a full complement of armament, which consisted of 18 three inch guns, 14 six inch guns, four eight inch guns and a pair of 18 inch torpedo tubes. One of her early tours of duty was to serve under Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet.

On September 1, 1914, she was renamed the USS San Diego and became the flagship of the Pacific Fleet. With the war clouds of WWI looming, she was brought to the Atlantic on July 18, 1917 and began a life of escorting convoys through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic. The San Diego never lost a ship that was in her watch during this time.

One year later, on July 8, 1918, the San Diego left Portsmouth, New Hampshire for New York. After rounding Nantucket Light she continued her journey towards New York, zigzagging according to war instructions. With a smooth sea and visibility stretching to 6 miles, the ship was enjoying an uneventful, if nervous, journey through these waters. Suddenly, at 11:23 AM, a massive explosion ripped a hole in her port side near the middle of the ship. The proud San Diego was doomed.

With alarms sounding and watertight doors being frantically closed, two more explosions, later determined to be caused by the rupturing of the ships boilers and the ignition of her ammunition, tore additional damage into the ship's hull. The San Diego began to list terribly to the port side.

The crew frantically manned their battle stations and began firing at anything that resembled an enemy ship. The retort of gun fire continued until the guns were either submerged or pointing directly upwards into the sky. In a last ditch effort to save his ship, Captain Christy attempted to steam towards the North and Fire Island beach. The San Diego never made it and sank in a terrifying 28 minutes.

There were six casualties from the sinking and many of the sailors were saved by nearby vessels or by rowing ashore. Three life boats beached along the Bellport beach and one arrived near the Lone Hill Coast Guard Station.

So what caused this massive and ultimately fatal explosion? For years, the debate has raged over this issue: did a German Submarine sink the San Diego with a torpedo or was it a floating mine that struck and destroyed the only major warship lost by the United States in WWI? Since the Navy found, and destroyed, a number of German surface mines in the same vicinity, it is generally believed that the U-156 laid the mine that sank the once proud San Diego.

For years, thoughts of salvaging the massive hulk of the San Diego have been entertained by a variety of individuals. Almost immediately after the sinking, divers from the USS Passaio explored the wreck and determined that it was unsalvageable. In 1962, however, the salvage rights of the wreck were sold to a salvage company for $14,000. Local groups, including several Angling clubs and environmental organizations lobbied fiercely against this and, eventually, salvage attempts were abandoned.

The San Diego has become a living, Artificial Reef and abounds with marine life, making it a choice destination for fisherman and Scuba Divers alike. It is a rare weekend in the summer when several vessels are not anchored over the wreck for a variety of reasons. However, all of this activity has not been without controversy. Due to the wreck's depth and present configuration, several diving accidents have occurred throughout the years. In fact, more divers have perished on this wreck than enlisted men during the original sinking. The wreck is fairly deep and, because it lies upside down, potentially confusing. In addition, there are many inviting entrances into the interior of the wreck, which often lures divers lacking the proper skills and equipment inside where they can get lost, trapped or panicked. All of these incidents, coupled with a spate of accidents through the years, have even prompted some to refer to the wreck as being "haunted"!

Ship Specifications

Date Sunk: 
Date Commissioned: 
Type of vessel: 
Hull Construction: 
Top Speed:  
Depth of Water: 

Bottom Orientation:  

Skill Level:  
Loran C Position: 
July 8, 1918
August 1, 1907
24 feet
13,680 gross tons
Armored Cruiser 6
22 knots
110 feet
Bow/mid-section intact, stern collapsed, inverted
Lying upside
13.5 miles south of Fire Island Inlet along the southern shore of NY's Long Island
Advanced, Tech
26543.3 - 43692.9
40 33' 00.36" (N) / 073 00' 28.39" (W)
This ship is on the National Register of ships and is protected as such. There is live munitions on board so care must be exercised and DON'T bring any up.

Today, divers are noticing that the shipwreck is beginning to deteriorate rapidly. Several sections have collapsed completely and more groans of slowly disintegrating metal can be heard as divers explore these watery depths. Indeed, divers familiar with the wreck from years ago often speak of not being able to recognize parts of the wreck today. Still, the San Diego continues to fascinate and attract divers from miles around as each dive to this one proud warship is a true dive into history.

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Last Modified: November 30, 2006

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