Dive America’s Very First Marine Sanctuary & See The Iconic Monitor

The USS Monitor (and the CSS Virginia) was perhaps the most revolutionary ship ever made by the US or Union (and Confederate) navy. The world’s first two ironclad ships clashed in the Battle of Hampton Roads which resulted in neither ship being able to destroy the other. Instead, the cannonballs just bounced off (giving the sailors nastily ringing ears).

Neither of these ships would survive the war – but neither was lost to enemy action. Today the watery grave of the USS Monitor is the nation’s first marine sanctuary. Perhaps the eeriest sunken fleet that one can dive into today is the sunken American nuclear fleet at Bikini Atoll.

Background Of The USS Monitor

As the United States split and plunged into the Civil War, innovation went into overdrive. The Confederacy went to work on cladding a wooden ship in iron and rechristening it as the CSS Virginia. Hearing this, the Union got to work on their own revolutionary new ironclad ship – the USS Monitor.

The clash between these vessels at the Battle Of Hampton Roads remains one of the most iconic and strangest in American history. In the end, both ships were forced to disengage.

  • Built: In Just 110 Days
  • Prototype: The USS Monitor Was A Prototype
  • Sunk: In 1862

Soon after the battle, the USS Monitor met its fate as it sank while under tow in heavy seas.

Related: Japan’s Truk Lagoon is Home To An Extraordinary Number Of Wartime Wrecks, Still Visible Today

Discovery Of The USS Monitor & First Marine Sanctuary

Since 1975 the resting site of the USS Monitor has been America’s first marine sanctuary. The sanctuary is located off the coast of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. She was discovered in 1973 after having been lost for over 100 years have been protected since 1975. The sanctuary protects a column of water 1 nautical mile in diameter around the wreck.

  • Designated: January 30, 1975
  • Area: 0.83 miĀ²
  • Depth: 230 Feet or 70 Meters

Today divers can explore the stricken hull of the ironic Union ship. Like so many other wrecks, she has become an artificial reef and attracts fish species like great barracuda, oyster toadfish, black sea bass, and amberjack.

Today the USS Monitor is one of only three accessible monitor wrecks in the world (the other two are in Australia and Norway).

Related: Extreme Diving Experiences? That’s This Company’s Specialty

Recovery And Preservation of The USS Monitor

Many of their relics have been recovered and are now on display in The Mariner’s Museum at Newport News, Virginia close to where she fought the CSS Virginia.

  • Relics: On Display At The Mariner’s Museum at Newport News, Virginia

Recovered Relics:

  • Propeller: Recovered In 1998
  • Steam Engine: Recovered In 2001 (Weighs 30 Metric Tons)
  • Turret: Recovered In 2002
  • Other: Anchor, Glass Bottles, Coal, Wood Paneling, A Leather Book Cover, Walnut Halves


When her turret was recovered, the remains of sailors who went down with the ship were also recovered (later reburied in 2013 with full military honors). 16 of her 62 crewmen were lost when she went down in the storm.

How To Dive The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

Today it is possible to dive and see the USS Monitor at the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. To do so, visitors must first apply for a permit to access the wreck from Novaa.gov.

The USS Monitor sits under around 235 feet of water and the warm Gulf Stream Current dominates the waters and interacts dynamically with the cold Labrador Current flowing down from the north. This makes the waters difficult with unpredictable eddies and rapidly changing weather conditions.

  • Diving Difficulty: Extremely Difficult Due To Ocean Currents

The Monitor is known to be difficult to dive – even for the most experienced technical divers. The water temperatures can shift from 75 degrees to 60 degrees (24 to 15 C) in just minutes

  • Temperature: 75 degrees to 60 degrees (24 to 15 C)
  • Visibility: 0 to 100 feet (30 meters) – Depending On Conditions


While diving only takes a few minutes, the multi-layered currents can buffet divers and twist them about in all directions. It can be extremely difficult to locate the wreck.

One of the most remarkable things about diving on the USS Monitor is the color of the intertwining ocean currents. The Gulf Stream is a beautiful blue while the Labrador Current is an exceptional green. The picture of the mixing is put poetically by scubadiverlife.com “When the two begin to mix, it can appear as if an artist is mixing her paints.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: