"Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water — healthy air and soil!
Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!"
- Walt Whitman
, from PAUMANOK.
If you're looking to dive in waters with great visibility, teeming with sea life and a history that spans more than twenty thousand years, starting with not one but two, thousand-foot high glaciers, Native Americans and a controversial building project or two, then look no further than the Ponquogue Bridge. Or rather, what's left of the old Ponquogue Draw Bridge constructed in 1930 that used to span the Shinnecock Bay. A little east of the stationary steel and concrete structure built by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works in 1986 are two abutments jutting out from the North and South shores of the bay. This is what's left of the old wood bridge.
Steve and Alex Coen. Photo by Leah J. Weiss
Had you been fortunate enough to drive the old wooden causeway across to Dune Road then you're truly one of the lucky few. I used to have a shirt as a kid that read "I Survived The Ponquogue Bridge." It was a rickety old thing that probably looked worse than the approaches that are left there now, since in 1997 they were renovated by various state and local agencies to preserve this historic fishing site. In 1999 Suffolk County declared the area a Marine Park.
When the second and final glacier receded the barrier islands formed. Stabilized by dunes situated away from the waves and plant life that holds them in place, the barrier islands have been very successful at resisting erosion. Thus was preserved the most famous stretch of narrow beachfront property in the history of the United States of America: Dune Road, playground of the rich and famous, and not to forget, the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Native Americans that eventually settled here, one of five tribes in this area, named the area Shinnecock meaning "a level country" in their language. Pawonon Quogue, an Indian term translated to Ponquogue, which means something about a pond in the place where the bay bends. This is when the great or terrible (depending on your point of view) Roberts Moses enters the story—yes we skipped a few hundred years.
Moses proposed a two-lane roadway, aptly named the Ponquogue Parkway, to the Shinnecock Inlet ending around the old wooden bridge. The cost and impact on the area environmentally and economically put the kibosh on the parkway, probably a good decision.
Best Shore Diving in the Area
When you want a good Long Island underwater adventure, ask anyone and they will say that the dive by the Ponquogue Bridge is one of the most exciting and fulfilling anywhere in the Northeast. Fed by the ocean and nestled between the barrier island and the Long Island Shore, the Shinnecock Bay, near both of the bridges, offers a great opportunity to view an impressive array of ocean life.
The visibility can be phenomenal and the wooden pilings, along with the stone of the new bridge, attract a virtual aquarium-like display up and down the marine-life food chain. Layered with muscles, clams, mollusks, crabs, lobsters and a variety of fish species, the bottom also offers a breathtaking view of sandy shoals and islands.
Despite the opportunity for a near perfect experience, the dive is generally not for an amateur to undertake without professional supervision. Since the Slack Tide is the only time that the dive can be undertaken, timing is crucial as the tides can be very strong. If the water becomes turbulent then you know the tidal currents are not far behind and you have minutes or you're in for a rough time. The dive usually lasts about 30 to 45 minutes.
The Experiences of Divers on Long Island
Steve Coen and his son Alex did the dive on a Memorial diving excursion there last July. The dive was in honor of Captain Ken and Jean Marie Jastrzebski. The couple ran shipwreck dives off of Long Island until they were tragically killed in an automobile accident.
"While I never had the pleasure of knowing them," Steve said about the couple. "I have come to know of their love of diving and life in general through several dive buddies."
"It was my 43rd logged dive," he explained. "I always log my dives. Not only because I was trained to but, at this point in my life I am memory challenged and the log is a good recall device."
"This dive was especially fun! The air temperature was about 88 degrees, the water temperature was about 74, but felt a bit cooler. Visibility was between 5 to 6 feet allowing for a decent view of the old bridge structure and several species of fish.
We entered the water at a little after noon and emerged 45 minutes later. However, we stayed at the Memorial beach party until about 6 PM."
Sean Geist, another experienced Long Island diver, described his experiences diving the spot by email and his observations and descriptions were spot on.
The divers return with big fish tales. Photo by Leah J. Weiss
"My personal favorite experience is ripping a few muscles away from their pylon-based homes, and cracking them open. The fish literally watch and wait in anticipation. Once open, you hold them in your hand, and the fish almost immediately (it only takes seconds for them to trust you implicitly) start to feed out of your dive glove. It's impressive just how quickly they attack."
"A close second to feeding the fish, would be diving in fall and experiencing the tropical juveniles! These fish 'accidentally' swim all the way up the warmer waters that run up the east coast (known as the Gulf Stream). They settle into the northeast waters, where they make their home for several weeks, before the colder, alien waters eventually take their young lives. It's certainly not frowned upon taking these fish, as they are inevitably going to die young anyway."
He also went on to describe the experience of the tidal motion, which is strong:
"You have to catch Ponquogue at high-tide (slack). You get in the water, and actually hold on for dear life to a piling until you feel it go slack. It's the coolest thing. Then after being under water a while you see the seaweed start to bend out toward to ocean. You know the tide is starting to move out, and you get out of the water before it (current) starts ripping again."
In describing the area, Sean said that, "the bridge creates a rather good, protected environment from boaters, but on rare occasion their thrill-seeking brethren (Jet Skiers) zoom under the old bridge while divers are down, and that's definitely bad news for the divers."
Which is why all the experts say that a "Diver Down" flag at the spot is a MUST!
"What's exciting about Ponquogue Bridge diving is the timing! One can basically be the only person at the site and then suddenly all parking spots are filled! Then the race is on to don all the equipment, get in the water with your dive buddy, and walk/wade out to the bridge." Sean continued.
"I say walk/wade, as you actually walk for some time in the water until it becomes 5 feet or so (about 200' out), and then you test your buoyancy and don your fins. You "kick-out" to the end of the embankment, where the rocks are larger and current is more defined. Take a quick break, as it's tiring to kick just that 10'-20' over to the pilings. Without fail during a chat with a fellow diver about how much the current is moving that morning you both will swear it's rougher than the 'last time I dove the bridge,' but it's usually the same, you just forget."
"And then, it happens! It's as if Mother Nature gives Neptune the thumbs-up to stop ripping the currents, it goes slack. It really is magical even if you expect it; it's still an experience. And then it's time to descend!"
Sean says that once down on the bottom you can see thousands of starfish and muscles.
"That part alone is startling, but also very beautiful to behold. And then almost immediately, you might notice the old 3-foot long horseshoe crab! He's harmless, but the spider crabs-with 2-to-3-foot wingspans try to inflict damage, as they snap at you as you float across them."
"You know it's that time to go once you see the seaweed bending. It's analogous to the plant pointing out toward the ocean, and giving the diver a fair warning. And the smart diver doesn't argue with seaweed."
Another Long Island diver, Matthew Fauvell, shared this harrowing experience with me:
"The first time I did it we stayed down too long and got caught in the outgoing tide (you don't feel it when you are at the bottom). The current is very strong - like 7 to 10 mph. I lost my weight belt and got cut up a bit on the pillar barnacles."
But Matt has had his share of good experiences as well:
"It can be a great dive if the water is clear. There is much sea life. Lobsters (small), fluke, stripers and thousands of starfish. The last time I dived there I freed a striped bass that was hooked on a line rapped around a piling."
As Sean pronounced in his email to me: "It's awesome! SCUBA in the Hamptons is alive and well!"
You need to obtain a Ponquogue Marine Park vehicle-parking permit for this dive site, required from July 1st through Labor Day
. The permit is a vehicle permit with no restrictions on number of divers.
If you have any other questions, check the Southampton Town Hall Parks and Recreation Department website at www.town.southampton.ny.us, or call them at 631-283-6011 during business hours.