Enjoy the Massachusetts Coast from Below
So you’ve explored the sandy beaches of the Bay State, wandered its rocky shores, boated its coves, and fished its crashing surf. What’s next in your exploration of this ocean-loving state? Consider getting to know Massachusetts from below—below the tide line, that is. Massachusetts has a wealth of watery adventures available to scuba divers of all skill levels, from regulator rookies to experienced tank-jockeys, all of which offer a unique glimpse of this state’s vibrant underwater ecosystem.
Scuba divers must be certified by one of several international companies—so before you don your fins and wetsuit, hit the books and get to know the bottom of the pool at your local dive shop. USA Scuba Certification offers an interactive directory by zip code of businesses that offer certification classes. Once you’re certified, your nearest dive shop will serve as a great resource for gear rental and purchase as well as tips, trips, and even local dive site secrets.
Time to take the first plunge? If you were certified in warm, clear waters south of the Bay State, your first experience diving off of Massachusetts may come as a bit of a shock (literally). Even in the summer, Massachusetts water temperatures rarely surpass the 70 degree mark, and can dip well into the 50s with depth. Divers should plan accordingly and match their wetsuit to the temperature of the dive site (see scubadiving.com’s Tips for Matching Wetsuit Thickness to the Water Temp You're Diving). To find out how chilly the waters are where you’re planning your next dive adventure, see the Water Temperature Table for the Northern Atlantic Coast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Want to help keep the Bay State beautiful while exploring its underwater ecosystems? Organize or volunteer for an underwater cleanup with COASTSWEEP, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) annual beach cleanup. To find out how you can get involved, see the COASTSWEEP website.
Visibility also plays a key role in safety and enjoyment for North Atlantic diving. It’s no accident that Massachusetts waters are home to some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the world. The coast of Massachusetts experiences strong upwelling currents that bring nutrients to the surface, promoting blooms of phytoplankton that power a healthy marine ecosystem and give our seas their distinct dark blue-green color. However, these abundant nutrients can also make Massachusetts dives a murky affair. You can check local visibility by calling the nearest dive shop before heading out, or by scouting your location a few hours before you plan to submerge.
Dive visibility and safety can also be affected by sea conditions, so be sure to check wave height and current conditions for your dive site. NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center maintains a network of monitoring buoys that collect a wealth of information about the surrounding seas, including wave height, wave direction, wind conditions, and air and water temperature. For cases in which you just can’t bear to cancel your dive, Dive Training Magazine offers tips and techniques for low-visibility dives.
Remember that the most important step in planning your next dive is to guarantee your safety. Scout your dive site and dive conditions before making your entry. Always dive with a buddy—this ensures that someone is close at hand to help in case something goes wrong, and that someone can back up your big fish stories. Familiarize yourself with your buddy’s gear in case of an emergency and go over the dive plan, being sure to cover directions, possible challenges, and methods of communication. If you need a refresher on dive communication, see AlertDiver’s Hand Signals Quiz.
Note: All dives are conducted at your own risk. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts accepts no responsibility for loss of any kind, including personal injury or property damage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts assumes no liability for inaccuracies in dive information contained in the linked web pages including Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources site locations and dive conditions.
From Cape Ann to Cape Cod, here are a few popular dive sites in the Bay State.
- Plum Cove, Gloucester (Easy) - This dive site is ideal for divers new to the sport or new to diving in the region. Divers enter the water via the right side of this public beach, making for an easy sandy entry and quick access to the right-hand wall of the cove. There, you’ll find lobsters and crabs lurking in the rocks, skates hiding in the sand, and striped bass cruising by. Depths reach a maximum of 35 feet, and diving at high tide is recommended. For the slightly more experienced diver, a reef running parallel to shore, approximately 100 yards from the cove entrance, affords an adventurous drift dive, allowing divers to passively float through the site on longshore currents. Pay close attention to ensure that the current does not push you past the entrance to the cove, which will make for a longer and more difficult swim back to shore.
- Folly Cove, Gloucester (Easy) - A high tide entry is recommended for this popular location, as the slippery rocks uncovered at low tide can spell trouble for someone with 30-plus pounds of gear on their back. Once in the water, the rocky walls along this shoreline host an abundance of life, including crabs, lobsters, horseshoe crabs, skates, striped bass, sand dollars, anemones, starfish, and squid at night. Keep an eye out for the large and elusive Atlantic Torpedo Ray known to frequent the area—but keep your hands and feet to yourself if you spot her, as she has over 200 volts of electricity to expend on prey and overly curious humans alike. The cove has a maximum depth of approximately 40 feet at high tide.
- Herring Cove Beach, Provincetown (Easy) - This straightforward beach dive provides good visibility (often over 20 feet) and a relaxing swim along Cape Cod’s characteristically flat and sandy seafloor. Flounder and sea robins hover along the bottom. Look for the suspicious eyes of crabs buried in the sand, and for lobster and bright blue and pink starfish hiding amongst patches of seaweed. Water depths range between 20 and 35 feet; be sure not to venture out too far from shore, as longshore currents are very strong and can catch a diver unawares.
- Graves Light, Boston Harbor (Medium) - To get to this exciting dive site, you will need to hop onto one of the charter dive boats in the area and cruise to the outermost of the Boston Harbor Islands. Nonetheless, you’ll find the site more than worth the travel time, and not only for the scenic ride out through the islands. Colorful plants and sea anemone flourish on the large rocks that slope from the base of the island to the bottom, which reaches a maximum depth of around 70 feet. Crabs and lobsters skitter through this dive site year round and striped bass are a common sight in the summer. Divers at Graves Light may be visited by curious harbor seals, which often swim around these strange intruders—and might even swoop in to try and steal a colorful fin. The nearby City of Salisbury shipwreck, resting on Graves Ledge, also offers wreckage diving between 20 and 90 feet. For more information, see the Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources page on the wreck.
- Cathedral Rocks, Rockport (Advanced) - Entry can be tricky at this rocky dive location; divers must pick their way down jagged cliffs to reach the water line, and entering and exiting the water at low tide is challenging. Once at the water’s edge, follow the bottom straight out to reach a maximum depth of 80 feet, or explore the rocks to the left and right to spot anemone, rockfish, and famously massive lobsters. Baby sharks and nudibranch have also been reported at this site. Be sure to check the weather before choosing to dive Cathedral Rocks, however, as large swells can make navigating around the rocks quite dangerous.
For more information on nearby dive sites, to find a buddy, or to join a group dive, contact your local dive shop.
The long history of maritime trade in Massachusetts has strewn the seafloor with a score of shipwrecks over the years. These sites are not only pieces of history resting right off of our shores, but also make for exciting scuba diving. Sunken ships often serve as artificial reefs as they rest on the ocean floor; ample surface area allows corals, sea stars, barnacles, and marine plants to colonize, while chambers, cracks, and crevices offer attractive habitats for crustaceans and fish large and small.
If you’re looking to explore one of these wrecks, the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources maintains a list of shipwrecks fully open to recreational divers. Note that as with all diving, wreck diving comes with associated dangers; divers should always dive with a buddy and proceed with caution.
Should you find any historical objects during your dive, keep in mind that artifacts found in and recovered from Massachusetts waters are state property. This can include non-military shipwrecks, aircraft, objects, and other locations, such as long-forgotten submerged villages and other areas that contain artifacts. No one may remove, damage, displace, or destroy any underwater archaeological resource, including artifacts, without a permit from the Board. The only exceptions, not requiring a permit, are collecting from an Exempted Site or Isolated Finds. Military vessel wrecks always remain the property of their respective governments. For more information on finding artifacts in Massachusetts waters, see this Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources page.
To learn more about underwater archaeology and about how to protect these historical treasures, see CZ-Tip: Uncovering Maritime History at the Shore.
Recreational Scuba Fishing/Lobstering
Scuba diving in Massachusetts can be a boon to your dinner plate as well as your weekend plans. The North Atlantic is famous for its abundance of edible fish and shellfish, and scuba diving can be a fun, sustainable, and low-impact way to catch a meal. However, Massachusetts permit rules for recreational shellfishing apply, even underwater. See Recreational Saltwater Permits on the Division of Marine Fisheries (MarineFisheries) website for details.
Spear fishing is also permitted with a permit issued in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Connecticut, under Massachusetts state size and catch limits. Note that it is not legal to spearfish for striped bass in Massachusetts state waters. Species-specific recreational regulations can be found on MarineFisheries Recreational Regulations Tables page. Visit the Department of Fish and Game website for more information on Massachusetts recreational fishing permits, or see MassFishHunt to apply for a permit today. If you need inspiration for preparing your fresh catch, see CZM’s CZ-Tips for recipes for local seafood and famous New England dishes.
Claudia Geib, CZM’s 2015 COASTSWEEP Intern and the author of multiple CZ-Tips, and COASTSWEEP blogs, holds undergraduate degrees from Northeastern University in Journalism and Environmental Science. In fall 2015, she entered the Masters program in Science Journalism at MIT. Claudia is also a scuba diver and underwater COASTSWEEP cleanup coordinator.
For more of Claudia’s tips, see:
Removing Plastic from Rockport’s Reefs with COASTSWEEP - Mass.gov blog, 10/13/15
Calling All Treasure Hunters: Join a COASTSWEEP Cleanup This Fall - Mass.gov blog, 9/8/15
Seeking Local Beach Cleanup Coordinators for COASTSWEEP 2015 - Mass.gov blog, 7/16/15