A View From the Bottom

To survey relics from the whole history of Edgartown harbor these days, you need only travel to a dive shop on the south side of Oak Bluffs.

On a winter morning Joe Leonardo and his wife, Heidi Raihofer, who own Vineyard Scuba, spread out on a picnic table the detritus of three centuries, all of it brought up from the bottom of Edgartown harbor during the past four years. Among the collection: the bowl of a pipe, smoked by a mariner in the 1700s; nails pulled from the copper bottoms of whaling vessels by shipwrights in the 1800s; the fragment of a ceramic plate from an Island side-wheeler, possibly at the turn of the last century.

Anyone can see how the opening through Norton Point roils the currents across Edgartown harbor. But only skilled divers, such as Heidi and Joe, can witness how thoroughly they have excavated the harbor bottom since 2007. “A lot of the dead bottom silt has moved out,” says Heidi. In areas mostly undisturbed before the opening, a diver could stick his arm shoulder deep into anaerobic muck. “Nothing’s going to live in it, on it, over it,” she adds.

But now in the deepest, hardest-running channels, the currents have scoured the bottom down to hard clay. Weeds grow vigorously as fresh seawater races through the harbor. Even coral – a New England form, flat and pitted and gray, that clings to smooth surfaces such as rocks and lost propellers – is beginning to thrive again. “Coral is very sensitive to pollution,” says Heidi, “and the more water-flush, the better the coral. It’s a good sign.”

Joe’s father, Joe Leonardo Jr., and his uncle, Frank Leonardo, opened Vineyard Scuba in 1960. Joe has been diving his whole life, Heidi since 1993. He is now a dive master, she a certified instructor. They dive year-round, tending moorings, cleaning boat bottoms, and helping with bigger projects. They know Edgartown harbor well enough that, even if blindfolded before a descent, they could tell where they were on the bottom after swimming just a little.

From the midden along the harbor bottom, artifacts testify to the fact that Edgartown is among the oldest commercial and recreational harbors in the country. The pipe bowl may have gone to the bottom only fifty years after English settlement. The nails come from the foot of Osborn’s Wharf, now the Edgartown Yacht Club, where nineteenth-century shipwrights heeled over whaling vessels to replace the copper plates that protected their bottoms. The color and lettering on the plate (“The New England Steamship Company”) suggest it may have come from the side-wheeler Uncatena, which carried passengers and Model Ts to and from Memorial Wharf, sometime after 1902. Heidi and Joe have brought up homemade squid jigs, golf balls, and – it being a waterfront town no matter the era – liquor bottles and jugs of every description.

The currents through the opening are strong enough to ensnare tropical fish riding the nearby Gulf Stream – butterfly fish, squirrelfish, damselfish, and triggerfish – and to build up and wipe away underwater sand dunes from one tide to the next. “There are times when [the tide] moves in both directions,” says Heidi. “It doesn’t ever slacken.” But the current is often fairly sharply defined. “So if you’re swimming against it and get tired, you can go out of the current, swim up, and ride it back.”

The strangest thing they have found on the bottom of Edgartown harbor since the opening through Norton Point? Easy: a whole Butterball turkey, right around Halloween last year.

“I swam up to it, and, yeah, it was about a thirteen-pound Butterball, just sitting there,” says Joe. “You know what really creeped me out the most? The next day I went back, and nothing had eaten it. I’ve seen spider crabs come out and devour a sea bass carcass in a matter of minutes. Twenty minutes later, it’s just bone.

“But nothing,” he adds meaningfully, “would eat this.”