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Thunder Bay NMS (Courtesy NOAA)

Diving on an archaeological site is one of the great thrills of a lifetime. Here are a few commonsense guidelines to make sure that both you and the site remain safe.

Choosing the right site is important--never dive on one that hasn't been opened officially to recreational divers or one that is above your skill level because of depth, visibility, or currents. Research the site and the period to which it dates, so you know what to expect, and always work with a well-established dive operator with guides who know the site well. If necessary, take advanced or specialized diving courses beforehand, which is especially important for wreck diving.

When you actually reach a site--either a wreck or an artifact scatter--dive carefully. Treat archaeological sites like coral reefs, where it is critical not to touch or remove anything or go digging around. Make sure your buoyancy and fin control are good. Also, dive tight, which means making sure your equipment, including your pressure gauge and backup regulator, don't drag beneath you, where they can cause damage or snag.

Most important, stay calm, have fun, and be sure to report anything unusual to your guide. You might actually make a discovery, and you'll definitely have great stories to tell on the surface.

Where to suit up:

Perhaps the best place to experience underwater archaeology is in one of the 13 National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS) around the country (sanctuaries.noaa.gov). Thunder Bay NMS in Lake Huron, Michigan, where shipwreck preservation is unusually good, offers a particularly rewarding experience. The 1733 Spanish Galleon Trail might be the best dive in the sanctuaries, featuring 13 ships that were grounded on reefs 80 miles south of the Florida Keys. Several sanctuaries on the West Coast are worth visiting as well. The Winfield Scott, a Gold Rush-era steamer, is in the waters of Channel Islands NMS. Over the years, the treacherous coastline at Monterey Bay NMS has caused at least 140 wrecks, some of which are diveable.

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