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Divers take chilly plunge to retrieve discarded bottles

Scott Rex of Port Washington, Bill Pfeiffer of

Scott Rex of Port Washington, Bill Pfeiffer of Nesconset, John Cassara of Patchogue, Anthony Pierre Babylon, Kevin Scharkopf of Huntington and Rachel Goodale Southampton all took part in the New Year's Day dive, organized by the Long Island Divers Association. (Jan. 1, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Bill Bleyer

The air and water temperature were the same - a chilly 33 degrees - Friday morning when eight scuba divers took the plunge off the stern of the Sea Hawk.

Their goal: To find old bottles that had been discarded and sunk to the bottom of the harbor at New Rochelle. So they skipped New Year's Eve partying and boarded the dive boat at Manhasset Bay Marina at 9:30 a.m.

For the past decade, the boat's owners have done bottle dives in the late fall and early winter in nearby harbors where trash was dumped in the past. This was the first New Year's Day dive to collect the old pieces, and the first sponsored by the Long Island Divers Association in its effort to promote off-season diving.

"The trip filled up in about three minutes," said Bill Pfeiffer of Nesconset, the group's president.

As the divers lugged their heavy gear down the snow-covered dock bordered by sheets of ice, co-captain Frank Persico said "this is actually not a bad day" because it was perfectly calm.

As the boat crossed Long Island Sound, the divers donned multiple layers of thermal underwear and struggled into waterproof dry suits. Once moored in the harbor, Persico provided a briefing: "The bottom is muddy, and the bottles are in the mud," he said. "If your hands get cold, come up."

Some of the divers were veterans of cold-water diving. Although Rachel Goodale, 22, of Southampton, a recent marine biology graduate from Stony Brook University, has been diving for only three years, she has already done cold-weather dives including one under ice. "I like cold," she said. "It's exhilarating."

But Scott Rex, 53, a physician from Port Washington, was making his first winter dive. He usually dives in the tropics, but his friend John Cassara, 45, a pharmacist from Patchogue, roped him in.

Soon after entering the 15-feet-deep murky water, the divers began dropping off mesh bags full of bottles, mostly barnacle-covered Coca-Cola, Pepsi and beer bottles from recent decades that were quickly jettisoned. But there were dozens of keepers as well: milk, seltzer and beer and Champagne bottles from the 1920s to the '50s.

The best artifacts were found by Pfeiffer, who picked up a round-bottom bottle from the late 1800s, and by Cassara, who discovered not only a round-bottom but the prize of the day: an elaborate, blue ink bottle produced between 1890 and 1910 worth more than $75, according to a price guide.

One by one, the divers called it a day. Kevin Scharkopf, 34, of Huntington, returned after 20 minutes. "The tips of my fingers got numb. But I had a great time. I got some nice bottles."

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