When asked to name the world’s best dive locations, many divers respond by naming exotic places in the Caribbean, the South Pacific or the Red Sea, but one spot is often absent from the list — Florida. That is rapidly changing however, thanks to extensive artificial reefs in the Panhandle, off the South Florida Atlantic coast and in the Keys. Case in point: the Keys’ newest wreck, the USNS Vandenberg.
A New Playground for Divers
Laid to rest on the bottom of the Atlantic within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in May of 2009, the vessel has drawn thousands of divers to Key West and increased Florida’s exposure as a dive destination among the global scuba community. I was lucky enough to dive the Vandenberg just a few weeks after its sinking, and it certainly lived up to all of its expectations. The ship was a short trip from shore, enormous in size, accessible to divers of nearly every certification level and, at the time, very clean. Meaning, as an artificial reef, the Vandenberg had a ways to go before it could become an underwater ecosystem to match landmarks such as Key Largo’s Spiegel Grove or the Duane.
Even as we wait for the ship to develop into a true artificial reef, with its own thick layer of covering coral, the Vandenberg serves as a giant playground for those who enjoy underwater exploration. At the time of its sinking, the 520 foot long, 100 foot tall vessel was the second largest deliberately placed artificial reef in the world, smaller only than the USS Oriskany off Pensacola, Florida. The ship is unique in its accessibility, with a large variety of divable structures between 40 and 140 feet in depth. It must be emphasized that, while the Vandenberg is relatively accessible, it is a very complex structure subject to strong currents and divers should always stay within the limits of their training and experience.
Sights to See
That said, on days with lighter current and better visibility, less experienced divers can explore the signature kingpost structure with the giant U.S. flag suspended below it, the large crows nest, and the tops of the bridge, the communications center, and the aft Balloon Hangar. The large dish antennae were originally welded to the tops of their pyramid-like support towers, allowing access at a shallower depth, but they broke loose during the sinking and crews later attached them to the ship’s decks with heavy cable. Because of their central location, the tops of the support towers are good spots to get an overview of the ship and photograph the antennae.
More qualified divers have access to the giant dish antennas, the bridge, and the main deck areas that still have many of the ships features intact, such as cranes and the large capstan with the heavy anchor chain still in place. In the center of the ship is a deep vertical shaft originally used to crane equipment into the vessel’s interior. The aft balloon/hanger deck is open to the stern of the vessel, and the ship was designed with numerous openings and cutouts, giving access to interior spaces of the vessel. Divers should be aware that many of these are not swim-throughs and lead into the maze-like interior of the ship. While there are areas that can serve as swim-through points on the ship, penetration into the vessel should only be attempted by divers with sufficient training, and ask the dive center for a guide on your first attempt to swim through any interior spaces. One suggestion, bring a good dive light when you visit the Vandenberg. The cutouts and other openings provide opportunities to see quite a bit of the ship’s interior, even without entering the spaces, and you never know what interesting sea life may be hiding just inside the next hatch.
A Bright Future
Returning to the Vandenberg two years after its sinking, I’m happy to report that it has become home to numerous forms of sea life, such as goliath grouper and barracuda, and the coral has begun to take hold on the surfaces of the ship. All of which make the vessel a more interesting site for the wreck diving enthusiast. Dive conditions in the lower Keys during September and October tend to be great, with good visibility and warm water, and the throngs of summer tourists have already headed home to get their kids back to school. For those divers who have not acquainted themselves with the Florida Keys latest artificial reef, it’s time to plan your trip to Key West and visit the Vandenberg.