Florida Keys Wreck Guide | Scuba Diving

Florida Keys Wreck Guide

| | Though all involved hoped the Spiegel Grove would sink upright, the sideways orientation is an incredible sight.|

November 2002

By Nick Lucey

America's funky dive archipelago harbors an impressive fleet of scuttled shipwrecks, a collection that could make places like Truk Lagoon nervous. There are ships you've probably never heard of, and one you may even have watched sink on CNN. There are a handful you're sure to dive, and others you'll probably only dream about because of their abyssal depths and technical requirements. Best of all, you can load up the family sport ute and road-trip to the Keys on a long weekend, dive any one of a myriad of shallow wreck-reefs or deep intact vessels, and make it home before your boss even notices you're gone.

Years of protection--afforded by the creation of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in 1960 and the implementation of SPAs (sanctuary preservation areas)--have helped preserve the Keys' reefs. The visible payoff to wreck divers is molasses-thick aggregations of fish on many ships, a density that will startle and amaze you. You might almost be tricked into believing you are in the Caribbean, if it weren't for the billboards, fluttering Old Glories and late-night convenience stores.

Spiegel Grove

The Spiegel Has Landed

BUILT: Pascagoula, Miss., 1956.
LENGTH: 510 feet.
TYPE: Landing Ship Dock (LSD).
SANK: June 10, 2002.
DEPTH: 60 to 130 feet.
SKILL: Intermediate to advanced.
DIVE IT FROM: Key Largo, Tavernier or Islamorada.

COOL FACT: The Spiegel Grove, after eight years of planning, has finally earned the title of largest ship ever sunk to become an artificial reef.

IN A NUTSHELL: One word--huge. Its original stark battleship gray paint job has surrendered to a furry coat of red algae, and the process of reef-ication is progressing rapidly. Barracuda, jacks and silversides are already making this wreck their home base.

THE DIVE: If you watched CNN on May 17, you probably saw the naked hull of the Spiegel Grove floating upside down off Key Largo like a dead whale. We witnessed dive history on the tube in the following weeks, the sinking of the world's largest intentional artificial reef. Though some feel that measures should be taken to right her, she will probably forever lie on her starboard side. Penetration is strongly discouraged by dive operators. Though not yet cloaked by the same vibrant sponge and coral coat that the Duane and Bibb wear, a dive on the Grove is a study in size--you small, wreck big. Really, really big. A trip to the bow affords you a dreamlike view of a wreck that appears to cruise sideways out of the inky darkness. The giant anti-aircraft guns spring like goalposts from mid-decks, the gaping maw of the well-deck ramp is breathtakingly enormous and the twin screws make excellent photo backdrops.

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City of Washington_

Remember the Maine?

BUILT: Pennsylvania, 1877.
LENGTH: 320 feet.
BEAM: 38 feet.
TYPE: Steamship.
SANK: July 10, 1917.
DEPTH: 15 to 25 feet.
SKILL: Beginner.
DIVE IT FROM: Key Largo.

COOL FACT: When the battleship Maine (of "Remember the Maine" fame) exploded in Havana Harbor in 1858, the City of Washington was anchored right next door, close enough to be showered by shrapnel. The crew helped in the rescue effort.

IN A NUTSHELL: A scattered wreck-reef that contains substantial chunks of camouflaged fish-packed structure. Popular for fish feedings, the Washington can get crowded (and the visibility slightly lowered).

THE DIVE: One of Key Largo's most popular wreck-reefs, the City of Washington is, in places, barely discernible as a shipwreck. The hull, however, forms a reef ledge that harbors snappers and grunts and forms a nice backdrop for the frenzy of nurse sharks and barracuda looking for handouts in the nearby sandy plain.

The Benwood

| | The wreckage of some ships--including the _Benwood_--are so scattered that they're barely discernible from garden-variety reefs.| Scattered, Smothered and Covered

BUILT: England, 1910.
LENGTH: 360 feet.
BEAM: 50 feet.
TYPE: Freighter.
SANK: April 1942.
DEPTH: 25 to 40 feet.
SKILL: Beginner.
DIVE IT FROM: Key Largo or Tavernier.

COOL FACT: Running without lights to avoid attracting the attention of German torpedo salvoes, the Benwood slammed into the Robert C. Tuttle in '42 at the height of World War II.

IN A NUTSHELL: Popular shallow scattered wreck that's usually dived on the second tank after the Spiegel Grove. But with cargo holds full of fish life, it's no also-ran.

THE DIVE: One of Largo's most attractive wreck-reefs, the remains of the Benwood litter the shallows with sizeable structures including a nearly intact bow portion obscured by shiny curtains of reef fish. Beat the crowds here and you'll enjoy all of it in better visibility.

| | The Grove's anti-aircraft guns may now be silent, but the twin three-inch barrels are still intimidating.|

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USCGC Duane_

The Other Cutter

BUILT: Philadelphia, 1935-1936.
LENGTH: 327 feet.
TYPE: "Treasury Class" cutter.
SANK: Nov. 27, 1987.
DEPTH: 60 to 120 feet.
SKILL: Advanced.
DIVE IT FROM: Key Largo, Tavernier or Islamorada.

COOL FACT: One of seven "327s"--a reference to the vessels' length--built in the 1930s and named after Treasury secretaries. Another is the nearby USCGC Bibb.

IN A NUTSHELL: A fully intact wreck that's swathed in a multicolored coat of encrusting sponge and pulsating fish life.

THE DIVE: When she was decomissioned in 1985, the Duane was the oldest active U.S. military vessel in history. The Duane and the Bibb were purchased by the Keys Association of Dive Operators (KADO) for a dollar apiece. The highly decorated vessel was a naked stark white when she was towed near Molasses Reef and sunk. All that has changed, and the _Duane_--sitting upright, awash in the steady flow of the Gulf Steam--is now decorated with sponges, corals and intense fish life.

Eagle

| | The wreck of the Eagle sports profuse coral growth and fish life.| Dutch Treat

BUILT: Holland, 1962.
ORIGINAL NAME: Raila Dan.
LENGTH: 269 feet.
TYPE: Freighter.
SANK: Dec. 19, 1985.
DEPTH: 70 to 110 feet.
SKILL: Intermediate to advanced.
DIVE IT FROM: Islamorada, Tavernier or Key Largo.

COOL FACT: The cavernous hull of the Eagle was split in two by Hurricane Georges in 1998.

IN A NUTSHELL: A great medium-depth two-part wreck that is listing slightly to starboard on a sandy bottom.

THE DIVE: The wreck lies within national marine sanctuary boundaries, and the two halves of the Eagle are popular not only with divers out of Islamorada and Tavernier, but with Keys fish as well, including tarpon and a large goliath grouper. The charges used to sink the vessel also blew diver-friendly penetration holes in its hull. Photo opportunities abound, including a crow's nest and a four-blade propeller.

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Thunderbolt_

| | The USS Randolph one of Marathon's most popular wrecks, was renamed the Thunderbolt for its role in lightning research.| When Lightning Strikes

BUILT: 1942.
ORIGINAL NAME: USS Randolph.
LENGTH: 188 feet.
TYPE: Cable layer.
SANK: March 3, 1986.
DEPTH: 75 to 120 feet.
SKILL: Intermediate to advanced.
DIVE IT FROM: Marathon.

COOL FACT: This former Army vessel was used for lightning research, hence its name.

IN A NUTSHELL: The most popular wreck in the Middle Keys is this heavily encrusted former cable layer.

THE DIVE: Like most of the deeper Keys wrecks, you'll be asked to produce your C-card and log book to prove you can negotiate low vis and high current. Diving onto the bow, you'll find her cable-laying wheel, which has been fused in place by 16 years at the bottom. Barracuda and schools of jacks are docents on your wreck tour. Penetration of the wheelhouse and crew's quarters is possible; you can swim up a staircase amidships and view the twin bronze propellers.

Cayman Salvage Master

| | The Cayman Salvage Master played a role in transporting Cuban refugees more than 20 years ago.| Touched by the Hand of God

BUILT: 1936.
ORIGINAL NAME: F.V. Hunt.
ALSO CALLED: Cayman Salvor, Cayman Salvager.
LENGTH: 187 feet.
TYPE: Steel-hulled buoy tender.
SANK: August 1985.
DEPTH: 70 to 95 feet.
SKILL: Intermediate.
DIVE IT FROM: Key West.

COOL FACT: She transported Cuban refugees during the Mariel boatlift in the late '70s and early '80s, and was later seized by the U.S. government.

IN A NUTSHELL: Key West's most popular wreck dive draws a cloud of marine life including permit, Nassau grouper, reef octopus and hawksbill turtles.

THE DIVE: Divers rejoiced that day in 1985 when the _Cayman Salvage Master_--while being towed far offshore to create a sportfishing attraction in 300 feet of water--prematurely went down in just 90 feet. Though she sank on her port side, that same year, Hurricane Katrina picked her up and decided to make her upright. Today, she serves her original purpose (though not for anglers), attracting plenty of fish including goliath grouper, bar jacks and silversides.

Adolphus Busch Sr.

This Wreck's For You

BUILT: Scotland, 1951.
OTHER NAMES: London, Ocean Alley, Topsail Star, Windsor Trader.
LENGTH: 210 feet.
TYPE: Freighter.
SANK: Dec. 5, 1998.
DEPTH: 50 to 105 feet.
SKILL: Advanced.
DIVE IT FROM: Big Pine Key, Key West and most Lower Keys.

COOL FACT: The Busch appeared in the 1957 film Fire Down Below, which starred Jack Lemmon, Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth.

IN A NUTSHELL: Until the Vandenberg is sunk, the Busch will remain the Lower Keys' largest regularly dived wreck.

THE DIVE: The Looe Key Artificial Reef Association bought the Ocean Alley and towed it from Haiti to Miami. There, she was cleaned up, stripped of hatches and portholes and renamed after the beer magnate who helped fund the reef project. She's now sitting upright in the sand near Looe Key, clamped to the bottom by bow and stern anchors. Depth, lowered visibility and currents--though typically not as strong as other wrecks to the north--make this an advanced-only dive.

Joe's Tug

A Classic Key West Whodunit

LENGTH: 75 feet.
TYPE: Steel harbor tugboat.
SANK: Jan. 21, 1989.
DEPTH: 50 to 60 feet.
SKILL: Intermediate.
DIVE IT FROM: Key West.

COOL FACT: Originally destined to sleep with the fishes off Miami, she sank under mysterious circumstances six miles south of Stock Island near Key West. Some say a rum-soaked local pirate did it.

IN A NUTSHELL: A very popular smaller wreck that is home to lots of fish.

THE DIVE: A great warm-up to diving some of the Keys' deeper wrecks, this tugboat is home to barracuda, angelfish, schoolmasters, and an occasional hawksbill turtle and jewfish. The currents and visibility can vary from calm and clear one day to swift and cloudy the next. Though missing the wheelhouse and prop, the Tug is pretty much intact, and full penetration is possible. A jewfish named Elvis calls the wreck home, along with a large moray eel.

Having Trouble Finding Your Keys?

We'll Help Direct You to Your Perfect Island

A painless hour's drive south of Miami lands you on the first Key--Key Largo, America's most-visited dive destination. Many divers ask "why drive farther," throw the car in park and dive here. Continue southwest on U.S. 1 to Tavernier, however, and you'll find divers who prefer diving Largo's wrecks from a slightly less crowded key. Divers who dream of not only looking at fish but hooking them too drive to Islamorada, the undisputed epicenter of Keys angling. A convenient city in the heart of the Keys, Marathon offers a little bit of everything, while pastoral Bahia Honda boasts a beautiful state park with a nice stretch of beach. You'll be ordered to slow down while passing through Big Pine Key, as it is home to diminutive Key deer. If you're looking for a place that combines the peaceful world under water with daquiri-soaked nightlife above, look no farther than Key West. You can avoid the revelry, however, and check into a nice, quaint bed and breakfast.

Top 10 On The Bottom

| | Though wrecks don't appeal to every diver, most people appreciate the healthy reef coating on long-submerged Keys wrecks, especially the coast guard cutters Duane and Bibb.| Readers Rate Their Favorite Keys Wrecks

It may be too new to register on the radar, so look for the Spiegel Grove in our Top 100 Readers' Choice Awards next year. Here are the Florida Keys' most popular wrecks, according to our latest Reader Ratings surveys:

  1. USCGC Duane, Key Largo

  2. Eagle, Islamorada

  3. Benwood, Key Largo

  4. City of Washington, Key Largo

  5. USCGC Bibb, Key Largo

  6. Cayman Salvage Master, Key West

  7. Thunderbolt, Marathon

  8. Joe's Tug, Key West

  9. Adolphus Busch Sr., Looe Key

  10. USS Wilkes-Barre, Key West

Sinking Under Fishy Circumstances

One Man's Junk Is a Fish's Treasure

In addition to the usual suspects, you'll find a number of fish species on Florida Keys wrecks that may be slightly less common on its reefs:

GREAT BARRACUDA It's hard to dive the Keys without seeing a 'cuda, and you may actually encounter an entire school of them on a dive. Barracuda are the most common fish on the Duane and Bibb and second on the Thunderbolt.

FRENCH AND BLUESTRIPED GRUNTS Grunts are the John Does of the Florida Keys, and there's probably not a wreck you won't encounter them on.

BAR JACKS According to REEF, the most common fish species on the Eagle and Thunderbolt, second on the Bibb and third on the Duane.

GOLIATH GROUPER Once on the verge of extinction, these behemoths are making a comeback, and they love wrecks as much as we do.

Victory for Vandenberg?

Grove May Have Short-Lived Hold on Biggest Artificial Reef Title

Artificial Reefs of the Keys (ARK) is working hard to raise $2.2 million to sink the USAFS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg off Key West. The 520-foot Missile Range Instrumentation Ship is about 10 feet longer than the Spiegel Grove and would become the world's largest intentionally sunk artificial reef. The Vandenburg started its life as a troop transport during World War II, but was overhauled in 1961 as a mobile missile tracker. She'll offer a unique dive profile thanks to her three 40-foot wide radar dishes and two tracking domes. Environmental monitoring of the proposed 140-foot-deep site has already begun. For updates or to make donations, visit the ARK web site at bigshipwrecks.com or call (305) 296-7088.

More Must-See Keys Wrecks

ALEXANDER'S WRECK This 30-year-old wreck rests in less than 30 feet of water off Key West. The 300-foot destroyer escort is split in two and attracts life big and small.

USCGC BIBB Less than a half-mile from the Duane lies one of her sister seven "327s"--the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bibb, built in the Charleston Navy Yard in 1935. Unlike the Duane, the Bibb is at rest on her starboard side in 95 to 130 feet of water, making her slightly more challenging.

CANNABIS CRUISER Also called the "Pot Boat," this shrimper turned drug runner was scuttled as the Coast Guard closed in. Coming down off her high, she now rests in about 100 feet of water off Islamorada, where thick schools of mangrove snapper and a huge jewfish populate the site.

HENRIETTA MARIE Discovered in the early '70s by Mel Fisher's treasure-hunting team, the Henrietta Marie is the oldest slave ship ever excavated. Having disgorged its human cargo in Jamaica, the British merchant ship was returning to London when it went down at New Ground Reef, 35 miles off Key West, loaded down with wood, cotton, sugar andindigo.

HMS LOO It's believed that Loo hit its namesake reef on Feb. 5, 1744 when currents caught her and pushed her onto the reef, along with a ship she had captured, the Betty. Betty was originally a British ship that had been earlier captured by the Spanish.

NUESTRA SEƑORA DE ATOCHA Thirty miles west of Key West lies the object of Mel Fisher's 16-year obsession--the wreck of the 17th-century Atocha and her multimillion-dollar cargo of gold. He found the Spanish galleon in just 50 feet of water. Occasional all-day trips depart Key West in summer to visit the treasure ship, which sank in 1622. The search and salvage operation cost Fisher more than just years--the tab included more than $10 million and three lives as well.

SAN PEDRO In 1733, a hurricane raked the Keys and dispatched this 287-ton Spanish galleon to the shallows off Islamorada. Now surrounded by a field of turtle grass, the remnants of the _San Pedro_--90 linear feet of ballast stones and red ladrillo galley bricks--share the sandy patch with a healthy population of marine life.

USS WILKES-BARRE If you think the Spiegel Grove is the Keys' largest wreck, you're wrong--the prize goes to the 610-foot Wilkes-Barre. Chances are, however, that you won't dive it during your Keys vacation, as it lies in 140 to 210 feet of water more than 15 miles southeast of Key West.

THE WINDJAMMER Built in Scotland in 1875, the 261-foot iron-hulled sailing ship ran aground on Loggerhead Reef in just 20 feet of water in 1907. This wreck-reef boasts star and brain coral mounds tended by Bermuda chub, grouper, yellow goatfish and mangrove snappers.

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