Cruising the Conch Republic
Spend a weekend exploring the USS Vandenberg and the shallow reefs of lively Key West
You could easily confine your Florida Keys diving experience to Key Largo, with its myriad wrecks and beautiful marine sanctuary. But with the 2009 addition of the USS Vandenberg artificial reef to the dive scene off Key West — not to mention the Overseas Highway’s recent federal designation as one of the great All-merican Roads, with a whopping 42 bridges connecting the isles — the case is stronger than ever for following U.S. 1 till it ends in the United States’ most Caribbean locale.
Since its scuttling in May 009, the Vandenberg has lured a steady stream of divers, as well as pilgrims of the naturally finned variety, to its final resting place about six miles off Key West. The 523-foot-long missile-tracking ship looms keel-down in 140 feet of water and is the second largest artificial reef in the world. Within minutes of its sinking, locals say, the Vandy was already attracting fish.
The main deck sits at roughly 90 feet, with much of the superstructure and a few add-ons — including a swimthrough satellite dish, eerily waving U.S. and Conch Republic flags, a telescope and the navigational bridge — located between 50 and 90 feet. It’s worth hiring a guide to make the most of your bottom time (most dive shops charge around $25 per person for the service), which will likely be around 25 minutes.
In the weeks after the Vandenberg was sunk, it glowed bright white. But life is starting to take hold in the form of a furry green patina and the odd anemone clearing the way for sponges and, eventually, more substantial coral. Large bait balls have been spotted on the ship, groupers lurk near the bow, and reef fish are everywhere. Giant barracuda patrol the wreck too, as do the Keys’ ubiquitous yellowtail snapper schools. Peek under the rails and in holes to spot arrow crabs.
Key West’s shallow reef dives deliver the fish life too. At Hawk Channel Marker 32, a short ride from the Vandy, loggerhead turtles are often spotted cruising a seascape of fans and barrel sponges. Squirrelfish peek from coralladen lairs, sergeant majors flash their stripes in schools and trumpetfish wend their way through the corals, making it easy to see why the Keys is often lauded as more impressive than many caribbean dive sites due to the abundant fish life. The Western Sambos Ecological Reserve is a protected area of extreme diversity. And at the dive site called the Haystacks, large formations of star coral
rise from the ocean floor. You’ll see the usual snapper schools, grouper and reef fish, and occasional underwater dolphin sightings (and even a rare manta ray) have also been documented. Nearby, the Cut hosts healthy staghorn coral growth and spiny lobsters galore.
Surface intervals are so packed with activities in eclectic, freewheeling Key West — from cultural forays at the Hemingway House to lounging on the island’s best beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park — you’ll only scratch the surface of the Conch Republic’s highlights during a short trip. If that feels like too much pressure, doing nothing at all is a perfectly respectable island pastime too.
On Friday, drive from Miami to Key West, roughly 3 1/2 hours southwest. Check in at Wicker Guesthouse (wickerguesthouse.com), a complex of six houses centered on an interior courtyard on the calmer end of Duval Street. Then stroll next door for an alfresco dinner at Nine One Five Bistro
and Wine Bar (915duval.com), specializing in creatively prepared local seafood such as Thaistyle
Drive five minutes to Dive Key West to check in for the day’s diving by 8 a.m. You’ll dive the (1) Vandenberg first, then hit Channel Marker 32 or one of the area’s other great reefs for your second dive. For lunch, make the short drive to Hogfish Bar and Grill (hogfishbar.com), fronting the working shrimping docks on Stock Island, where the fish you likely just saw underwater star in fish tacos and sandwiches. Opt for two more shallow reef dives in the afternoon, then head back to Key West and fill up at Old Bahama Village at Blue Heaven (blueheavenkw.com), where jerk flavors meet European inspiration. Then relax and enjoy the sunset spectacle at Mallory Square.
Head to Subtropic Dive Center for a two tank morning excursion to the Vandy, or book the afternoon boat and spend your morning snorkeling at (2) Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Then explore the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center. Before you head home, stop by Sandy’s Café (1026 White St.) for the most delicious Cuban sandwich this side of Havana.
Need to Know
- Getting There - From Miami, follow signs for Florida’s Turnpike. Continue to U.S. 1 South or take the more scenic route along Card Sound Road to Key Largo, then follow U.S. 1 to Key West.
- When to Go - The best visibility is from May through July. Avoid holiday weekends when room rates soar.
- Dive Conditions - Water temps in summer are in the mid-80s, and drop to the 60s in winter. Visibility is usually between 50 and 80 feet.
- Operators - Dive Key West (divekeywest.com), Subtropic Dive Center (subtropic.com)
- Price Tag - Two dives (the Vandy and a reef dive) are $99 at Dive Key West ($149 with full gear rental). Subtropic Dive Center charges $80 for two Vandy dives, $120 with rental. Room rates at Wicker Guesthouse start at $109, excluding peak season (Dec. 21-May 31) and holidays.