Tec Diving Key Largo's Iconic Wrecks
I followed my dive buddies down a narrow corridor inside the ship, we had gotten far enough away from the entrance that there was no light visible besides the ones we carried. Swimming through doorways, we continued until the diver leading the group paused and looked back at me. He shined his light down a hatch and signaled to ask if I was okay. I responded with my own “OK” sign and down we went. Swimming inverted down stairs and ladders always feels funny, head first with the bubbles rushing backwards past my face.
A rebreather diver swims by a boiler in the forward engine room of the USS Spiegel Grove in Key Largo.
We were inside the Spiegel Grove, one of the most popular wrecks in the Florida Keys, and our destination was the engine room. The path involved entering the wreck, going down one level, straight for a while, and down two more levels. It was not your typical dive on the Spiegel and not a dive to do without tec diving certifications, experience and planning. Extra safety practices included running a line from the entrance and exit in case silt got stirred up, which could make it difficult to see. We carried plenty of extra gas in case we needed to deal with any issues or problems and we made an extensive dive plan which would be followed; no venturing off to explore places we hadn’t discussed, and time limits based on air consumption and our planned decompression time.
The Florida Keys is where I gained a lot of experience when I first started out as a newbie diver and where I became a scuba instructor. In college, I spent weekends in the Keys fitting in as many dives as possible (before driving overnight to get back in time for class Monday morning.) For many years after, it was a place I felt I had already thoroughly explored. So when some dive buddies I had met diving in Truk Lagoon suggested I join them for a trip to the Keys I had a “been there, done that,” mentality. It had been years since I’d been back, but when they started to tell me their tec diving plans, I realized that I had not been there and done that. Since my time in the Keys, my personal training and dive aspirations had evolved into being a wreck junkie and I was now tec certified. The trip they proposed was to dive the wrecks around Key Largo but in a completely different manner than I had ever dived them before.
That’s how I found myself several levels down inside the Spiegel Grove, swimming past a boiler that someone had mounted an American flag, and through machine shops and other rooms. Lucky for us, Horizon Divers often did “double dips” on the Spiegel which gave us the opportunity to do one long deco dive while the rest of the boat completed two shorter recreational dives. The Spiegel, a 510 ft artificial wreck has been underwater for almost 20 years, and is an ideal wreck for many different types and levels of experience with plenty to plenty explore.
We finished our dive just before the other divers were returning from their second dive and I was in awe and so happy I had decided to join my friends; it was an entirely different way to see the Spiegel.
The next day we visited the Duane wreck, a 329ft cutter that was artificially sunk in 1987. Current is common in the area which usually makes for excellent visibility and when we jumped in, there was both current and great viz. Off to one side of the wreck there were several bull sharks and after getting a quick look at them, we headed inside the wreck.
Leaving stage tanks of 70 percent O2 while going inside the wreck of the USCGC Duane for the option of accelerated decompression at the end of the dive.
Running a line from where we entered, we moved slowly inside to not stir up any silt or rust which might reduce visibility. The inside of the wreck was quite intact but looked like no one had dusted or cleaned it in years, as piles of silt lined the floor. Passing signs that were still legible read “high voltage" and “fire pump” and gave me an eerie feeling like the ship was abandoned, which I guess it kind of was, and then sunk on purpose to help coral and marine life aggregation.
Our last dive of the trip was on the Doc DeMille, a 287 ft freighter that originally sailed fruit and passengers from North Africa to Europe. Sold in 1973 to Caribbean owners, the ship eventually ended up confiscated in Florida, suspected of drug smuggling. It was also sunk as an artificial reef in 1986. This wreck is deeper the others, sitting at 150 ft with the shallowest point at 90 ft.
Diving with Horizon Divers, this all tec trip had everyone on board decked out in doubles or close circuit rebreathers. The area we enter the water commonly has a strong current and there is no mooring ball, so we would be dropped (hopefully) in front of the wreck and would need to descend immediately with the goal of drifting right into the ship. There was the potential we could drift right over it and miss it entirely.
As the boat got close we were given the signal to gear up. Everyone needed to be completely ready to back roll or giant stride off the back of the boat at the same time. I was back rolling off the port side and could feel the sweat pouring off of me from the hot Florida sun through my 5 mm wetsuit and heavy gear. It was decidedly uncomfortable with double tanks hanging off the edge of the boat and my shoulders taking all the weight. I had a deco bottle attached to one side with 80% O2 to help clear my deco obligation faster and my dSLR camera with strobes in my lap.
Divers using closed circuit rebreathers diving on the Doc DeMillie around 140 ft.
It seemed like forever before the boat came to a stop and it was time to, “Dive, dive, dive!” I back rolled and once underwater oriented myself and began swimming down as directed in the briefing. The current was usually stronger at the surface than deeper. Getting organized, I checked all my gear and looked for my dive buddies. We spotted one another and kept kicking down and down.
Lucky for us, the amazing Captain Jeff had set us up in exactly the right spot and once we all descended to around 120 ft, the massive dark shadow of the Doc DeMille came into view. The current was still pushing us along, but slower at depth. We spotted a few bull sharks close to the sand, but they swam away at the sight of us.
The 310 ft wreck felt giant as the current moved us past the bow. The middle section of the ship was partly collapsed in the sand but harbored lots of fish, including several lionfish. A massive goliath grouper emerged from a hiding place after getting a glimpse of us, it quickly swam away, disappearing into another hiding spot.
The stern section was still intact and we did an easy swim through one deck and connected to another before emerging out of the ship again. Even at this depth, the ship was covered in corals and sponges and teeming with fish. Bottom time goes quick at those depths and our planned time was ticking away.
The longer we stayed in the 140-150 ft range, the more deco time we would acquire, so we could not stay any longer than planned.
Back outside the wreck, we signaled to start our ascent when someone banged on their tank, two eagle rays passed right by the stern. Not a bad way to end the dive. We ascended slowly, making our deep stops along the way and one very long stop at 10 ft all while drifting in the current.
The Key Largo area offers many wrecks perfect for all levels of technical diving and tec dive training. For those who think they’ve seen all the Keys wrecks have to offer at the recreational level, tech diving can open up a whole new realm of possibilities. Other exciting tec wrecks to explore near Key Largo include the Northern Lights (150-19 0ft), the Queen of Nassau (180-220 ft), and the Vitric (290-300 ft). There is plenty for all divers to explore.
Do not dive beyond your training and personal abilities. Never go inside a wreck or other overhead environment without the necessary training, gear, and a well-informed dive plan. Dive shops like Horizon Divers can certify divers for these types of dives and provide the guidance necessary to have the safest and most enjoyable tec dives possible.