If you ever watched “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges as a child, you may have had a desire to SCUBA dive on a sunken ship. Unfortunately that can be quite a dangerous event because of loose equipment on board, and damage that may have left sharp edges, just to name a few. For many SCUBA divers an intentionally sunken ship, acting as an artificial reef, is the answer to that quest.
Marine resource managers create artificial reefs in underwater areas that require a structure to enhance the habitat for reef organisms, including soft and stony corals and the fishes and invertebrates that live among them.
Many reefs are built using objects that were built for other purposes, for example by sinking oil rigs (through the Rigs-to-Reefs program) or scuttling ships. When ships are properly prepared to be sunk as a reef their hatch doors have been removed, extraneous equipment, and all electrical and hoist cables have been removed. The interior spaces are cleaned of all debris that could pose an underwater danger. All this makes entering the inside of an artificial reef much safer than entering a ship that was sunk by an accident.
Properly prepared artificial reefs help take human pressure off natural coral reefs and provide alternative structures for SCUBA divers to explore and additional habitats to increase marine life populations.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary contains several decommissioned vessels that were sunk in specific areas for diving or fishing opportunities prior to the area’s designation as a national marine sanctuary. One of the most famous is the USAFS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.
The USAFS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg began her career as the USS General Harry Taylor, a transport ship that served from 1944 to 1958 when she was stricken from the Naval Register. In 1961 she was acquired by the U.S. Air Force and renamed the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.
The Vandenberg was used as one of ten missile range instrumentation ships. “Equipped with extremely accurate and discriminating radar and telemetry equipment,” she tracked and analyzed “re-entry bodies in the terminal phase of ballistic missile test flights,” carrying out those missile and spacecraft tracking duties in both Atlantic and Pacific waters until her retirement in 1983. She was ultimately stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 29 April 1993.
In 1998, some scenes of the sci-fi film Virus were filmed aboard the Vandenberg. The ship substituted for a fictional Russian vessel called the Akademik Vladislav Volkov, and some of the Cyrillic lettering applied for the film is still visible on the hull today.
On May 27, 2009, after more than a decade of planning and funding totaling $8.6 million, this ex-military missile-tracking ship, that once tracked space launches off Cape Canaveral, Fla., and monitored Soviet missile launches during the Cold War, was added to a list of military vessels purposely sunk off the Florida Keys to become artificial reefs, thus preserving a bit of U.S. history. The Vandenberg was sunk seven miles south of Key West (N 24 28.164 W 081 43.468) and is the second largest artificial reef in the United States.
You can view a video of the intentional sinking of the Vandenberg by clicking on this link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0RyFnoFgyQ
This year I made my seventh and eighth dive on the “Vandy” and I still haven’t seen it all! She is 522 feet in length, sits in 140 feet of water, and her highest point is 50 feet below the surface. On my last dive we teamed up with a guide from the local dive center who led us into the interior of the ship and we swam through a series of rooms until we exited 100 feet later – what an experience! As I said in a Trip Advisor report, it is a monster of a wreck. The three radar dishes that sat on the upper deck have now slipped off their masts and two rest on the main deck and the third is on the sea bottom. My favorite picture is one of me swimming through the center of one of those radar dishes.
There is so much aquatic life on the Vandenberg! It has become a haven for fish and other aquatic life. There are sponges and coral growing on her hull, countless barracuda cruise in and out of her hatches, sea cucumber and frog fish attach themselves to her hull. On my last dive a surprised a 500 pound goliath grouper resting inside one of the radar mast towers.
The Vandenberg has attracted divers from all over the world. For a SCUBA diver, a trip to Key West is not complete without diving on the Vandenberg. In my opinion, it is the best dive site in this end of the Florida Keys.