Getting into Florida State Parks on short notice is not easy. John Pennekamp State Park is one of the most popular and you can reserve a spot eleven months ahead of time. However many of those who make a reservation that early have a change in plans and these reservations get cancelled. If you consistently check for cancellations, you may get lucky. After much diligence (on my wife’s part), we were one of the lucky ones and were able to get a two night opening and adjusted our departure from Key West accordingly.
Our reason for wanting to stay at Pennekamp was so I could dive on a couple of ships that had been sunk as artificial reefs off Key Largo. My favorite dive shop in the area is Ocean Divers and they do a double wreck dive on Saturday and Sunday each week. The plan was that we would dive on two Coast Guard cutters, the Duane and the Bibb. I thought this would be great because the Duane and the Bibb are the sister ships of the Cutter Ingham in Key West where I served as a volunteer docent. The weather forecast was for good weather but I woke up to heavy rain and winds. The bad weather abated but as our boat headed for the dive site, the rain rolled back in again. When we got to the dive site, the current was running so strong that the mooring balls were pulled underwater. The good news was that our alternate plan was to do a double dive on the USS Spiegel Grove.
The Spiegel Grove is a destination dive. On June 10, 2002, the date she was sunk, the Spiegel Grove was the largest artificial reef in the world. With the sinking of the USS Oriskany off Pensacola on May 17, 2006, she became the second largest, and with the sinking of the USAFS Vandenberg off Key West on May 27, 2009, she slipped to third. However, size has little to do with the quality of the dive and she still remains one of the world’s premier dive sites.
The vessel had an interesting ride to get to her current place among Florida’s big shipwrecks, starting with the ship’s premature sinking. Originally scheduled for sinking on Friday afternoon May 17, 2002, the vessel apparently decided not to wait for the salvage crews and, six hours early, began to go down on its own, rolling over and coming to rest upside down with her bow protruding from the water. Three weeks later, salvage crews managed to complete the sinking of the Spiegel Grove, but were unable to roll the vessel upright and she came to rest on her starboard side. Further efforts were made to right the ship, without success, and the dive community eventually came to accept the fact that the vessel would remain on its side. However, nature had other ideas and in July of 2005, Hurricane Dennis ripped across the Florida Keys, leaving the Spiegel Grove sitting upright on the ocean’s bottom, just as originally planned.
As an LSD (Landing Ship, Dock), the Siegel Grove offers a unique dive profile. Divers can penetrate the upper superstructure of the wreck through prepared “swim throughs,” and swim into the well deck. Numerous mooring balls provide the means of tying off of chartered dive boats and secure descent lines for the divers. Three of these lines end at depths between 60 and 70 feet, those attached to the port side of the upper superstructure and the tops of the large cranes. Several other descent lines on the bow and stern terminate in deeper depths of 90 to 100 feet. The vessel itself sits in 134 feet of water with the top of the wheelhouse around 60 feet, the peak of the bow at 90 feet, and the top of the stern deck near the well door at 100 feet.Unlike her younger cousin, the Vandenberg, the Spiegel Grove is a fully developed reef ecosystem. Thick coral covers the huge cranes and the gun mounts and carpets the decks. Numerous reef creatures, from queen angelfish to barracuda, inhabit the nooks and crannies of the vessel.As a solo diver I take my chances on who I may be paired with for the dive. This time I was extremely lucky to find an experienced diver. Jim and I discussed and developed a dive plan. We descended down a line that led to one of the 50-ton cranes above the well deck. From the mooring ball we were able to see the ghostly shape of the ship. As we descended the top of the crane came into focus, swarms of fish came into view, and my excitement grew.Because of the weather, the visibility was not as good as the last time I dove on the Spiegel Grove, but the overall visibility was still good. Unfortunately the particles in the water made underwater photography a challenge. As we swam around and through the Spiegel Grove, we saw multiple barracuda, angelfish, grouper, grunts, and jacks. On our first dive we explored the exterior of the ship, including the bridge, and swam into the well deck. I was almost overwhelmed with the sheer size of the vessel.The highlight was the second dive where Jim led me on a penetration of the upper deck of the superstructure and the bridge. It was so dark that, at times, the only objects I could see were what I lit with my underwater light. This dive sounds easier than it was. Even though we were in prepared swim throughs, it was essential to maintain good buoyancy control so as not to stir up the silt that settles in the wreck. Fortunately Jim and I were able to float through the wreck with minimal contact and left clear water for the pairs of dive buddies that followed us.
The professionalism of the crew of our Ocean Divers dive boat was the icing on the cake as they helped us prepare for each dive and assisted us with our entry and exits.While I was disappointed that I was not able to dive on the Duane and the Bibb, I was not disappointed to dive the Spiegel Grove again. In spite of starting in bad weather, it moderated and we had great conditions for diving. I had an excellent crew to support the dive and a good dive buddy who made the dive a unique experience. Life is good!