Photo By: Haig Jacobs/Digital Island MediaCourtesy: Florida Keys News Bureau
It finally happened. After years of red tape, politics, a cost of $8.6 million and several failed attempts to get it in the water, the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was finally sunk off Key West, Florida. Seven nautical miles from this end of the world island, at 10:21 a.m. on May 27, 2009, an unlikely addition to the Keys' world-class fleet of divable wrecks went down in 140 feet of seawater. This 523-foot-long communication and tracking ship makes Key West a must stop on any serious wreck diver's wish list. The uppermost superstructure starts in only 40 feet of water, so the Vandenberg is open even to new divers to experience. Sunk on a sandy bottom, the massive artificial reef has already started to attract marine life vying for its portion of this new undersea kingdom of real estate. And with so many communication arrays and points of entry, the wreck is worth many repeat dives.
The ship is easily accessible to divers, with a large variety of divable structures between 40 and 140 feet in depth. While the
More qualified divers have access to the giant dish antennas, the bridge, and the main deck areas that still have many of the ships features intact, such as cranes and the large capstan with the heavy anchor chain still in place. In the center of the ship is a deep vertical shaft originally used to crane equipment into the vessel’s interior. The aft balloon/hanger deck is open to the stern of the vessel, and the ship was designed with numerous openings and cutouts, giving access to interior spaces of the vessel. Divers should be aware that many of these are not swim-throughs and lead into the maze-like interior of the ship. While there are areas that can serve as swim-through points on the ship, penetration into the vessel should only be attempted by divers with sufficient training, and ask the dive center for a guide on your first attempt to swim through any interior spaces. One suggestion, bring a good dive light when you visit the Vandenberg. The cutouts and other openings provide opportunities to see quite a bit of the ship’s interior, even without entering the spaces, and you never know what interesting sea life may be hiding just inside the next hatch.
Returning to the Vandenberg two years after its sinking, I’m happy to report that it has become home to numerous forms of sea life, such as goliath grouper and barracuda, and the coral has begun to take hold on the surfaces of the ship. All of which make the vessel a more interesting site for the wreck diving enthusiast. Dive conditions in the lower Keys during September and October tend to be great, with good visibility and warm water, and the throngs of summer tourists have already headed home to get their kids back to school. For those divers who have not acquainted themselves with the Florida Keys latest artificial reef, it’s time to plan your trip to Key West and visit the Vandenberg.