Photo by Floyd Devine
The first fruits of an almost six-year effort to acquire a decommissioned Navy ship to sink off the Florida Keys as an artificial reef was finally realized in 2002, when the Spiegel Grove was towed from its resting place amid other retired vessels at the James River Reserve Fleet to a cleanup and make-ready yard in Chesapeake, Va.
The effort to acquire the 510-foot Landing Ship Dock (LSD) was fraught with red tape, bureaucracy and delays as Key Largo dive industry officials attempted to convince federal, state and local officials that the project was environmentally sound. But finally the green light was given and three tugboats pulled the 46-year-old ship from its resting place for the last 11 years.
Known locally as the ''ghost fleet,'' the Reserve Fleet harbors more than 100 retired and rusting ships that are waiting for disposal. ''Exhilaration is an understatement,'' said Spencer Slate, chairman of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Artificial Reef Committee, who was aboard the Spiegel Grove for the 16-mile voyage to the make-ready yard. ''I never imagined that it would have taken six years, but finally the end was in sight.''
Workers cleaned the vessel of all contaminants and made it diver-friendly. Once prepared, the Spiegel Grove was towed to Key Largo. Named for the Fremont, Ohio, estate of the late U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, the steel, steam turbine-powered Spiegel Grove was launched in 1955 as a LSD designed to transport landing craft that carried combat troops to shore. In 1956, she sailed from Norfolk, Va., to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and later that year participated in the amphibious exercises that would ultimately comprise the greatest part of her active service. In the Spiegel Grove's active lifetime, she toured the Mediterranean with the U.S. Marines, transported Army troops to Labrador, Canada, and participated in operations along the East Coast and in the Caribbean. For her services, she was awarded four Navy Expeditionary medals, a National Defense Service medal, six Armed Forces Expeditionary medals and a Humanitarian Service medal. The vessel last saw active duty as part of the Atlantic Fleet in 1974 and was officially decommissioned in 1989.
At the time of its sinking as an artificial reef in May of 2002, the 510-foot-long and 85-foot-wide Spiegel Grove (LSD-32), a former Loading Ship Dock originally constructed in September 1954, was the largest deliberately placed artificial reef in the world. Since that time, her title of “the biggest” fell to the USS Oriskany off Florida’s Gulf Coast in 2006, and the recent sinking of the 520-foot-long USNS Vandenberg near Key West has stolen a bit of the Spiegel Grove’s thunder, but she still remains one of the world’s premier wreck diving sites.
The vessel has 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 the 17th of May 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. Nature had other ideas, however, 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.
Unlike her younger cousin, the USNS Vandenberg, the Spiegel Grove is a fully developed reef ecosystem. Thick coral covers the huge cranes and the gun mounts and carpets the decks, and numerous reef creatures, from queen angelfish to barracuda, inhabit the nooks and crannies of the vessel. The vessel is considered an advanced wreck diving site, with all of its primary structure at 60 feet or deeper and frequent strong currents across the site. There are numerous openings into the upper decks of the vessel, but as with any confined or overhead environment divers should never enter those areas without proper training and experience. The access provided to the ship’s interior through these openings, however, has made the vessel very popular with experienced technical and wreck penetration divers.
The exterior of the vessel provides divers with a diverse landscape to explore, and the majority of the structures can be seen on a single day’s “double-dip” charter for those looking to just make the rounds. Numerous mooring balls provide the means for both the tying off of visiting charter 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, and several others on the bow and stern that 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. There have been up to eight moorings on the site, but not all of those remain as of my last visit to the site.
The bow of the vessel is a wide open space with the most prominent feature being the large double capstan anchor system, that is actually in use as the ship’s anchors and chain are placed out in front of the vessel to help keep it stabilized on the bottom. Moving aft, the superstructure rises up from the foredeck, with divers passing deck reels, numerous open hatches, and one coral encrusted twin 50 caliber gun mount as they ascend to the decks surrounding the Maneuvering Bridge. Rolling around to the port side of the superstructure, divers will find three bronze plaques commemorating the final duty station of the vessel and listing the names of significant donors to the project. Heading aft along the top weather decks at around 70 feet of depth, divers encounter the forward exhaust stack, two more coral encrusted gun mounts, deck reels, and the control tower looking down into the open well deck from the back end of the main superstructure.
Moving aft into the well deck area, the most dominant structures are the aft exhaust stack on the port side, and the port and starboard 50-ton cranes, the lattice structures of which are heavily encrusted with coral and home to colorful reef fish. The large well deck is almost completely open at the top with just one section of the former helicopter platform remaining as a bridge between the port and starboard hull sides. Reaching the rear of the ship, the enormous well door lies open, as if waiting for landing craft to return onboard.
As the grand matron of Florida shipwrecks, the USS Spiegel Grove continues to be a perennial favorite of local and visiting divers alike. Often presenting a challenge to even the most experienced divers with the strong currents that run across her decks, the diversity of her growing coral ecosystem and the thrill of exploring her decks and spaces will continue draw the adventurous — and curious — among us.