Diving with a film star

On Wednesday 27 May at about 10.22am, demolition experts pressed the button that set off 40 charges aboard the Gen Hoyt S Vandenberg. Just over one minute and 50 seconds later, while the helicopter with photographer and videographer aboard rushed to get its unique footage, she slipped beneath the sea to become the latest part of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trek.

Three days later, after the initial safety checks were complete, she was officially opened to the public for diving. The sinking of the Vandenberg was the culmination of the US$8.6 million project to create the world’s second-largest artificial shipwreck, the cost of which should be recuperated by the boost to the local economy in around three to five years. It’s now the end of June and the dive site some seven miles or 30 minutes from the Key West is flat calm but – and it had been a problem all week in the Keys – there was a strong current and the vis was down to about five to ten metres.

No problem for most UK divers, but a bit of a shock to those expecting the crystal-clear blue water as it was when she first went down! Diving in the Florida Keys varies from days of calm seas and visibility in excess of 25 metres plus to decidedly choppy conditions, strong currents and the kind of vis we got for our dives. But hey, what the hell, if you are comfortable in those conditions, you can have a great time diving in the Keys. Just remember to take a pair of gloves as you may need to go hand over hand to get yourself on some of the dive sites, and some of the wrecks in the Keys have more than their fair share of barnacles and fish hooks on the steel cables that attach the buoys to the wrecks.

Resting in 40-42m of water, with the top of the infrastructure at around 12-15m, the Vandenberg is furnished with six buoys for the dive boats to moor on and to be used as descent lines. Our dive boat from the excellent Dive Key West store was one of only three on the site the day we dived, and this wreck is so big there was no chance of bumping into divers from other boats while on the ship itself. A dive from the bow was the first of the day, the ship gradually revealing itself as we got close. Almost ghostly, the grey wreck loomed out of the murky water, and as there was not as much current as we had had previously, this was the first dive of the week where we didn’t need to hang on to the descent line all the way down.

The huge anchor chain and winch was the first feature to stand out. The wreck has been made as accessible as possible to divers, the intention being that those that are suitably qualified and equipped can safely penetrate the wreck but – and it is a big BUT – if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t go in, you could easily find yourself deeper than you should be or disorientated. This is one big ship and it’s like a maze inside. There really isn’t any need to go inside the wreck as there is plenty to keep you occupied exploring from the deck up. The main deck at around 25m, bridge, masts and flags from the Conch Republic and huge Stars and Stripes will be much photographed.

Then it’s on to the first and smaller of the two huge satellite dishes used for tracking US and Soviet missile launches in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It looks like a dish-shaped climbing frame with its collection of steel tubing and, again, will be the subject for many a photographer. A leisurely dive like that will take about 30 minutes from leaving the surface to starting your ascent, so it’s soon time to get back on the boat and off to more up on the stern. Dive Key West have adopted a ‘diving with friends’ philosophy and all the dive staff and crew are intent on making your dives fun and safe – the surface interval in the sun (or shade if you are like me) passed quickly with the banter and huge ice bucket of drinks and fruit as a between-dive snack.

Dive two was from the stern and a trip to the ship’s other satellite dish, the larger of the two, which is still attached – even though in the film Virus it was blown off by a laser fired from space. We then went round past the crow’s nest and chimney, both somewhat shorter than they had been when on the surface so that the wreck is not a hazard to shipping. While you are having your dive look out for Cyrillic writing (Russian style of writing) on the superstructure, a hangover from the Vandenberg’s days as a film star. Obviously there is very little plant and coral growth on the Vandenberg at this early stage, but already the big tarpon and barracuda are on the scene, with a few smaller fish in evidence.

Apparently pods of nosey dolphins have been around to see what all the fuss is about, although none on the day we were there. The reef will be monitored by and other agencies to keep track of how the life on it evolves and its effects on surrounding reefs and dive sites. How does a ship like this affect the local economy? Dive Key West reckon that business is up over 100 per cent, with enquiries from as far away as the UK, Europe and Australia. The knock on to other sectors of the local economy is obvious. Other parts of the Keys are all reporting increased trade, with divers going to Key West stopping along the way to dive. Old crew members from the Vandenberg who had gathered to watch the sinking all agreed on two things – one, that they were happy that she was getting a new life rather than being scrapped, and two, they were pleased they only found out now how fast she could sink! As we finished our trip, the Vandenberg was supposed to be the final part in the chain of artificial reefs surrounding the Florida Keys, but you know the people down here may have different ideas. Give it another seven or so years and there might just be another ship ready to join the wreck trek…

Sport Diver verdict
The Hoyt S Vandenberg has been a long time coming, but it makes the Florida Keys a wreck-diving heaven for heavy-metal enthusiasts

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