Drive and Dive: Exploring Shipwrecks in the Florida Keys

OPERATION DEEP END

During my first year of diving — 17 years ago — my brother and I were gearing up for Key Largo’s USCG Duane, a 327-foot former Coast Guard cutter sitting at 120 feet. We planned to descend through a circle of 10-foot barracuda before hitting the navigation bridge at 70 feet. But the current at the surface was rough — so rough that our guide called the dive before we even had a chance to begin our descent. Canceling the dive turned out to be a smart move; this advanced dive had no place in our crisp new logbooks.

Nearly two decades later, and with an instructor’s worth of dives under my weight belt, I’m back. The current is just as I remember. One of 10 wrecks along the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail, the Duane almost guarantees a strong current because of its location just outside of the protection of the reef. The upside is that the visibility is almost always spot on. (Another bonus: Critters love current.)

“The current can make the Duane a more challenging dive, but it’s that flow of nutrients that makes the sea life on the ship so phenomenal,” says Kell Levendorf, lead instructor at Divers Direct/Ocean Divers/Emocean Sports.

At the surface, the current looks doable. Emocean Sports has its 45-foot Corinthian positioned near the bow of the wreck; from the mooring line I can see the Duane’s silhouette at 120 feet. From there, I head for the bow and into the direction of the current. I am not the only one with this plan: Nestled at the tip of the wreck is an 800-pound goliath grouper basking in the down-flow.

Penetration on the upright wreck is easy. An American flag waves from the top platform as if it’s in slow motion, with an underwater anthem of bubbles. Within minutes, the current has already pushed me farther from the bow. I’m short of breath and can sense the hesitation in my regulator as it threatens to self-purge from the rushing current. This is quite a workout. After an air check, I take one last look around and make the decision to work my way back to the mooring line.

Near the crow’s nest, silver clouds of baitfish work the flow with ease and barracuda lurk in the distance. I embrace the few minutes of bottom time I have left. Levendorf is right. The marine life is booming here. This wreck was well worth the wait.

DOUBLE FEATURE

Although I’m still reeling from the rush of the Duane, the next day’s dive is a double dip on the nearby USS Spiegel Grove. Because the wreck measures 510 feet in length, it can take six dives to circle it in its entirety. After the first dive, it’s understandable why many divers want another chance to explore the gorgeous giant. A double-dip dive is the local dive operators’ answer to packing in as much bottom time as possible by offering back-to-back dives on the wreck in one outing.

And there is a lot to see. Instead of the scheduled sinking that was planned for the Spiegel Grove in 2002, the wreck had other plans and sank several hours earlier on its own, and on its side. Back in 2005, Hurricane Dennis did divers a favor by placing the Spiegel Grove back on its keel.

Today, the helipad has fallen to the wayside, but the remaining architecture still stands strong with dynamic lines and walls of healthy corals. Making the wreck easily accessible for multiple boats, the structure itself has roughly six mooring balls and sits at 134 feet, with the highest point starting between 60 and 65 feet. Prior to sinking, several areas of the ship were opened for penetration, but some of the most breathtaking views are on the ship’s exterior, including a crane area that attracts a wealth of marine life and a coral-covered gun mount. And, as with many dives along Florida’s Shipwreck Trail, an American flag waves loyally in the current.

GRAND FINALE

Post-dive I’m bound for Key West and the next day’s dive on the newest member of the Shipwreck Trail, the USAF Vandenberg, located about 7 miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Listed as the second-largest purpose-sunk wreck in the world, this is the last stop on my journey down U.S. Route 1.

Based on my predive briefing from CeCe Roycraft, co-owner of Dive Key West, it seems the underwater patriotism continues along dive sites throughout the Shipwreck Trail. “We wanted to respect the Vandenberg’s former life as an integral part of American history, so you’ll notice a flag positioned as one of the first things you see on the dive,” Roycraft says.

The 520-foot-long ship rests at 140 feet, with the key points starting at about 40 feet. The current is almost nonexistent, so we head for the crow’s nest, a 20-foot smokestack, bridges covered in thriving corals and a weather-balloon hangar. Dish antennae provide a complex weave of metal and the perfect hiding place for bashful grouper and barracuda. As we make our way to the line, the supersize American flag bids us goodbye.

“On a clear day, the light becomes red, white and blue because the threads are so thin,” says Joe Weatherby, president of Artificial Reefs International. “It creates a mood that gives it an almost theatrical look.”

And it’s with that theatrical look that my journey down the Shipwreck Trail comes to a poetic close.

From the Duane’s fast-paced current to the dignified aura of the Spiegel Grove and the sense of adventure on the Vandenberg, I’ve only touched down on three of the 10 wrecks that make up the Shipwreck Trail. I can only anticipate what each wreck will deliver, but this time I won’t wait 17 years to find out.


ITINERARY: FLORIDA KEYS

Day One When your trip starts in Key Largo, visit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a 70-square-mile area of mangroves and reefs teeming with life. A stay at the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort means easy access to local dive boats and the perks of a resort with an expansive pool area, two bars and a private sandy beach.

Day Two On your way to Key West, take in the kitschy style the Keys is known for at Robbie’s of Islamorada, where you can hand-feed tarpon, peruse local art and jewelry, or grab a quick cold one. Ignite your inner treasure hunter with a visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, where you can get up-close looks at Spanish coins and historic artifacts.

Day Three The best place to watch the sunset in Key West is at the Sunset Festival in Mallory Square. Entertainment includes local musicians, food carts and the sizzling sunset. Within walking distance of it all: the Marker Resort. On your way out of Key West, ditch the tourist traps with a lunch at Hogfish Bar and Grill for its famous hogfish sandwich.

NEED TO KNOW

When To Go Conditions in Florida are divable year-round, but the summer months offer calmer conditions, warmer water and lobster season from August to March; mini lobster season is near the last Wednesday and Thursday of July.

Dive Conditions Current can vary between sites, with water temps ranging from 69 to 88 degrees. Wetsuits (from 3 mm to 7 mm) are ideal throughout the year; drysuits are preferred for the winter months. Hurricane season is from August to October.

Operators Emocean Sports (emocean.com) and Ocean Divers (oceandivers.com) are located in Key Largo; Dive Key West (divekeywest.com) is located in Key West.

Price Tag Two-tank charters from $90.

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