Diving the 2nd and 3rd largest artificial reefs in the world

The Florida Keys have a lot of wrecks, and with our weekend trip we picked the two largest, and the two bookends of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail. We’d been dreaming of doing these two world-famous wrecks for a while now, and could not resist. After our experience I can say that the sheer size of these two massive ships will take us many more dives to get fully acquainted with them. There are also many other interesting dive sites in between Key Largo and Key West. So in other words, we will be back for sure! What is the largest artificial reef in the world you ask?

A sunken aircraft carrier the USS Oriskany holds the record at 911 feet with a 148-foot beam located in Pensacola. Not that far really, maybe one day we’ll make it there too.

Spiegel Grove

Our first stop was the Spiegel Grove, the third largest artificial reef in the world! With a length of 510 feet and a beam of 80 feet this former landing dock shipwreck is massive. Her depth is 130 feet to the sand, but a lot of the ship can be seen at 80/90 feet with some higher structures as shallow as 60 feet. This is considered an advanced dive due to the depth.

Great barracuda cruising on the Spiegel Grove

Sunk in 2002, we learned some more of the Spiegel Grove’s history at the History of Diving Museum. After many local businesses had put together the funds to procure, clean, and finally sink this monster ship, things took a turn for the bizarre. The ship had a mind of its own and started to sink prematurely, as she went down, it left her bow protruding from the water and the authorities deemed this a navigational hazard and threatened to blow her up if the group organizing the sinking could not come up with a plan within 24 hours. Further, much of the money which was to be collected from local businesses was contingent on the sinking of the ship, and for all intents and purposes in the state she was in she was not considered sunk!

Fortunately, the team did come up with a plan and pulled together more of their own money to get a salvage group to complete the sinking three weeks later. Unfortunately the ship ended up on its starboard side and despite many attempts to right her with tugs and other means there she lay. To everyone’s surprise after Hurricane Dennis went through, divers found the Spiegel Grove fully righted having been tossed a little further out and righting herself where the hurricane had removed a bunch of sand. A big “thank you” to Mother Nature for literally turning this into one of the most spectacular dive sites ever.

Great barracuda on Spiegel Grove

Our dive was a few weeks after Hurricane Irma and despite reported visibility of only 10 feet in prior days we can safely claim a good 30-40 feet of visibility. It did not make for the best pictures, but we were grateful to have as much visibility as we did. Aside from the wreck we saw huge jacks, barracudas, a few goliath groupers and many reef fish. There is an impressive amount of growth on the ship and as you head down and you get a view of that famous American flag waving in the current you know it’s going to be a great dive!

We were lucky to have little to no current and a good group of advanced divers on our outing. Rainbow Reef Divers was fantastic and allowed us to make a double-dip on the Spiegel. They also have a great policy of providing a dive guide for free (rare in Florida). Our guide Jesus was great and knew the wreck well taking us to many of the most interesting spots. One could do many dives here to fully appreciate the size and grandeur of this wreck.

The Vandenberg

The 2nd largest artificial reef in the world, the Vandenberg is a former military troop transport and former missile-tracking ship. It’s an amazing site and forms part of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail as the southern most wreck in the group (the first being the Spiegel Grove up in Key Largo).

Many local operators head out here and there are 6 mooring buoys attached to various parts of the ship. We went out with Captain’s Corner just beside Mallory Square in Key West, and they were a great bunch and organized an excellent guide for us (Ben) who had been to the wreck over 100 times. He literally knew it inside out and guided us through some interesting swim throughs one of which exited in the middle of the old radar dish — how cool is that?

Emerging from the radar dish
Swim Through

The Vandenberg sits in about 145 feet of water and is a massive 523 feet in length. The superstructure begins in about 45 feet of water but both our dives on our double-dip were down to 100 feet to see the most interesting portions of the ship. As the dive progressed, and our dive computers were getting close to their limits, we were able to rise to see some of the tops of the various stacks and superstructures in depths of 80, 70, and 60 feet.

Two 30-minute dives did not allow us to fully appreciate the wreck and we could not make it all the way from bow to stern and back in a single dive (well ok, we did do many photo shoots along the way). All the same, tying up to a middle buoy would give you a chance to do half the ship in either direction on two dives where as we were on the bow and were not able to do the full length with our time and mix.

This was an amazing dive and we were fortunate to have almost no current and a good 40 feet visibility on the wreck. Lots of diverse marine life, with goliath groupers being some of the highlights! It’s also a popular site and at times we were told that all the buoys have dive boats on them. Fortunately for us it was uncrowded. What a spectacular site, again we are ready to come back and dive it again as we write this.

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