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Keys Wreck trail

On the Florida Wreck Trail – the backwards adventure known as the Bibb

This week DiverWire contributing diver Josie Koler visits the Bibb wreck as she continues her tour of the Keys Wreck Trail.

(DiverWire) – “The fact that this ship is on it’s side it what makes her fascinating,” says Chris Brown as he breaks the silence in Silent World Dive Center with his British accent. “The floor is now a wall, and the wall is now a ceiling. So that just completely changes the whole dive and makes it extremely challenging.”

Key Largo
Photos by Stephen Frink

The Bibb is a Coast Guard Cutter intentionally sunk five and a half miles off the coast of Key Largo in the late 80s along with its sister ship USCGC Duane. The intent was to sink them both upright on the ocean floor, stern to stern for a synchronized SCUBA experience.

But there was a blunder with the 327-foot Bibb. The job got botched! So, your dream dive however is waiting.

“I wonder if you could do a scooter – take the rebreather down on one and a good compass heading and then cut across to the other,” pondered technical and recreational dive instructor, Silent World’s Andrew Brailsford as we made our way to the wreck. “That would be cool. If you get lost, you’d just see sand.”

The Duane and Bibb were sunk back in the pioneering days of artificial reefs and diving the Bibb is often bypassed by dive operations. Her structure starts 100 feet below the surface, and the bottom time is relatively low for recreational divers. The decks are not accessible, and the hatches are welded shut. Penetration isn’t advisable on a single tank, and twin tanks or a rebreather will not fit through the narrow openings.

Brailsford and I dropped down and moored on the superstructure at 100’. I was awestruck, then thought. Wait a second. Something is definitely amiss. I turned my Aqualung Technisub-covered face to the side, them my Evos Elite 3 mm-covered body. This ship is cockeyed!

I start to believe as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, I had taken “…five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, and a galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and a quart of tequila and a quart of rum…”

The current was running low and our visibility was between 60 and 70 feet. We swam to the stern and followed the contour of the ship around before dropping to the props at 120’ – 130’. My stomach dropped as well. Then, I was actually able to swim between the gap between the props and the rudder before confronting the crows nest shooting out horizontally into the Atlantic.

Keys Wreck trailAlso onboard this day, Alex Zerga, a 27-year-old political science and economics student at the University of Kentucky staying at Ocean Reef this summer was also on the dive. He’s been diving since he was 13 and has a notable collection of cards exclaiming his expertise including Normoxic Tri-Mix, IANTD (International Association of Nitrox & Technical Divers) and TDI (Technical Diving International) Decompression Procedures. He set up with three lights, (one primary, one backup and one to backup the backup) two knives (in case he needed to cut himself free from fishing line), two tanks of “fat gas” or a blend of Helium, Oxygen and Nitrogen and a de-co bottle of 50 percent oxygen.

“What the helium allows you to do is keep the oxygen low, because oxygen is toxic at high pressures, and it allows you to keep the pressure of Nitrogen down as well,” Brown offered the scientific explanation. “So, you’re adding a third gas in there just to dilute everything down really, and that’s helium. Helium is inert and its very, very easy to handle, easy to mix and doesn’t cause any problems.”

Alex’s regulator and second stage are hooked to two independent tanks connected by an isolated manifold. The tanks can equalize pressure off of each other and the gas on the side used to abort the dive if something catastrophic occurred underwater which he couldn’t repair. The back-up regulator was around his neck; so, if for some reason he needed to, he could get the regulator in his mouth without using his hands.

“Once you do serious wreck penetration, you’re in a different world,” he observes, adding about diving the Bibb, “It makes you feel like you’re on acid trying to penetrate a wreck on its side. It’s a lot like cave diving. If everything on my rig broke I could always switch to my decompression gas as long as I get to 70 feet pretty quickly.”

Alex hit the water, swam towards the stern, saw the propeller and worked his way down along the bow. For 30 minutes he was up and down between 115 and 132 feet poking in and out of various areas doing light penetration.

“The captain’s quarters’ tables are on their side, the doorways are on their sides. Makes you feel like you’re on acid trying to penetrate a wreck on its side,” he painted a made-for-motion-pictures, first-hand account.

“For technical divers, the penetration means the world is spinning,” Brown teases. “As soon as you get inside, the floor is now a wall, and the wall is now a ceiling; so, that just completely changes the whole dive and makes it extremely challenging.”

Divers can explore underneath the superstructure in the sand where there are “all sorts of things” hanging out – octopus, Nurse sharks, Moray Eels and Horse Conch.

Andrew and Alex both witnessed a 90-pound territorial Goliath Grouper chasing off the other fish while I did safety stops on the line with the other one-tank rec divers.

Zerga ascended to 100 feet for another 30 minutes.

“The best part was,” reflects Zerga, “I never dove the Bibb before. Shops always go to the Duane. It’s very rare they choose to go to the Bibb. I love diving, and I love wreck diving in particular. You get to learn about the history and when you finally get to go down and see it, there’s a big draw there. There’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush in technical diving and a lot of advantages. My dive was a lot longer than everyone else’s. I was carrying over twice the amount of gas.”

The term “technical diving”, according to Brown, is as “off” as the USCGC Bibb. He says tech diving isn’t technical and isn’t difficult, and is a lot more accessible than what people believe. Tech diving is the next progression following advanced certification.

“So many of the accidents and problems surrounding diving are easily addressed,” he notes. “The training just takes a little bit of time. When you surface its like, “Wow!” That’s a fantastic dive.”

Zerga’s total run time from when he jumped into the water until he surfaced is 107 minutes including 40 of decompression. Mine was 27 minutes with a three-minute safety stop. As you read, The Bibb is a site open to both recreational divers on a single tank and technical divers like Alex who are able to occupy themselves for an hour and 10 minutes. Silent World Dive Center specializes in training from PADI recreational courses to PADI TecRec up to TDI Diver Level Courses they are able to build a custom experience.

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