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Divers Celebrate One Year Anniversary of the Vandenberg Wreck

KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Only one minute and 45 seconds elapsed before the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg reached the ocean bottom off Key West May 27, 2009, yet within a year it has bloomed into a timeless circle of life.

Thousands of visiting wreck enthusiasts from a variety of experience levels — advanced, trained and experienced in wreck penetration, mixed gas, Nitrox or Rebreather — are eager to explore favorite spots along the retired military ship’s 523 feet between bow and stern.

Project organizer Joe Weatherby said the Vandenberg is exceeding all expectations since it became the world’s second-largest vessel ever purposely sunk to become an artificial reef.

“We have great big giant schools of fish, there’s all kinds of invertebrate life covering the ship, and great big bait balls show up to the point where you can’t even see the ship through the fish sometimes,” Weatherby said. “It’s like a big party going on.”

Keys dive operators agree. Captain Lauren Brancel, a divemaster with Key West’s Lost Reef Adventures, said sea life has exploded with thousands of arrow (spider) crabs “bigger than your hand” scouring the ship’s surface and stairwells, while some 50 to 100 large barracuda patrol the wreck.

“A huge Goliath grouper has parked itself on the bow, and a green moray eel lives in one of the cubbyholes mid-ship near an elevator shaft,” Brancel said.

The Vandy’s steps, railings and superstructure are glazed over with Gorgonian corals, sponges and sea urchins busily eating the algae as quickly as it grows. Eric Schaaf, manager of Southpoint Divers, said any growth on the wreck adds to the habitat, and divers who spend their time looking for the little things will see a lot more.

“There are tons of algae and coral growths, and when we see blennies, shrimp, tiny lobsters, fish eggs, sponges, feather dusters and tube worms, they all add to the wreck’s life,” Schaaf said. “It is definitely growing into an incredible dive.”

Brancel added that the giant bait balls seen this time of year — clouds of blue runners and round scad that attract schools of snapper, jacks and barracuda — fill the entire wheelhouse.

Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, an organization spearheading a multiyear fish population study at the Vandenberg site, confirmed 113 species of fish have been documented, including the bank butterfly fish, typically found in deep water between 150 and 200 feet.

Dive Key West owner Bob Holston said his revenues have increased 18 percent compared to the same time period a year before the Vandenberg was sunk.

“We’re having our best year ever, in 40 years of business,” Holston said. “We have had groups call from as far away as Brazil and Europe to come dive the wreck, and 80 percent of our phone calls are to answer questions about the Vandenberg.”

Ceci Roycraft, who chairs the Florida Keys tourism council’s dive advisory board, said that her polling of Key West dive shops indicated about 15,000 divers have descended on the Vandenberg via chartered dive boats since it was scuttled. She estimated at least another 7,000 divers have submerged from recreational boats.

“I invite anyone to come down and judge for themselves,” Weatherby said. “We hear ‘Wow!’ in every kind of language from around the world, because people are coming from all over to see it.”

On the Net
Vandenberg Artificial Reef:


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