KEY WEST, Florida Keys – Following an 1,100-mile voyage from Norfolk, Va., and more than a decade of planning and acquiring funding, the Florida Keys newest artificial reef, the ex-military missile tracking ship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is undergoing final preparations to become the latest artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Project organizers said the scuttling is to take place sometime between May 21 and June 1, about seven miles south of Key West in 140 feet of water.
“We’re all pretty excited here in Key West and particularly in view of the fact this is going to be the second largest artificial reef in the world,” said Key West City Commissioner Bill Verge, who is serving as a project liaison between the city and various state and federal agencies.
Properly prepared artificial reefs help take human pressure off natural coral reefs and provide alternative structures for scuba divers to explore and additional habitats for marine life, according to Bill Horn, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission marine biologist.
The Vandenberg also adds to a list of military vessels purposely sunk off the Florida Keys to become artificial reefs, thus preserving a bit of U.S. history. The last vessel sunk was the Spiegel Grove in 2002 off the coast of Key Largo.
“It will become the southernmost underwater museum on the historic trail of intentionally sunken ships off the Florida Keys,” said Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson.
Seventy percent of the $8.6 million project’s funding resources and some 75,000 man-hours were required to rid the vessel of contaminants, according to Jeff Dey of Reefmakers. The cleanup work was accomplished in two Norfolk, Va., shipyards before Vandenberg departed there April 12 and arrived in Key West on April 22.
Pollutants removed include 81 bags of asbestos, 193 tons of materials that contained potentially carcinogenic substances, 46 tons of refuse, 300 pounds of mercury-containing materials and 184 55-gallon drums of paint chips, Dey said.
The removals and additional ship cleansing were required to receive the necessary federal and state permits to sink the ship in the sanctuary without risking environmental impact to the marine ecosystem.
“There is simply nothing else like the Vandenberg for scuba divers,” said Joe Weatherby, who founded Artificial Reefs of the Keys and began efforts to bring the Vandenberg to Key West 13 years ago. “There are a dozen dive points that will come within 40 to 50 feet of the surface, while deeper areas will provide opportunities for advanced divers.
“At about 100 feet, the properly trained and equipped technical diver will be able swim a full 475 feet along the starboard section of Deck 1,” he said.
The ship first saw duty as a U.S. Army troop transport named the General Harry Taylor. It became the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg in 1963 and tracked the U.S. space program’s launches off Cape Canaveral. It also served in the Pacific monitoring U.S. defense missile test launches and eavesdropped on Russian missile launches during the Cold War. Port Canaveral, Fla., was the Vandenberg’s last active duty home port beginning in 1976.
The Vandenberg was formally retired in 1983 and was transferred to the James River Naval Reserve Fleet. But, according to Patrick J. Utecht, who managed the ship’s electronic systems, a team of six technicians would visit Vandenberg every six months to power up all shipboard electronics and make any necessary repairs. Despite the state of readiness, the ship was never used again, and in 1993 was formally struck from the naval register and transferred to the Maritime Administration.
The ship received its most public exposure when cast as a Russian science ship in “Virus,” a 1999 motion picture starring Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland.
The road for the ship becoming an artificial reef has been a bit bumpy. A federal judge seized the vessel in April 2008 and subsequently ordered the auction of the ship after a contractor could not complete payments to Colonna’s Shipyard in Norfolk, Va., for cleanup of the vessel. In December 2008, First State Bank of the Florida Keys was the ship’s top bidder at $1.35 million and subsequently transferred the title to the City of Key West.
In February of 2009, the ship was moved to W3 shipyard where final cleanup was completed before the Elsbeth III tug boat pulled Vandenberg down the Elizabeth River and out to the Atlantic Ocean on April 12.
“People are going to come from all over the world to dive this,” said Weatherby. “But this product also has been designed so we can offer it to glass bottom boat riders, snorkelers or new divers as well as advanced divers.”
The project is funded by Monroe County, Fla., the Florida Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development; City of Key West, U.S. Maritime Administration, the Florida Legislature, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Keys & Key West tourism council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as industry and private donations. Banks providing loans include First State Bank of the Florida Keys, BB&T and Orion.
More details: www.fla-keys.com and www.bigshipwrecks.com.