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Vandy is Dandy at one year – Let the celebrations begin!

While you may be counting the days to a relaxing Memorial Day weekend, the folks in Key West get to start the festivities early.  Today (Thursday, May 27th) marks the one year anniversary of the sinking the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg.  There is a celebration kick off event at 6pm at Kelly’s Caribbean.  Come meet veterans who served on the vessel, see a slideshow of the sinking, and pictures reflecting a sampling of the one hundred species of marine life that have made the vessel their home.  Friday marks a wreath laying on the Vandenberg, which could be topped off with a double dip on the wreck.

So what’s happened over the course of a year?  First, we asked Joe Weatherby, the founder of Artificial Reefs of the Keys and co-owner of Reefmakers.  Joe and his team were responsible for bringing the Vandenberg to the community.  He replied with great enthusiasm, “The Vandenberg has surpassed all top predictions.  It’s performing better than expected.”  Even though they are waiting for results on quantitative data that has been gathered by NOAA, Fish and Wildlife, REEF and Florida Keys Community College; he is confident the Keys and Key West are already winners.  Okay, so maybe Joe is a little bias.  Like a father talking about his first born child.

Next we checked in with Don Kincaid, a captain, author, and underwater specialist.  Don is excited about the Vandenberg’s location explaining that it’s positioned in a mixing bowl of diversity, the perfect spot for gulf critters and tropical reef creatures to co-exist.  The water is rich with nutrients bringing in an abundance of life.  Just last weekend we saw huge bait balls of scad swarming the decks likes bees to a hive.  They were followed by jacks, barracudas, tarpon, and goliath groupers just to name a few.  The structure is also an ideal nursery for the blend of current very unique residences; juvenile lobster, long-spined urchins, penshell, flamed scallops and lots of spiny oysters.  It provides shelter, food and companionship.  When it gets full the neighboring reefs benefit from marine communities expanding and moving off.

So how is it affecting the dive community and beyond?  Within the last year Key West has gotten 13 new dive boats, 4 new charter operations, and now has 3 live-aboard charters stopping by to dive the Vandenberg.  Jack Opie, the dive store manager at Subtropic Divers, said “Before the sinking, peak time was April to September.  Now our boats run seven days a week, all year long (of course weather permitting).  The Vandenberg buoys are usually maxed out with a mix of charter boats as well as private boats every morning.”  Subtropic typically does a double dip in the morning and reef dives in the afternoon.

Another positive change is an increase in continuing education!  To go beyond 60’ a basic open water diver needs to hire a guide.  Over the last few years wrecks like the Spiegel Grove in Key Largo and the Vandenberg in Key West have created growing interest to expand diving experiences.  Basic certification leads to Advance Open Water, then some continue further to Technical Diver.  The Vandenberg offers profiles beginning in the 40’-50’ range and maxing out in the sand at 145’.  Anyone from a snorkeler to a technical diver has something wonderful to explore.  Also, Nitrox sales have doubled in Key West.  Using special gas mixes and computers, divers can get a longer bottom time and shorter surface intervals, or they can use the special mix as a safety factor.

As a side note, the Keys are also working on breaking the perception that they are only good for reef diving.  Key West is an undiscovered technical training area beginning with the Vandenberg in 145’ and continuing with four different vessels in increasing depths to the USS Wilkes-Barre which is sitting in 250’.

What are the other trickle effects of more divers?  They are bringing more non-diving friends and family members to enjoy the island.  Some are adventurous and enroll in a Discover Scuba class.  Others take advantage of the many spas, go on shopping excursions or relax by the beach or pool side.  In addition, there are more visitors from abroad are who are making “wreck treks” through the states.  We’ve seen an increase of groups who start with the great lakes, continue south hitting North Carolina, and end in Florida where they are driving and diving from West Palm to Key West.

One a last note, the birthday celebration is, thankfully, not affected by the oil spill.  Luckily the loop current generally flows from 80 to 150 miles off-shore on the west side of the Dry Tortugas.  The water around the keys has been blue and beautiful.

For more information on the Vandenberg check out Reefmakers at: http://www.reefmakers.com or Artificial Reefs of the Keys at http://www.bigshipwrecks.com/index.html.

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