Dive the Shipwrecks
of the Florida Keys
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink
In his book Histories and Mysteries, The Shipwrecks of Key Largo, Captain Thomas Scott estimates that there are at least 1,000 shipwrecks in the Florida Keys. Some rest in the unexplored abyss well offshore, their passing a mystery and their location unknown. Some, such as the Wilkes-Barre off Key West and the Northern Light off Key Largo, are known by the local dive community. While embraced for occasional technical dives utilizing mixed gases, they are too deep for recreational access. Others were wooden sailing ships that foundered hundreds of years ago on the fringing reefs that parallel the Florida Keys. Of these, little remains after centuries of waves and worms other than piles of ballast stones, anchors and cannons. Of course, there is the appealing hope of finding millions of dollars worth of gold and silver coins, emeralds and silver bars the size of bread loaves. This happened to treasure salvor Mel Fisher when he discovered the Atocha after extensive research. Yet, even these treasures remained buried beneath several feet of sand and would have revealed little of interest to casual divers even if they had stumbled across the wreck.
There are, however, scores of modern shipwrecks found within sport diving depths throughout the Florida Keys. These are metal hulled ships able to withstand the ravages of the sea. Some were sunk by accidents of harsh weather or poor navigation, while others were placed on the bottom intentionally to serve as dive attractions. Collectively they comprise the best wreck dive portfolio in the Western Hemisphere and one that promises to get even better!
The Appeal of Shipwrecks to Sport Divers: Shipwrecks pose a dual attraction for sport divers. There is the primary appeal of exploring the remains of the ship, pondering what fate brought it to its watery grave. But, of equal significance, shipwrecks are artificial reefs of tremendous efficiency. When a ship sinks amid a natural coral reef, it provides additional nooks and crannies for fish to hide from predators and for predators to prowl while seeking an opportunistic meal. Copper Sweepers and Bigeyes lurk beneath the deck plating, grunts and Porkfish school beneath the shelter of the hull, moray eels find tubes and crevices in which to insinuate themselves and Barracuda are ubiquitous. Even when there is other natural coral habitat nearby, fish migrate to a shipwreck because of its tremendous efficiency as refuge.
Even more astonishing is the sheer density of marine life that accumulates around shipwrecks sunk along sand plateaus, areas that were essentially devoid of life before the wreck settled to the bottom. The Duane off Key Largo is a good example of the amazing ecosystem a shipwreck can become after just a decade on the bottom.
The Duane and her sister ship the Bibb were 327 foot U.S. Coast Guard cutters that were cleaned of contaminants, made safe for sport divers and towed from Boston to be sunk at designated sites seven miles off Key Largo. It was a project that cost more than $150,000 and entailed a massive time investment by the Upper Keys dive community. The ships were sunk in November 1987, with the Duane resting upright at 120 feet and the Bibb settling on her starboard side at 130 feet. With a 40 foot beam the Bibb is first encountered at 90 feet but the Duane's crows' nest rises to within 40 feet of the surface and her wheelhouse and weather decks can easily be explored on a 100 foot dive.
I visited the Duane for the first time the day after she went down. There were already several Barracuda in residence. As time went by a light cloak of algae began to grow and, of course, fish that graze on algae were next. Parrotfish and angelfish were common on the wreck after shed been down a few months and ever more Barracuda arrived. Grunts found the wheelhouse a perfect refuge and embryonic corals found a new substrate to colonize. Filter feeders, such as deep water gorgonians and sponges, thrived as current borne nutrients were swept by, cloaking the white hull with splashes of brilliant crimson, yellow and purple. Eels found the wreck a good place to hide during the day and great hunting for their nocturnal predation. And, because the wreck is situated to take advantage of the flow of the Gulf Stream, pelagic creatures frequently pass by. Turtles and Eagle Rays are relatively common and several times each year Whale Sharks enliven an already exciting dive adventure.
Other popular wreck dives off Key Largo include the City of Washington. A freighter run aground off The Elbow in 1917, she is home to numerous semi-tame Barracuda and moray eels that have long been hand fed by local dive operators. There is also the Benwood, a casualty of World War II. During the war there was considerable German U-boat activity off the Florida coast and, in an effort to minimize their appeal as targets, ships often ran at night without their lights. The Benwood was mortally wounded after a collision with another blacked-out ship. To avoid sinking in deep water, she was intentionally grounded in 35 to 45 feet of water. Her superstructure was later blown apart by the Corps. of Engineers to eliminate a potential hazard to navigation. The Benwood now offers a reasonably intact bow section that harbors a resident school of Porkfish and scattered ribs and deck plating that attract diverse fish and invertebrate life.
The queen of the Islamorada wreck fleet is the Eagle. Built in Holland, she spent much of her career as an inter-island freighter plying Caribbean trade routes. She caught fire during a cruise in 1985 and the intense heat structurally ruined her. Now owned by the insurance company, she was one of hundreds of derelict vessels docked along the Miami River when local Keys dive operators and business interests banded together to buy her and prepare her for sinking as an artificial reef. The 268 foot ship was towed to her assigned site on December 19, 1985. Amid a salvo of explosives and pyrotechnics, she sank beneath the sea in just minutes.
The Eagle settled on her starboard side in about 110 feet of water. Her masts, crow's nest and propeller are popular foregrounds for wide angle photographs and her cavernous holds often attract Tomtate Grunts. Amberjacks commonly cruise the periphery of this wreck. In the dozen years the Eagle has been on the seafloor she has acquired a gorgeous patina of colorful encrustation.
The Thunderbolt, off Marathon, is another example of the wonderful addition a purposely placed shipwreck can make to the local dive portfolio. This 188 foot ship was formerly used as a cable layer and research vessel but, once her useful commercial life expired, she was given a second career as an artificial reef. The Thunderbolt was towed to her designated site in March 1986, anchored in place and scuttled in 115 feet of water. She settled perfectly upright, with the top of her wheelhouse within 70 feet of the surface. A large Barracuda now commonly resides in the wheelhouse and huge angelfish hide beneath the curve of the hull. The most distinctive aspect of the vessel is her huge cable spool on the bow, now vibrant with encrusting sponges and hydroids.
Key West has a long and active history of shipping, so it should be no surprise there have been shipwrecks. In fact, wrecking was one of the first major industries in this southernmost Florida Key. In the early decades of the 19th century, before lighthouses came to mark the most treacherous reefs, Key West became the richest city per capita in the United States by salvaging the spoils of shipwrecks.
The historical wrecks of this era remain of interest to marine archaeologists and treasure hunters but sport divers will discover a different kind of treasure on the modern day shipwrecks, Cayman Salvager and Joe's Tug. The Cayman Salvager lies in 90 feet of water, surreptitiously scuttled under cover of night in 1985. Local divers soon discovered the wreck resting on its side but fortunately a passing storm set her upright. Her superstructure is gone but her large open holds in only 60 to 70 feet attract schools of grunts. A Jewfish, rare anywhere in the Caribbean, is commonly seen on the Cayman Salvager. Joe's Tug sits perfectly upright in just 65 feet of water, her hold is filled with grunts and moray eels living within the coral recesses surrounding the wreck. Incredibly, Joe's Tug also normally hosts one or two Jewfish.
The shipwreck program of the Florida Keys is ongoing and ever improving. Scheduled for sinking this summer off Key Largo is the 510 foot LSD-32 Spiegel Grove. This massive ship will be sunk in about 110 feet of water at a site near Dixie Shoals, north of the Benwood and south of The Elbow. She will be the largest shipwreck this side of Truk Lagoon. It is expected that her 80 foot beam and massive superstructure will bring her to within 40 feet of the surface no matter how she rests on the bottom (of course we all have our fingers crossed for her to land upright). Scuba divers, snorkelers and even those riding the glass bottom tour boats will be able to enjoy the Spiegel Grove.
The dive operators in the Lower Keys are also hard at work on their own 500 foot shipwreck, to be sunk off Looe Key. Stay tuned for more information as the Florida Keys further reinforces its reputation as one of the world's premier wreck dive destinations.
The Florida Keys, the Islands You Can Drive To, are easily accessible via automobile but those who prefer to fly will do well to choose American Airlines, Something Special to the Florida Keys, to Miami with connecting flights on American Eagle to Marathon or Key West. For reservations, call (800) 433-7300. For more information you can call (800) FLA-KEYS or visit the Web site at http:// www.fla.keys.com.