Diving the USNS General Hoyt S Vandenberg off Key West, Florida

Diving the USNS General Hoyt S Vandenberg off Key West, Florida

Whilst in Key West in August 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to dive the Vandenberg with Lost Reef Adventure Divers – a really friendly and attentive dive operator only a short drive from the luxurious Ocean Key Resort & Spa where I was staying with my wife and daughter.  We were given a free upgrade to an awesome ocean view suite from a standard room, but that is another story, so watch this space.

Sinking of the Vandenberg off Key West, Florida
Sinking of the Vandenberg off Key West, Florida

It was a relatively early start having to be at the dockside for 8am – not easy after several late nights enjoying the nightlife in Key West with plenty of bars with live music, great affordable restaurants and a really buzzy atmosphere.  Key West is an amazing place and I can't wait to go back there, but next time I am flying there as although the drive down to the Keys is spectacular it takes ages and I would rather have that time in Key West.

I arrived at 8am sharp and signed in, proved my competency (BSAC Sports) and received my nitrox tanks and lead weights.  I always prefer to use my own gear where possible and so only needed the “heavy stuff” as I can’t take them on a transatlantic flight without penalties.

Vandenberg Dish
View of one of the dishes on the Vandenberg

Lost Reef Adventures operate a custom built 40’ dive boat which is well kitted out and comfortable for up to 16 divers without you all falling over each other.  On this occasion there were only 12 of us so we had plenty of room.

The dive plan was to do 2 dives on the Vandenberg and as I was on my own, I quickly sought out the perfect buddy on board… Simon Beard, a Navy Seal diver who was in the Keys with his family and was diving the Florida Keys Wreck Trek, consisting of 9 purpose sunk ships forming artificial reefs along the length of the Keys !!

It was great to have a competent buddy to dive with especially as Simon had dived the Vandenburg the day before, and therefore knew his way around it – especially reassuring as we were informed that there was a stiff current below and visibility was hampered due to a storm a few days before.

View of diver in the largest dish on the Vandenberg
View of diver in the largest dish on the Vandenberg

The 522 foot long USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was a former Missile Range Instrumentation Ship which was intentionally sunk on the 27th May 2009 to create an artificial reef for divers, snorkelers and fishermen. She sank perfectly upright sitting intact at a maximum depth of 46m some seven miles off Key West. The interesting super structure including the large dishes, start from a depth of 13m, making this a wreck ideal for divers of various levels of certification.

The Vandenberg was built in 1943 and had a long and varied career. In addition to being used as a missile tracking ship and tracking the Apollo moon landings, she also served as a WW2 troop transport and was even leased to Universal Studios in 1996 to make the movie "Virus".  In 1999, she was acquired by Artificial Reefs of the Keys (ARK) who subsequently sunk her off Key West 10 years later.

The 2 dives went well albeit the strong current running from stern to bow.  There are many permanent shot lines along the length of the ship and we descended near the stern on the first dive hanging onto the shot line until we reached the deck.  We then drift dived along the starboard side passing the large dish antennae, using the virtually pristine hand rails on the deck for security.

We decided not to penetrate the ship due to the low visibility and just enjoy the scale of the ship instead.  The current made it easy for us to drift from the stern to the bridge in no time at all.  On reaching the bridge we entered the bridge which had been cleared out before sinking and traversed over to the port side, where we exited to return back along the port side to the shot line we had descended from.  This part of the journey was harder as we had to fight the current, but with secure handrails along the whole length of the deck, we managed it relatively easily.

On our second dive we decided to drop down on the bow and track back to mid-ships on the starboard side and drift dive back to the bow on the portside. Along the way we saw numerous large barracuda that followed us with total ease against the current – we must have looked really cumbersome to these elegant swimmers !!

We only stayed in Key West for a few days and headed back to our rental villa in Orlando via Marco Island to break up the journey (another future blog post).

Incidentally, I later found out that you can fly to Key West in just over an hour from Orlando on Boeing 737’s with AirTran for less tha $150 return – that makes a Disney villa holiday and combined dive trip in the Keys a lot easier !!