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The Ships on the Wreck Trek

The Spiegel Grove

Overall Length: 510′
Vessel Type: Landing-ship-dock liberty ship
Year Sunk: June 10, 2002
Depth Range 60 – 130 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

The Spiegel Grove is one of the most world-famous, and is now the 2nd largest in Florida’s fleet of underwater artificial reefs. Originally this 510 foot steam turbine powered landing war ship dock and was designed to transport landing craft that carried combat troops to shore. The Spiegel Grove was named after the Fremont, Ohio, estate of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States and was commissioned in June of 1956. She served 33 years until her she ended her active service in 1989.

The Speigel Grove had a long and illustrious career, and participated in action throughout the Caribbean Sea, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, Panama and the Middle East, including a vital role in the original Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, and was part of the task group in 1971 that rescued the Apollo 14 crew.

She was sunk off the coast of Key Largo in 2002 to create an artificial reef, and is now home to abundant and thriving colonies of several different types of corals as well as Jacks, snappers, schools of baitfish, barracudas, and many huge goliath grouper that gather on the wreck. Soft corals, anemones, hydroids, and sponges have carpeted the exposed areas. Arrow Crabs, Coral Banded Shrimps, Fire Worms, and Sea Urchins are abundant as well. Most of the openings have been widened and secured with lines, so that advanced divers can easily do a variety of exciting swim throughs with daylight. For “pros”, the wreck offers lots of additional possibilities.

The ship is so massive; you could do dozens of dives on it without seeing the same things twice, and is a great way to get you indoctrinated into the first of the many awesome dives to come as you make your way down through the Florida Keys on the Wreck Trek program.

The Duane

Overall Length: 327 Feet
Vessel Type: Landing-ship-dock liberty ship
Year Sunk: 1987
Depth Range 50 – 130 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

The Duane holds the honor of being the most highly decorated Coast Guard cutter in the Navy’s history. The ship was named after William J. Duane, the Secretary of the Treasury, under President Jackson. She was commissioned on August 1, 1936 and served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. She was involved with the Dorchester rescue of 250 survivors and also the refugee Cuban boat lifts in the 1980’s.

This 327′ US Coast Guard cutter was sunk in 1987 as part of an artificial reef program. She came to rest upright and now lie with a slight list to starboard at a depth of about 130 ft. This wreck is a rewarding dive with a fascinating history.

She is covered in different color corals and teems with life, and is now a dynamic dive site that attracts a huge assortment of marine life with schools of huge fish that are seen on almost every dive.

Many marine creatures now call the Duane home. Among the many rooms and compartments you possibly see a large moray eel, angel fish, and many barracuda. Her main deck features a maximum depth of 107 ft, with easy “swim-through” access for divers. There are 42 rooms in the four decks of the super structure, some with furniture and fixtures still intact. Originally, all doors and hatchways had been either removed or welded open to provide safe access to divers, but in the ensuing years, openings have been found and there is access to the interior of the ship.

Situated on the edge of the warm and crystal clear Gulf Stream, there is usually a current present, but the wreck is bathed in warm clear water with visibility often exceeding 100 feet. Her upright position makes for an excellent multi-level deep wreck dive experience.

The Bibb

Overall Length: 327 Feet
Vessel Type: US Coast Guard Cutters
Year Sunk: 1987
Depth Range 80 – 130 Feet

The Bibb is the twin of The Duane; both being 327 foot US Coast Guard Cutters, that were in the secretary-class (also known as “Treasury Class”). The legendary Bibb was named for U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, George M. Bibb under President Taylor.

After it’s commissioning, she was launch in 1937, and her earlier missions were to protect threatened merchants in the Atlantic from tensions of the war, and later on patrol as part of the North Atlantic’s weather station. She also served as convoy patrol during World War II and was involved in the Okinawa assault. During this time, the Bibb rescued over 300 survivors from six torpedoed vessels. The Bibb was also deployed to Vietnam. As with most Coast Guard vessels, one of the Bibb’s main roles during peace time was search and rescue missions.

One of her most notable missions was the rescue of almost 70 survivors during gale force winds from the airliner Bermuda Sky Queen which crashed in October of 1948. Following an illustrious career and having saved over 600 lives, the Bibb was decommissioned in September of 1985, and sunk in 1987 as part of an artificial reef program off of Key Largo

Unlike the perfect pinpoint upright landing of Duane, the Bibb overturned while sinking and lies on her starboard side approximately four tenths of a mile from the Duane. Her bow faces north in 130 feet of water, with divers reaching the upper portions of the Bibb in only 90 feet of water, and offers divers much to see. Her screws are easily accessible due to lying on her side and larger underwater sea life have been known to frequent her. Keep an eye out for huge turtles, amberjack, rays and an occasional giant whale shark. Although The Bibb and The Duane are sister ships, they are two completely different dives, but both being rewarding and fascinating dives, each onto their own. The sideways 90° orientation and deeper depths make the Bibb a more challenging dive, therefore The Bibb is the “less preferred” dive, and therefore often un-crowded and the more unspoiled marine life choice for our underwater friends, which equate to us as the “better” dive.

With the Clear Gulf Stream washing over the site, visibility can be as good as 200 feet, but a strong current is usually present.

The Eagle

Overall Length: 269 Feet
Vessel Type: Freighter
Year Sunk: 1985
Depth Range 80 – 110 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

What this Holland-built freighter, originally named the Raila Dan, then renamed the Aron K, may lack in historical value, it makes up for in personality and color.

The 287 foot freighter, (now renamed The Eagle), was originally used to transport scrap paper between Miami and South America. In 1985 a fire spread through her electrical system, and the insurance company declared the vessel a total loss. The ship was docked in the Miami River until October of 1985 when a group of local divers, dive shops and a combination of the Monroe County Tourist Council, the Artificial Reef Committee and some local businesses raised $10,000 to purchase and clean the vessel, and purposely sank it in December of 1985 as part of the Keys Artificial Reef program off the coast of Islamorada.

When the Eagle was sent to the bottom, she landed with a sharp list to starboard in 110 feet of water. While the charges used to sink the vessel also blew several diver-friendly penetration holes in the hull, the added touches by Mother Nature deserve the most applause. Her cargo bays act like caverns with schools of fish swimming in an out of them, while other schools of baitfish swirl around the Eagle’s superstructure and gaping cargo holds. In addition to various varieties of small baitfish, grunts and snappers, divers will routinely encounter bigger stuff such as schools of horse-eye jacks, spadefish, greater barracuda and a collection of grouper that often includes several large Goliaths. The wreck is often visited in the summer by 6- to 8-foot-long tarpon, and there is plentiful fabulously multi-colored coral and beautiful sponge growth, especially on the heavily encrusted forward cargo boom and aft crow’s nest

This dive is definitely one that provides color and teams with underwater life; a must for all, but especially if you are an underwater photography buff.


Overall Length: 188 Feet
Vessel Type: Mine & Cable Layer
Year Sunk: 1986
Depth Range 60 – 115 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

Built in 1942, this 188-foot cable layer work boat went by the name of USS Randolph and was used for mine planting. However, the U.S. Navy never commissioned the vessel and she remained in reserve, and was finally struck from the Navy List on July 1, 1960, and was stripped and sold. She was subsequently renamed the Sea Searcher, and had a role in oilfield exploration. The vessel was later purchased by Florida Power & Light as a platform for lightning strike research. During this period, she was re-christened Thunderbolt, because of the many lightening hits she took.

After several years of useful work she found her way into a boat yard in the Miami River. The Artificial Reef Committee of the Florida Keys found the ship, purchased her, cleaned and removed all hatches before towing her to her final resting place in 115 feet of water off of Marathon Key.

The wreck is positioned upright and fully intact; penetration of the wheelhouse is simple with plenty of ambient light pouring in through doorways and windows. It is even possible to swim down the staircase amidships into the crew’s quarters.

Divers can see her two bronze propellers, enormous cable lying spool, penetrate into her wheel house or just marvel at the diversity and abundance of marine life that have found their home on this scuttled shipwreck. Large hatches off the main deck open into the engine compartments where it is possible to descend into the hull to 110 feet.

Fused in place by 16 years on the bottom, the side-mounted, cable-laying wheel features both a lively level of growth and an affinity for attracting some beefy greater barracuda. Coral growth on the Thunderbolt is extensive and filled with bait fish, barracuda, mackerel, snapper, permit, pompano, jacks, and resident goliath grouper, as well as the occasional black grouper and reef sharks.

Visibility ranges from 50 to 100 feet and a light current is usually present. The condition of the wreck and the abundance of marine life in and around the wreck make it an excellent dive site.

The Dolphus Busch

Overall Length: 210 Feet
Vessel Type: Freighter
Year Sunk: 1998
Depth Range 60 – 120 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

This cargo ship built in Scotland was launched on December 20, 1950. She sailed under a number of names during her career before she was wrecked at Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1998. The wreck was bought by Adolphus Busch IV and named after either himself, or his great-grandfather, Adolphus Busch. Subsequently he had the ship stripped out and arranged for its sinking as an artificial reef off the coast of Big Pine Key in December of 1998. During its more active career, Adolphus Busch appeared in the 1957 film Fire Down Below, starring Jack Lemmon, Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth.

Intentionally sunk in 1998 as part of the Florida Keys Artificial Reef program she now is clamped to the bottom by both bow and stern anchors. This 210-foot freighter carries a stately profile, sitting upright in the sand starting at about 60 feet. With the exception of having its hatches and portholes stripped, everything else is intact on the Adolphus Busch. The wreck is fully penetrable with several safe swim through, and can be entered through the bridge or cargo holds.

Since its sinking, it has grown a healthy coat of abundant marine life, which has attracted a plethora of fish life. Several resident robust 200 plus pound Goliath groupers, with the largest, a 350 pounder can generally be found near the cargo holds, along with large schools of Barracuda’s are often common here. Sponges and soft coral are well established, and the hard corals are plentiful. Diving this wreck along the Wreck Trek, is where you truly get hooked as a true “treeker”; that is if you haven’t been hooked already up to this point.

Cayman Salvager

Overall Length: 187 Feet
Vessel Type: US Coast Guard Buoy Tender
Year Sunk: 1985
Depth Range 60 – 90 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

The Cayman Salvage Master was launched in 1937 as the Lt. Col. Ellery W. Niles, and was originally intended to be a cable layer and lighthouse buoy tender for the US Coast Guard, but was converted over to a US Army minelayer during World War II. After being decommissioned, she was converted in 1965 for marine acoustical experiments and then became known as the Research Vessel (R/V) F.V. Hunt of Marine Acoustical Services, Inc., named after one of the researches. Her history continued as she was seized at one point while transporting drugs into Key West by an operation commanded by a former CIA agent. She was also used as a commercial freighter and flew the Panamanian Flag at one time, and subsequently was involved with the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, where she had transported over 5000 Cubans to Key West. Upon her arrival into Key West with 1400 of these refugees, she was immediately seized and impounded by the US Navy. Neglected, she sank at her dock in Key West in the 1970’s. In 1985, she was refloated and her superstructure was removed in preparation for sinking as an artificial reef.

Today, it sits even-keel on an open white-sand bottom at a depth of 90 feet. Her decks are at 70 feet and most of the vessel’s interior compartments and engine room are at 80 feet. With the exception of the superstructure, the vessel remains intact. Often, the Salvager is home and haven to several Goliath grouper and is rich with sea life, particularly green morays and other eels. A small, 120 pounder grouper is often seen in the engine room, while a much larger 400 pounder sometimes appears loitering under the vessel’s stern. However even considering the size of these great fish, they are wary of divers and tend to be a bit camera shy. A friendly and inquisitive large green moray eel can be found living in or under the cable pulley mounted on the vessel’s bow, and although this one is not camera shy, he is a true sight to behold, but not to be messed with. The multitude of other fish that hang out in the engine room making you feel as though you are swimming your way through the middle of a saltwater aquarium.

Situated in the Gulf Stream, the visibility is usually excellent, and an underwater photographer’s dream, although the current can be a bit strong at times, and is now one of Key West’s most popular wreck dives.

Joe’s Tug

Overall Length: 75 Feet
Vessel Type: Steel Tugboat
Year Sunk: 1989
Depth Range 55 – 70 Feet
Experience Level: Novice to Advanced

Joe’s Tug was a shrimp boat and harbor tug. After sinking at its pier in Key West in 1986, it was raised, cleaned and prepped for sinking as an artificial reef off of Miami. Mysteriously enough the night before it was to be taken to Miami, the tug found its way out into the waters Key West and sunk there in 1989. Some say a rum-soaked fisherman put it there as new honey hole; others say a local pirate had plans of making a drug run but failed. Whatever the story, it’s there now.

Around 1990, people began visiting the wreck. Hurricane George opened up the hull completely, and the wreck in no longer intact, but broken in 2 pieces about 30 apart for each other. Missing half the upper deckhouse and large diesel engine, it has the appearance of something more appropriate for a fish tank.

The dive is interesting not only for the wreck itself, but for the surrounding reef. Resting with a slight list to port in 60 feet of water, the little tug adds a nice mix to the surrounding coral heads. The marine life is great and filled with schools of schoolmasters and the barracuda just love to hang out around the cabin. Huge leather barrel sponges and star coral are prominent and the tug is also a popular hangout for Goliath groupers and shelters schools of snapper, as well as a resident Jewfish named “Elvis” and a friendly and inquisitive moray eel. Diving on this wreck you truly feel a sense of what a strong “workhorse” tug boat she must have been.

Visibility is usually good due to its location outside the reef. It is accessible to open-water certified divers and is an excellent opportunity for some gorgeous wide angle photography.

USNS Vandenberg

Overall Length: 522 Feet
Vessel Type: Missile Range Ship
Year Sunk: 2009
Depth Range 60 – 140 Feet
Experience Level: Advanced to Expert

The USNS Vandenberg is a 522 feet long former transport and Missile Range Instrumentation tracking Ship built in 1943 and originally named the USS General Henry Taylor named in honor of US Army Chief of Engineers Harry Taylor. After acting as a transport ship for the Navy in WW II, she also served for the US, and also acted in post war immigration, the Hungarian Revolution and the Cold War. She was renamed the USAFA General Hoyt S. Vandenberg in 1963 in honor of the former Air Force Chief of Staff, and served as a missile tracking ship in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Her illustrious career ended in 1993 but not before she was a starring role in the 1999 movie “Virus” starring Jamie Lee Curtis. In 2009 the USS HOYT VANDENBERG made her permanent home port resting in the waters 7 miles offshore of Key West, and is the world’s second largest artificial reef, and now serves as a world-class diving destination and home to a multitude of underwater sea life.

At its tallest point of 100 feet from the keel, much of this superstructure rests below the surface at 60 – 80 feet. The keel, the 25 foot tall rudder and prop and the four 8-ton anchors now rest at 140 feet. The shallower structures include the 30 x 10 foot crow’s nest, the great 40 foot dish antennas, and the tops of the bridge and communications center. The four open decks at approximately 70-100 feet and are penetratable horizontally with 8 by 10 foot openings on each side, allowing many swim throughs. There are 18 stair towers, 11 elevator shafts and cargo hold shafts to give divers vertical access to the wreck.

Though it is unlikely in one dive that divers will be able to see end to end because the ship is nearly two football fields long, and 10 stories high in the water column, it is possible that one dive on the Vandenberg does reveal both shallow and deep-water fish. Of course, it will take multiple dives to get a real sense of this ships enormous scale. The underwater world here also abounds in densely populated coral species, sponges, invertebrates, sea fans and sea whips. No sharks here, but reef fish such as damsels, yellow tangs, angelfish, and a really huge grouper named ‘Junkyard’ that now calls this artificial reef his home. The enormity of diving this wreck really gives you a sense of just how small you are in comparison and truly leaves you awestruck for a long time afterwards.

Due to the sometimes strong current, visibility can be limited at times, but can be up to 100 feet at other times. This is definitely the dive of a life time and one that you will talk about for years to come and is the culmination of the Florida Keys Wreck Trek.