I have had the blessed experience of diving on the USNS Vandenberg, the second largest artificial reef in the world, which sits in 140 feet of water several miles off of Key West. This is a real treat for divers, as this is considered by many to be the best artificial reef dive site for recreational divers worldwide.
She was launched as a military transport ship in 1943, and made many voyages between San Francisco and the South Pacific transporting troops during World War II. She also later served as a missile range instrumentation ship, tracking missiles and spacecraft up until her retirement in 1983. She was acquired for use as an artificial reef by a group of banks and financiers from Key West, and on Wednesday, May 27, 2009 she was sunk in the warm, tropical waters nearby. This huge vessel is 523 feet long and has a beam of 71 1/2 feet. That makes for a lot of boat for a diver to explore.
The uppermost parts of the ship are submerged 40 feet below the surface, which make it accessible to even new divers. Of course, it also serves as a very deep recreational dive site. Coming to Key West, I was open water certified in scuba diving. Unfortunately, to dive the Vandenberg, one must have an advanced open water certification due to its depth. Fortunately, this could be circumvented by paying for an expert guide to accompany you on your dive. So, that’s what I did. And what a blessing that turned out to be! I went deeper, went into more places within the ship, and saw more aquatic life than anyone else on the dive ship. My first dive was to a maximum depth of 115 feet for about 25 minutes, and the second was to 97 feet for about the same length of time. Having an expert diver as my diving “buddy” allowed me to enter into sections of the bowels of the ship that no one else entered. He knew the Vandenberg like the back of his hand. It was a little eerie, one hundred feet below the surface, gliding over the deck and in and out of compartments which were once bustling with activity. Thousands of servicemen once scampered along this strange and mysterious landscape.
There are a number of interesting things to notice in the 6 1/2 minute video that follows. Not too far into the video, you’ll see one of the large dish antennas which were used for communication and tracking. We were the only ones to reach the rudder area of the Vandenberg. You’ll notice several large Goliath grouper back in this area, which is 100+ feet deep. These gentle giants weighed between 350-500 pounds. You’ll also see a couple of large barracuda swim by. You’ll also see a Duval Street sign attached to the ship. How many have been to this section of Duval Street? You’ll also see two American Flags, one suspended in one of the interior rooms of the Vandenberg. You’ll see, right at the end, a large 30 x 40 foot flag which was placed on the USNS Vandenberg on July 4, 2014 to honor our country and those who serve in its defense.