Diving in Key West: The Vandenberg.
Key West, the southernmost point in the United States and home to some amazing diving. Amy is from Miami, Florida and spent a lot of time in Key Largo as a kid but neither of us had ever made down to Key West. Since we got PADI certified we have fallen in love with diving and are obsessed with exploring the Caribbean. When the opportunity presented itself to drive down to Key West from Miami we jumped on it. I could not wait to get in the water in the Keys and see what all of the hype was about. With each dive I do I get a little more obsessed with exploring the ocean. I only had the opportunity to dive for one day when we were in Key West so when I was presented with the options my choice was clear… a reef dive or the Vandenberg. Of course I chose the SUNKEN SHIP!
Isn’t The Vandenberg an advanced dive?!?
I have only been diving for a few months but I have done a good amount of dives. I live in the Caribbean so I dive locally a lot. It has become a passion for me and I treat every dive as a learning experience. I have always wanted to dive a wreck so when I heard about the Vandenberg I could not pass it up. I am all about taking on a new challenge, I believe to grow you have to push your boundaries but with diving they have to be pushed with knowledge, patience, and in my opinion, caution. As my Dive Instructor and my friend who is a dive master says, people get hurt or worse, when they make mistakes. I have to admit that I was a little intimidated when I made the choice to dive the Vandenberg because people spoke about it with a little awe and hesitation. For example, I got a fish sandwich delivered to the room by room service and the delivery guy saw my BCD and asked where I was diving. I told him the Vandenberg. He said that he dives a lot, he moved to Key West to dive and feels like he does not have the experience to dive the Vandenberg. He said that he is working up to it. With that I started thinking of some stuff straight out of The Abyss, you know, the guy gets crazy decompression sickness and starts losing his mind. I knew that if I was uncomfortable when we got out there I didn’t have to dive, so it was on!
So What’s up with the Vandy?
The Vandenberg was purposely sunk in 2009 to become an artificial reef 7 miles off the coast of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is a HUGE ship, measuring 520 feet and there are structures to check out and swim through beginning at about 40 feet deep all the way down to 140 feet. There is something in the wreck for all level of divers. The important thing to remember, as with all diving, is that it is the responsibility of the diver to stay within their limits and skill level. There are often strong currents on the site and the interior of the ship is a labyrinth that should be tackled with a guide if you have not done it before. The dive operator you choose to go with will have guides available who dive the wreck all the time and can ensure you have the best experience possible. There is a layer of coral covering the whole ship and some large fish like barracuda have made their home on the ship. So it is a really cool site and a great diving experience.
I booked my dives with Southpoint Divers and when I checked in they totally put me at ease. I have done a number of dives to 100 feet and a little over and he said that is as deep as we would be going. The deck sits at 100 feet and there is a whole lot of cool stuff to swim through at that depth. I was pumped. The Southpoint boat is docked at the Hilton which is right across the street from their shop. Their boat is huge so I was kind of worried about it being crowded, Key West was packed when we were there (2nd week of August). I lucked out though, there was a couple from Germany and 2 other guys who were diving on their own. Since I was not an Advanced Open Water Diver I had to have a guide with me, which I welcomed, I would not dive by myself and Amy could not go. In my group there was a total of 4 people including the guide.
Military precision on the Vandenberg.
Our guide was ex-military and was not what I would call warm and fuzzy but he was a good dude and I felt very comfortable diving with him. He laid out the dive plan perfectly and talked to us about entry and exit as well as bottom times and decompression stops. I am accustomed to multi level diving so the rapid descent and line ascent was novel. We anchored right over the Vandenberg and got in the water and grabbed the trail line. When everyone was in the water we descended the line toward the boat.
When I descended a couple feet under the surface the Vandenberg came into focus and it was an EPIC sight. The water was crystal clear and there was no current, I had perfect diving conditions. The ship is covered in coral and there were schools of fish swimming around the bridge and what looks exactly like a football goal post on the deck. I keep thinking back to the feeling of seeing that giant ship. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Seeing it resting on the ocean floor and being reclaimed by nature. I think we all have those moments where things come together, where we get that feeling that we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing. If you have not felt that way yet then keep looking, keep trying new things and exploring and you will find it. I have loved diving since the first time I went under the water and took a breath and this experience solidified that and my awe for the ocean. I could have spent hours exploring the Vandenberg but I only had about 20 minutes per dive.
Spending time on the Vandenberg.
We descended on a line and then swam down to the deck of the ship. From there we followed the railings around and got a good view of the interior from some of the holes in the sides. We swam through the bridge which was really cool. There is nothing in it since it was gutted before being sunk but it is cool none the less. Then we dropped over a railing and descended about 15 feet and explored a little more of the outside of the ship. We then came back up mid-deck and swam through the radar dish and saw the other huge structures on the deck and the schools of fish that congregated around them. As we swam over the deck we came to what must have been an old loading shaft or elevator (I researched but could not find what it was so if you know please tell me!) now it is a dark hole that is pitch black. When I swam over it I paused and it feels like you are floating over an abyss. On our second dive we went to the bow of the ship and had a little Titanic moment, I was in fact king of the ocean for a hot second, and got to explore the outside of the ship a bit more. It was neat to hang over the railing and look at the sand below, I was hoping for a bull shark but did not see one. The water was ridiculously clear so it was neat to be able to see the big fish and barracuda off in the distance. We explored around the outside and swam through some cool passage ways and got more glimpses of the vast dark interior of the ship. It was pretty eerie even though it was sunk on purpose. The ship is huge and I feel like I could dive it 50 times and not see it all. It definitely sparked my interest in wreck diving and I want to get my hands on some historical wrecks. If you are in the Florida Keys definitely head to Key West and dive the Vandenberg.