Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Publication: Daily Citizen

"13 tons under the sea?" By MANDY BOLEN, Citizen Staff Writer

Divers and snorkelers could soon be taking a giant stride into the waters above the world's largest artificial reef, which would be just six miles from Duval Street.

Joe Weatherby has been trying to "Sink the Vandenberg" - as his bumper stickers encourage - for five years.

In that time, he has learned that placing a ship - more than 500 feet long and weighing about 13,000 tons - on the ocean floor in an environmentally protected area is no small feat.

But Weatherby and local diver and boat captain Sheri Lohr have worked diligently through application processes, project plans and countless governmental and environmental regulations to make their dream come true. The Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg would offer divers, snorkelers and anglers the opportunity to explore a sunken 1944 military ship that would become home to millions of marine species, while offering underwater classrooms for the dive programs at Florida Keys Community College.

College students and hundreds of local dive shops gladly offered their services to Artificial Reefs of the Keys, the nonprofit organization Weatherby and Lohr formed to sink the Vandenberg.

The volunteer divers made hundreds of dives at various sites to find the best and most environmentally suitable piece of ocean bottom for the momentous sinking.

The location of the new reef is critical because the ship cannot land on - and thus destroy - any marine habitats that lie about 140 feet beneath the surface.

Environmental experts, including engineers, approved specific coordinates for the wreck, and mapped out exactly where the huge ship should be placed.  "The location we chose looks like a parking lot," Weatherby said. "It looks like the moon with a hard bottom and no silt."

Finding a location was the easy part - cleaning the boat is the biggest challenge.

Artificial Reefs of the Keys has joined with Resource Control Corporation in addressing the issue of making the ship innocuous to its surrounding waters. The partner company specializes in solving environmental problems and has worked with Sun Oil Co. in problem-solving techniques.

"The regulatory oversight is incredible for this project," Lohr said, referring to the intricate process of sampling every inch of the ship for possible pollutants and then eliminating them.

That cleanup process will take place in Virginia, where the Vandenberg is docked on the James River, and will be the first step in the "clean-it, tow-it and blow-it" procedure that Weatherby describes with a wistful smile.

Before the ship that once brought World War II soldiers home from France is towed to the Keys, it will be "swiss-cheesed," a process that makes several holes in the ship for three important reasons, Weatherby said.

"It makes it 100 percent safe for divers" because it becomes less of a maze with more entrances and exits, he said.

The perforations also make the ship more habitat-friendly for fish, and also allow the mild current to run through it so as to reduce the amount silt collected inside.

With a ship that big, easy access for divers is a paramount safety issue.  Weatherby explained the massive measurements of the Vandenberg by using local jargon.

"Stand at the top of La Concha and look toward Mallory Square," he said. "From the tip of your nose, down to the ground and then down the street all the way to the Bull [bar] is how big this thing is."

At two city blocks long and about seven stories tall, the Vandenberg will make the biggest artificial reef.

"It is the biggest in the world, the coolest-looking [ship] in the fleet and the cleanest," Weatherby said. "That's why we chose it."

The ship is relatively new looking, at least on one side, because of its recent role in the film "Virus," starring Jamie Lee Curtis.

But when Weatherby's and Lohr's dream comes true, the only filming of the ship will take place under water.

Once it rests securely on the ocean floor, the Vandenberg will offer divers and snorkelers an up-close look at its two wheelhouses in 40 feet of water.  More experienced divers can go deeper to the deck, which will be in about 100 feet of water, while the bottom will require an advanced 140-foot dive.

The ship is so massive that fishermen could drop their lines in one area without disturbing divers at another site on the boat.

A glass-bottom boat also could glide over the usually clear water, offering glimpses of the old ship and the curious, bubble-entrenched divers.

"You can't dive this in a week," Weatherby said. "You will have to come back and back and back."  The return trips would benefit local dive shops, the majority of which have expressed overwhelming support for the project.

What remains is raising money for the estimated $2-million project.

"This is a very, very carefully planned project," Weatherby said. "We have done our homework."

Lohr and Weatherby are hoping their work pays off in the coming months, as local businesses and individual donors are asked for tax-deductible donations.

Fund-raisers are planned that would lead to underwater plaques acknowledging donors. Educational and environmental grants will help the project along, and the two divers hope to encourage a major corporation to sponsor the dive site, which is expected to become internationally famous.  "It may be an expensive project for a company," Weatherby said.  "But there would be no payroll, it will never need new paint or carpet - no maintenance."

"This is a good thing for Key West," Lohr said. "We know Key West, and we know the water."