dive observer  - Dive Training Magazine, January 2007


A spring 2008 sinking date for the former U.S. Air Force missile-tracking ship General Hoyt S. Vandenberg has been announced after the City of Key West, Florida, recently committed $1.3 million, the final pledge needed for the estimated $5.7 million project.

The city's pledge, combined with a $3 million commitment from two Monroe County government entities plus other donations, provides the Artificial Reefs of the Keys organization the money needed to clean, tow and sink the 524-foot (159-m) vessel seven miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The ship would be one of the largest vessels intentionally sunk as an artificial reef. It would rest in 140 feet (42 m) of water, with the top portion of the ship,  the superstructure,  peaking at 40 feet (12 m) below the surface. The USS Spiegel Grove, sunk six miles off the Florida Keys in 2002, measured 888 feet (269 m) long. The USS Oriskany, sunk this year about 23 miles (37 km) off Pensacola, Florida, measured 911 feet (276 m).

Vessels used for artificial reefs are placed on a sandy bottom, typically areas devoid of marine life, and almost overnight attract marine life. They provide shelter for marine life, which helps their numbers grow. Divers get to explore not only the remains of the ship but the fishes and other creatures that take up residency. For cities like Key West, that means tourism dollars. Key West anticipates Vandenberg to generate $11 million annually to the local economy. That's why government entities like Monroe County and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council are increasingly committing money to help bring retired ships to their waters.

"We look at it as economic development, pure and simple," says Joe Weatherby, project organizer. "It's just a good piece of business."

At the dive industry's annual trade show in Orlando, efforts to sink ships got an emphatic endorsement from Richie Kohler and John Chatterton, co-hosts of "Deep Sea Detectives," a show regularly aired on the History Channel.

"It's a gift that keeps on giving to the dive community," Kohler said. Because ships like the Spiegel Grove are so large, he says, many divers will spend a week in the area, paying for lodging, food, charter boats, and other services and items during their stay.

Chatterton, in encouraging divers to work together to acquire ships for their area, says their efforts will be rewarded with a lot of free publicity from area media eager to cover the unusual story.

"You can't buy that kind of publicity," Chatterton says.

Weatherby and his fellow volunteers have worked to acquire the Vandenberg for about 10 years.

"Everyone is excited about what this means for the community of Key West," says Chris Norwood, president of the Artificial Reefs of the Keys. "It's an important milestone for us and marks the beginning of the operational phase of the project."

The Vandenberg was first commissioned as the troop transport USNS Gen. Harry Taylor. The ship saw service in WWII, the Hungarian Revolution, and the Cold War. After decommissioning, it was used for scenes for the 1998 motion picture "Virus," starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland. As an artificial reef, the ship will not only be a recreational resource for divers and fishermen, but will serve as an underwater classroom for the Florida Keys Community College, and be a platform for research in reef monitoring, as mandated by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Management Plan.

For more information on artificial reefs, visit Artificial Reefs of the Keys at www.bigshipwrecks.com or www.ships2reefs.com.