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Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg Wreck — Key West, Florida

The Vandenberg underwater

May 2009: Sinking the Vandenberg

KEY WEST, Florida Keys, 10:24 am, May 27, 2009 — The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg is now an artificial reef in 140 feet of water seven miles off Key West! Upon first sight of the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg being prepared to be scuttled as the southern anchor of the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, former crew member Chuck Garrison, who served on the ex-U.S. military missile-tracking ship remarked, "Wow! This will be one helluva wreck to dive."

Garrison has dived the WW II wreck-strewn waters of the Pacific, and agrees that the highly distinctive Vandenberg, soon to be the world's second-largest ship ever sunk to create a reef, has dozens of dive points to interest novice and seasoned recreational divers.

Once on the bottom, the Vandenberg will measure 10 stories high in the water column, the keel the deepest, at 140 feet. It is at the top of the structure that most of the ship's interesting attributes are located, some purposely cut from one part of the ship and welded elsewhere to make attention-getting dive spots from bow to stern, all trimmed to reach within 40 to 50 feet of the surface.

Starting from a vantage point at the bow and moving aft, the kingpost and foremast are immediately eye-catching, and surely to be a popular underwater photo op for dive buddies, and can serve as a rest platform or perhaps a decompression stop on ascension from deeper dives.

Continuing aft, the bridge symbolizes the ship's intriguing maritime history: at the top of the wheelhouse a telescope has been mounted, which was part of the star-tracking systems during Vandenberg's active duty.

Behind the bridge and the main mast is the smaller of two iconic radar dishes. Next, the No. 1 barbette, a heavy steel structure in the shape of a pedestal used to protect artillery gun turrets on military ships. Aft of the No. 1 barbette is the larger radar dish, which in the 1999 movie "Virus" provided quite an explosive sequence when a laser from space blew the dish off the ship. It's indeed intact though, secured to the vessel and ready for fish to shelter and breed. All dive spots along the top structure are open, free from obstruction and should be easy to maneuver over and around during a dive.

Further aft is the trimmed part of the foremast with the crow's nest, as well as the bottom half of the ship's smokestack — the other half, trimmed to approximately 20 feet tall for an even profile along the ship's superstructure, now sits atop the weather balloon hangar at the stern.

Likely to be one of the most visited dive sites on the Vandenberg, this balloon hangar will be loosely dubbed the "underwater Margaritaville," a clubhouse tribute to the famous Parrotheads who have contributed support to the Vandenberg project, aside from being fanatical fans of Jimmy Buffett, whose musical and literary fame has saturated Key West.

Though the Vandenberg will be a safe, enjoyable dive for all experience levels of certified divers, those trained and experienced in light-wreck penetration can expect to explore the ship's many cargo holds, stair towers, elevator shafts and hallways.

At 100-plus feet, holes cut along the outside of the hull to help sink the ship provide swim-through opportunities for advanced and skilled technical divers; yet the properly certified and trained wreck diver will be able to swim a full 475 feet along the starboard section of Deck 1.

Though it is unlikely divers underwater will be able to see end to end because the ship is nearly two football fields long, it is possible that one dive on the Vandenberg could reveal both shallow and deep-water fish such as Goliath grouper and sailfish, attracted by the clouds of bait expected to school around the wreck. Of course, it will take multiple dives to get a real sense of its scale.

And over the course of decades the ship is to be densely populated with coral species, sponges, invertebrates, sea fans and sea whips. Divers will want to make this Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail entry in their logbook over and over again to see the progression of marine ecosystems as they develop.

Garrison, who attests to Vandenberg's past, said, "There is quite a history with this old girl, a lot of miles under her belt."

Vandenberg is expected to sit upright on the ocean bottom.

Sink the Vandenberg