Diving the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg

The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg was sunk as an artificial reef on May 27th, 2009 and has since acted as a site for recreational divers and fishermen alike. The wreck lies at 140ft just off Key West with its decks sitting at about 100ft, providing nearly 45 vertical feet of habitat in an otherwise sandy bottom, open water area. As part of their monitoring programs REEF was contracted under a grant from the state of Florida to observe and monitor the fish assemblages associated with the wreck. The primary goal of REEF’s monitoring efforts are to describe and comparatively quantify fish assemblages found on the Vandenberg as well as neighboring sites (both reef and artificial). Since their first round of monitoring pre and post sinking of the Vandenberg (2009-2010 Summary Report) REEF has been sending members of the Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) to document changes in both the presence and absence, sighting frequency, and estimate abundance of reef fish over time.

The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg prior to sinking. More images before and after click here.

Early July I was assigned the task of organizing the next round of AAT monitoring for this survey project. The first thing to do was contact Dive Key West, the dive company that has hosted past REEF monitoring trips, in order to set up a week of diving! On my first attempt I unknowingly had aimed for the trip to coincide with Lobster Mini-season… that wasn’t going to happen! Fortunately the staff at Dive Key West was very helpful and accommodating and eventually we settled on the week of July 30th– August 3rd. Once the dates and dive sites were set it was relatively smooth sailing from then on. I contacted the group of TWA AAT divers calling for volunteers and got a great response back over the course of a week or two. In the end, we had AAT members traveling from all over the US including South Carolina, N. Florida, Key Largo, and even one ventured all the way from San Francisco!

Jana (fellow intern and dive buddy extraordinaire) and I decided rather than driving from Key Largo to Key West every day for three days we decided to camp and make an adventure out of the survey trip. On Monday, the day of the first dive, we wake up circa 5am and hit the road. We arrive in Key West and at the dive shop at about 7:30 and low and behold there was already a small gathering of divers in front of the shop… we knew instantly that these had to be the first of the AAT members to arrive! While we made the rounds with introductions the rest of the AAT members started trickling in. Once we were all assembled we headed into the shop, checked in, loaded gear, then  headed off to the marina!!

Once we arrived at the Easy Diver we met our captain Steve and first mate Jeremy who were already familiar with REEF, our survey projects, and they were even kind enough to load all our gear! On the first day of diving we headed out to Western Sambos Deep (WSD) and Shallow. West Sambos Deep is a slopping low profile reef starting at about 60+ft in depth. The team and us interns giant stride into the water to kick off the survey trip! Unfortunately on the first dive (WSD) we did not have the best visibility so Jana and I just hung around the anchor line for fear of being those divers who get lost (not cool when you’re trying to hang with the big kids!). After a brief surface interval with a passing pod of dolphins we traveled to an adjacent site— Western Sambos Shallow aka the Haystacks. As the name implies this was a shallower dive of only about 15-30ft. This was quite an amazing dive with large coral formations and plenty of fish! On this one we decided to follow Obi-Wan (the master himself), Lad, around because lets face it, he knows his fish! Our plan worked and I think on this dive alone I learned how to spot a handful of new species including the Rough Head and Secretary Blenny and the Red Hind of the Grouper family. All in all not a bad day of diving… and that was only day one! After we wrapped up our dives Jana and I headed to Leo’s Camp Ground to make camp and bunker down for the evening!

The following day was an early one again but also the one we were looking forward to the most—The USS Vandenberg (aka the Vandy). Upon entering the water you could feel the ripping current, the kind of current that makes you look like a flag on a flag pole in a hurricane as you hold onto the anchor line! However, the visibility was amazing and we could see the wreck as we descended to its decks sitting around 100ft below the surface. The wreck is huge! Even without a current to swim against I don’t think you could see the whole thing on one tank. But before entering the water I had said that the only thing I really needed to see was the communications satellite and guess which mooring buoy we tied on to… Ball #3, sitting right on top of the satellite. Although we didn’t get to see much of the wreck we were able to make it towards the front to the helm, observation deck, and even spotted some of the images from the “Life Below The Surface” photography show by Andreas Frankes.

The second dive of the day was over at Joe’s Tug (a stone’s throw from the Vandy). Joe’s Tug sat at about 40-65ft and was actually a pretty sweet dive. If I sound surprised it is because I figured once you saw the 3rd largest artificial wreck in the world other ships might pale in comparison, but no, that is not the case here. Although a lot smaller and not as intact Joe’s Tug was a pretty sweet dive too!

After diving the Vandy and Joe’s Tug Jana and I actually had an afternoon off and what better way to spend that time then lounging around on a beach?! The only reason I bring this up is to tell the following story… At this beach, which was deserted, there was a small area marked off by a blue and white rope to warn people not to enter the marina waters with all the boat traffic. This mini-swim area was the perfect place to pop in for a quick dip to cool off. While standing about waist deep from the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of a large shadow on the sand by my feet. Now, my mind instantly runs through a million ideas landing of course on the obvious, Shark, before I can even process what I’m seeing. After a beat (and the adrenalin rush subsides), I come to my senses and softly utter to Jana “Manatee”. The manatee was less than a foot away from us and continued to swim up the slope, circle around us, than back out to the marina. Never having seen a manatee in the wild I was shocked… then it came back! And did another circle. It was amazing!!

Now back to the diving…On our third day, and final day, we ventured out to Marker 32 Deep and Shallow. Marker 32 Deep, like Western Sambos Deep, is a low profile sloping reef with a starting depth of about 60ft. Here we got to see some cool things like a large, rather well camouflaged, Black Grouper and a Butter Hamlet which I love to find! After our 30min survey time we surfaced, spent our surface interval jumping off the observation deck of the Easy Diver, then it was back in the water at our final site of the trip, Marker 32 Shallow (locally known as Topino Buoy). This was a spur and grove reef site with a max depth of barely 25ft. I loved this dive! In fact, it may be one of my favorites since I’ve been in the Keys. There was so much diversity in both fish and coral species. Right off the bat I saw something I’ve never seen before which turned out to be a Slender Filefish! The rest of the dive was made that much more amazing by spotting about 5 Red-lipped Blennies, Nurse Sharks, juvenile Blue Tangs and Puddingwife Wrasses. In the end of this dive I had identified 54 species— my greatest count to date!

In the end, the trip was an amazing experience, both for the diving and for meeting some of the amazing AAT members. Jana and I left Wednesday evening but the other two interns, Joel and Jessi, joined the crew Thursday morning to complete the survey week. They too and an incredible time diving the Vandy and Joe’s Tug once again and a second site (Eastern Dry Rocks Deep and Shallow) that we never made it too. In addition to having a phenomenal time, the 6 survey dives I completed during this trip put me just at 25 survey mark which meant I was eligible to take the Level 3 exam. I’m happy to report I passed with flying colors and am now one step closer to joining the AAT ranks! So a big THANK YOU goes out to all our AATers who were able to join, REEF for allowing us low on the totem pole interns to join, and the staff of Dive Key West who were a great throughout the whole trip!

The AAT Members and Interns (L to R): Mary Jo, Jim, Jessi, Joel, Rob, Katie, Lad, Joe, Laureen, Peter, and Kreg.


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