Ship part

How a Cold War-era Navy ship was sunk to become a famous dive spot off the Florida Keys

The Jeff-B amphibious assault landing craft (AALC) enters the mooring well of the dock landing ship USS Spiegel Grove (LSD-32) during operations off Florida. (US Navy)

(Tribune News Service) – Divers around the world eagerly awaited the sinking of the USS Spiegel Grove in the spring of 2002.

Once at the bottom of the sea off Key Largo, the 510-foot Cold War-era U.S. Navy troop and supply ship would be the largest vessel sunk intentionally to create an artificial reef for divers and marine life.

Local dive operators like Spencer Slate and Rob Bleser, and famed underwater photographer Stephen Frink, had been working behind the scenes for nearly 10 years trying to procure the ship in hopes that it would become an underwater attraction. Florida Keys Navy.

“It was a wonderful ship, and so we said, ‘This is the one. Now we need to find a place to sink it. ” Frink said during a presentation in Key Largo this week about the shipwreck that took place 20 years ago.

The mission was finally accomplished. But Spiegel Grove’s journey to the bottom of the ocean has been fraught with pitfalls, mishaps and adventures.

“It’s a story you couldn’t make up,” said Dave Score, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rear admiral who, at the time of the Spiegel Grove sinking, was the director of Upper Florida Keys from NOAA. Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The 6,880-ton ship was delivered from the James River Reserve Fleet to Virginia, where it had lain mothballed since being decommissioned in 1989. It arrived in Key Largo in May 2002.

‘Transformed Turtle’

He arrived early off the Keys. On May 17, 2002, at 2 p.m., the Spiegel Grove prematurely sank in 130 feet of water, “turned into a turtle”, meaning it rolled upside down and settled with its stern resting on the sandy bottom and her bow protruding above the surface. of the ocean.

“On May 17, 2002, we sank the Spiegel Grove. Sort of,” Bleser said.

The situation had the all too real possibility of turning tragic. Indeed, moments before it became apparent that the Spiegel Grove was going to sink much sooner than expected, 60 to 70 volunteers were on board the ship and they needed to get off quickly. With the help of boat and helicopter crews surrounding the vessel, they were rescued to safety.

“We got over 60 people off the ship without a scratch,” Bleser said.

For three weeks the ship sat capsized and rose out of the water like a haunting monument reminding organizers that their work was not done. It was also a hazard to shipping, the Coast Guard told them.

Then, on June 10, a Fort Lauderdale marine salvage company, Resolve Towing and Salvage, pumped enough air into the port hull to displace 2,000 tons of water. This, along with the help of airbags containing up to 400 tons of buoyancy and two tugs, was enough to bring the entire ship to the bottom.

However, there remained a problem. Instead of sinking upside down, the ship rolled over on its starboard side. Several efforts to straighten it have failed, and it has been decided among the project organizers that it should stay that way.

Bringing the Spiegel Grove from Virginia to the Keys and preparing it to be scuttled cost $1.1 million. Another $250,000 was spent sinking her after the first attempt failed. Most of the money came from the Monroe County Tourism Development Board, said media relations manager Andy Newman, who was one of the first people to take aerial photos of the sinking operation .

Additional funding came from the sale of commemorative medallions and donations from local banks, Newman said.

Regardless of the ship’s position on the ocean floor, it was now a hotspot for dive tourism, and the way it was sideways made it a unique home for the Keys’ biodiverse marine life. Instead of being a public relations disaster, the way the ship sank added to the mystique of the Spiegel Grove, said Joy Martin, who was president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce at the time.

During the Key Largo presentation this week, Martin recounted a meeting the chamber council had in the days after the ship sank.

“But, instead of a meeting where everyone was charged, everyone was coming up with solutions,” Martin said. “People all over the world were asking about the Spiegel Grove. They were following the story. It was a phenomenal time.

Hurricane Dennis is righting the ship

In July 2005, Mother Nature would do what human engineering could not accomplish. Strong currents and waves from Hurricane Dennis pushed the ship upright as the powerful storm moved east of Cuba.

Bleser said the amount of force under the sea that sent a shock wave through Key Largo was like “an underwater tsunami to the reef line.”

On the surface, however, Hurricane Dennis produced only strong gusts and tropical storm-force winds.

Newman, Slate and Bleser all received calls from a dive team that visited the wreck after the storm moved towards the Panhandle saying they believed the ship was now standing. When Slate got out and entered the water, he immediately sensed something was different.

“It was a ball of mud, so I knew something had happened,” he said.

The dive team who first noticed begged Bleser to come out and take a look for himself.

“They said, ‘If you get out of here and it’s up, we’ll buy you a case of beer.’ I said, “If I go out and find he’s up, I’ll buy you a keg,” Bleser said.

Not a beginner’s dive

As expected, the Spiegel Grove is one of the most popular dives in the world among diving enthusiasts, although the 10 people who have died exploring the wreck since its sinking testify to the fact that it is not a an adventure for novices.

It is located about six miles offshore from Key Largo, near Dixie Shoals. Diving depths vary from 60 to 130 feet, but mostly between 80 and 90 feet.

“A descent to the Spiegel Grove is not for a novice diver. Deep and aerial environments, as the Spiegel Grove story illustrates, can be dangerous,” wrote Don Rhodes, diving columnist for The Reporter, a former Miami Herald newspaper in the Keys, in 2015. “Divers must possess advanced open water, deep diver or wreck diver certification to dive the Spiegel Grove. If they don’t, many dive shops will ask to see the diver’s logbooks to review the diver’s deep dive history.

Launched in 1955, the Spiegel Grove was named after the Ohio estate of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Not only is it popular with divers, it has also become a diverse habitat for over 130 species of fish, including goliath grouper, barracuda, giant trevallies and sharks.

Biodiversity on board

Lad Akins, then executive director of a local conservation group called REEF, and now curator of marine conservation at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, was asked to assess the differences in marine life at the wreck site. before and after the ship. has sunk. About a month before, Akins dived the site.

“And, if I remember correctly, we saw two fish at this site – a barracuda and a snapper,” Akins said. “Otherwise it was just a flat, sterile bottom.”

Akins and his team also surveyed seven other adjacent sites, including deep coral rocks near Spiegel Grove, then Benwood Ledge, Red Can Ledge and Dixie Shoals Ledge and three other shallow sites.

“And those served as a reference for the wreckage. And we got good baseline data. The ship sank and we were there less than a month after the sinking,” he said. “And already 46 species of fish had appeared on the wreck. And then it progressed.

Akins also said he had seen no evidence that the artificial reef served to deplete marine life from the natural coral reef.

“What we saw was that a lot of fish were moving towards the wreckage and colonizing the wreckage. At our baseline sites, we didn’t see a noticeable decline,” Akins said. “So, even though some fish moved from the natural reef to the wreck, it was not enough to detect them. It did not damage the natural reefs, and the fish… continued to accumulate on the wreck.

Other artificial reefs

Although the Spiegel Grove remains one of the most popular dive sites in the Keys, it lost its place as the largest ship sunk intentionally as an artificial reef in May 2006, when the USS Oriskany, a carrier The 911-foot-long aircraft was shot down about 23 nautical miles off Pensacola Pass in northwest Florida.

And, in May 2009, the USNS Gen. Hoyt. The S. Vandenberg was intentionally sunk off Key West. The ship, which was used by both the navy and the air force, is 522 feet 10 inches long and 71 feet 6 inches wide.

The sinking of the Vandenberg cost a total of $8.6 million, from planning to sinking the ship, and over 10 years to plan. It rests on the bottom about 150 feet from the surface of the ocean.

Karen Berrios’ late father, William Py, and uncle, Joseph Py, served in the Navy on the Spiegel Grove in the 1980s. She received her advanced diver certification so she could one day experience diving on the ship.

Last Sunday, she helped install a plaque on the ship that bears the names of Spiegel Grove veterans, including those of her father and uncle.

“So when I came down I was just trying to imagine myself a little bit in my dad’s footsteps looking around me,” Berrios said. “Did he step in here at some point, just like I am today?”

© 2022 Miami Herald.

To visit miamiherald.com.

Distributed by Content Agency Tribune, LLC.