Shipwreck Diving: The Spiegel Grove
Just last week I got back from a scuba vacation where we did a total of 12 dives in 5 days. The first 6 dives were done in two days, with a day of break in between. And that’s how we typically do scuba vacations. We dive 4 maybe 6 times in a day depending on whether we do a night dive as well. We pack the most diving in we possibly can. Zero nightlife, we we’re typically exhausted. But marine life? Hell yes.
On this vacation we had two destinations in mind, and I’ll spend the next few blog entries telling you all about them. The first stop was Key Largo, Florida. On the first day here completed 4 dives: the first two were done on shipwrecks, and then the last two were done on shallow reefs. The first wreck was the deepest one—that’s how multiple dives in one day works, you do the deepest one first and then on the next you go shallower and shallower. This has a lot to do with the amount of nitrogen your body absorbs from breathing the compressed air in your tank.
It’s NOT oxygen, folks. That’s a huge misconception among people who don’t dive. The air in your tank is normally just that: air. It’s the same exact stuff that you breathe when you’re just walking around minding your business. However, on this day we knew we would be diving a lot. As you can imagine, scuba diving is a strenuous activity. This is why on this day we opted to dive using nitrox instead of air. Nitrox is normal air that is mixed with an extra oomph of oxygen in the tank. So, while normal air contains 21% oxygen, and the rest is mostly nitrogen, nitrox can be blended to add a larger percentage of oxygen. The reason you’d dive with a higher percent of oxygen is so that less nitrogen gets absorbed by your body while you’re at depth. The other big reason is that with the added kick of oxygen, you are less fatigued after diving. So, after 4 dives you’d be completely exhausted, right? A 30% blend of oxygen, which is what we dove that day, instead of the normal 21% will help us feel less tired.
So, we strapped on our nitrox tanks and I clung to the descent line and felt the current pull my body like I was a flag on a pole on a windy day. My legs and fins streamed out behind me as I made my way, hand over hand, down the line that is tied to the Spiegel Grove. Even though the water off the Keys is much clearer than it is in Rhode Island, when it’s deep like the water is at the Spiegel Grove, you won’t see the wreck until you’re practically on top of it. And that’s how it was when I descended the line. I worked my way down, holding on so that the current wouldn’t pull me away from the wreck, until from out of the blue the bow of the ship, laying on the bottom, appeared all at once.
This was my third dive on the Spiegel. But let me tell you some cool stories about this particular wreck. Lately it’s become more of a thing to sink old navy ships and let them develop into artificial reefs for corals to latch themselves on to. You may have heard that reefs all over the world are dying due to pollution and rising water temperature in the ocean. Without the reefs, marine life doesn’t have a place to live. But also, a lot of these coral reefs prevent erosion of the shoreline as well. Dying reefs will contribute to massive devastation of marine life as well as the human livelihoods that depend on the reef as well. So, sinking old ships helps the corals have a place to grow, and fish to hide out, and contributes to the protection of the shoreline.
Many years ago, when I owned a scuba shop in Rhode Island, I went to hear a lecture about the Spiegel Grove sinking. It was intentionally sunk in that spot off of Key Largo. But it’s not as easy as just towing it out there and opening the valves and letting it sink. This was a navy ship, covered in things like lead paint, oil, grease, etc. All of that stuff had to be meticulously removed and sensibly disposed. Then they cut large holes in it, like 4 foot squares, to help it to sink (and to give nosy scuba divers like me a safe way to swim in and out to check out the inside).
The Spiegel Grove was an amphibious troop transport ship that was built in the 1950s. It was also used in goodwill missions to bring supplies to other nations in the 1960s. It was built to bring the troops right to shore, and had huge bay doors that would open in the stern of the boat to get the troops out. It was decommissioned and then sold to the State of Florida for the artificial reef project in 1998. When it was ready to sink, in 2002. In the course of the sinking she rolled over onto her starboard side and stayed that way. When I went to that lecture I saw videos taken by the first few divers to dive on the Spiegel, and they swam along the sideways ship—which was strange to see on the screen, the whole thing on its side like that. But it’s a huge ship, lying at the bottom of the sea. It’s not like you can just go down there and turn it upright like you would a ship in a bottle, right?
But then the most miraculous thing happened. Hurricane Dennis happened in 2005. When the storm came through the surge was so strong that it picked up the Spiegel Grove as she was lying on her side and righted her. And now she sits upright on the ocean floor. Now, this is no bathtub toy. She’s 510 feet long! A football field and a half in length! And she’s 80 feet across at her widest point and sitting at 130 feet below the surface. The deck of the boat falls at 45 feet, just to give you a sense of how massive this ship is. The height of this ship is 84 feet. This picture really doesn't do it justice. It's massive.
When we dove on it, we went to 80-something feet. We swam through the wheel house, where we all stood at the helm and imagined what it must have been like to pilot that beast of a boat. We swam through a few of the larger holes, where we were able to see our way out as we entered. That’s the thing about shipwrecks—if you aren’t certified to dive a wreck, which I am not, then you don’t go in and fool around. It’s far too easy to get lost and end up in trouble at 100 feet below the surface. The four of us had all agreed before we hit the water that this would be the plan, and the rule is you plan the dive and dive the plan.
This isn't any of us, but this is what it looks like when you enter the wheel house.
This is a map of the dive site, so you can get a sense of how deep and how large this site is.
In terms of marine life, I will tell you that I am terrible at identifying fish. But I know I saw some barracudas, some groupers and a few parrot fish. The main attraction is getting to see the ship, even if it is starting to get encrusted with corals already.
A dive to that depth is kept short. With increased water pressure at depth, and with the strong current on that day, it takes more energy to swim around and more energy spent means more air from the tank breathed out. We barely covered a quarter of the wreck before we had to turn around and make our way to the ascent line.
We grabbed on and traveled hand over hand to the surface and made our safety stop at 15 feet. We popped up from the surface and made our way to the back of the boat so that we could climb back aboard. We stayed at 15 feet for 3 minutes to acclimate to the decreased pressure and to expel some of the nitrogen absorbed into our bodies.
We hit another wreck that was in shallower water. This particular wreck was Benwood, which got into a wreck with another ship during WWII. There was a blackout imposed due to rumors of German U Boats in the area. So, both of the ships didn’t see each other, and the Benwood was destroyed in the crash. It much smaller than the Spiegel Grove, at 310 feet. This was largely a debris field, as a result of it being blown up. But there were still large portions that were intact that the fish could hide underneath. We saw more parrot fish.
After the wrecks, we went to French Reef and then Molasses Reef. These were very chill dives, with tons of busy wildlife swimming around and snacking on the reef.
Overall an awesome day of diving, but exhausting. The next day we’d head over to the Coral Restoration Foundation to volunteer and help transplant pieces of stag horn coral in an effort to revitalize the reef.
added on 08.14.17