When it begins its final tour of duty as an artificial reef, the 523-foot-long Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg will rest on the ocean bottom approximately six miles south of Key West, entrancing divers with its awesome size and distinguished military history.
Plans call for the vessel, locally nicknamed the Vandy, to be sunk by early summer 2009 in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Forty-eight hours after deployment and clearance dives are completed, recreational scuba divers can take the plunge — and begin to discover the world’s second-largest ship ever scuttled to create an artificial reef.
Like other structures used for artificial reefs — airplanes, buses and even bridge rubble — the gigantic ship will attract scads of marine life. Invertebrates and plants will attach and colonize almost immediately, and within six months the wreck could easily be covered. Mobile invertebrates and reef fish will then arrive to help grow the food chain.
Once positioned on the bottom, the upright wreck will measure 10 stories high in the water column. The keel is to rest at 140 feet, yet portions of the ship will come up to within 40 to 50 feet of the surface.
Because Florida Keys waters generally offer excellent visibility, glass bottom boat passengers and snorkelers should be to see the top of the structure, its mast and crow’s nest.
A dozen or more dive points in the same area will interest novice and seasoned recreational divers, while deeper areas will beckon advanced and even technical divers. At about 100-plus feet, properly trained and equipped advanced divers will be able swim a full 475 feet along the starboard section of Deck 1.
For many people — divers and non-divers alike — the Vandy’s place in history is as fascinating as its size and structure.
The ship wasn’t originally called the Vandenberg at all. Launched in 1943, it was a U.S. Army troop transport dubbed the Gen. Harry Taylor. It wasn’t renamed the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg until almost 20 years later.
As the Vandenberg, it tracked U.S. space launches off Cape Canaveral, served in the Pacific monitoring U.S. defense missile test launches — and even “eavesdropped” on Russian missile launches during the Cold War.
The Vandy was formally retired in 1983 and transferred to Virginia’s James River Naval Reserve Fleet, but that wasn’t the end of the vessel’s venerable career.
In fact, a starring role awaited it. Temporarily assuming a new nationality, the Vandenberg was cast as a Russian science ship in “Virus,” a 1999 film featuring Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland. Some of the Russian lettering painted on the Vandy for its screen debut is still visible.
Today, rusty and dilapidated though it might be, the vessel is poised for one more major “assignment.” After more than a dozen years of planning, fundraising and extensive cleaning to remove pollutants, the Vandy was towed 1,100 miles from Norfolk, Va., to Key West. Temporarily docked at the island city’s Truman Waterfront, it’s now undergoing final preparations for sinking.
“Not only will it be the second-largest ship in the world ever intentionally sunk to become an artificial reef, but it is of huge historical significance,” said Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson before the Vandenberg’s arrival in the island city. “It will become the southernmost underwater museum on the historic trail of intentionally sunken ships off the Florida Keys.”
Naturally, dive operators throughout the Keys are eagerly anticipating the day they can show off the Vandy to their adventure-seeking customers.
Want to book one of the first Vandenberg dives? Then visit www.fla-keys.com/diving/ for Florida Keys diving tips and contact information for top local dive operators.