Six miles off Key Largo on a warm spring morning, the skipper gives the order “divers down.”
As we step off the deck of the charter boat and slip below the surface, that hulk of massive warship suddenly comes into view. The shadowy figures of barracuda and tarpon slide across the deck as we drop down through the shafts of sunlight to the deck below.
This ship – a 510-foot U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock christened the Spiegel Grove – has been at rest in 130 feet of water for nearly a decade. The Spiegel Grove, named for the Ohio estate of President Rutherford B. Hayes, was commissioned in 1956 and served for more than 30 years before joining the nation’s Mothball Fleet.
In its heyday, the "Spiegel Beagle," as it was called by its crew, ferried troops and landing craft throughout the world during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The ship did everything from evacuate U.S. nationals from Beirut to assist with the splashdown of Apollo 14.
Today, the upper decks can be reached at a depth of about 50 feet. The superstructure is teeming with tropical fish, another reason why this wreck is so popular with underwater photographers. And while you're in the neighborhood, check out two nearby ships, the 327-foot former Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane, widely considered two of the best wreck dives in Florida. So under ideal conditions, a diver can visit all three wrecks in two days.
About 90 miles away, off the Southernmost City of Key West, you'll find the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, sunk in 140 feet of water. The 524-foot long former Navy vessel, one of the state’s most popular artificial reefs, began its career in 1943 as a troop transport ship, the Gen. Harry S. Taylor.
The “Vandy” has been on the bottom only a couple of years, but already a variety of local sea life has made a new home on the old Navy ship, giving divers a rare view at the underwater world of the Florida Keys.
Arrow crabs, many bigger than a human hand, crowd the ship's surface and stairwells. A variety of fish – including everything from sleek barracuda to giant goliath grouper – can be found from bow to stern. To date, local divers have documented 113 different species of fish on the old troop transport ship that once tracked the U.S. space program's launches off Cape Canaveral, while they eavesdropped on Russian missile launches during the Cold War.