return to History & News

The Miami Herald

            Published Wednesday, April 11, 2001


            Preparation for Vandenberg sinking begins

            BY LISA FUSS



            The creation of a massive artificial reef off Key West is more than a year away, but the advance work involved in the $2.2 million underwater project is already under way.

 Scuba divers equipped with waterproof slates have been surveying the ocean bottom for weeks, counting fish and recording their findings as part of a comprehensive study that will be used to gauge the long-term effects of artificial reefs on the marine environment.

Numerous government agencies and bodies, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Key West City Commission, have already agreed to sink the decommissioned 1944 warship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, likely in May 2002.

The 13,000-ton ship, which is more than five football fields in length, would be the largest vessel ever intentionally scuttled for use as an artificial reef. The relic, docked in James Rivers, Va., would serve recreational fishermen and divers in 140 feet of water between Western Sambos Ecological Reserve and Sand Key.

When sunk, the vessel's superstructure is expected to reach depths of up to 50 feet, making it available to novice divers while the bottom half would provide a challenge for advanced divers. Although there's no telling what types of marine life will frequent the Vandenberg once it is submerged, marine enthusiasts say all indications point to a thrilling dive.

``Let's just say that most of the diving destinations around Key West won't even be destinations after the Vandenberg goes down,'' said Joe Weatherby, president of Artificial Reefs of the Keys and a local dive boat captain who is trying to raise another $1.5 million to sink the ship.

Volunteer divers, all recently trained in fish counting, have identified 162 different species of fish in coral and hard-bottom areas around the designated sinking site.

From unique yellow-cheeked wrasse to protected jewfish, surveyors discovered both a large and diverse population of fish in waters there as deep as 50 feet.

Marine experts plan to continue documenting fish data, as well as information about water quality and recreational usage patterns, in an effort to obtain a before-and-after snapshot of the artificial reef's impact.

Only two ships have been intentionally sunk in the sanctuary -- Ocean Freeze near Biscayne National Park and Adolphus Busch off Summerland Key. Scientists still aren't sure what, if any, effects they've had.

A third, the Spiegel Grove, is in the final scuttling stages before it can be sunk off Key Largo.

Sanctuary spokeswoman Cheva Heck was one of 34 divers who participated in the recent fish count and called her live-aboard experience -- which included 12 dives over three days -- ``an intense education.''

With a sanctuary moratorium in place preventing the sinking of any further artificial reefs, Heck contends the scientific strides being taken with the Vandenberg could help determine whether Keys divers and fishermen will have any more artificial reefs to enjoy.

``It's really unprecedented, the way they're going about gathering data before the ship has even been put down,'' Heck said.

``This is really going to allow us to look at the big picture, before the sanctuary allows any other projects to go forward,'' she added.

       © 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.  

Back Home Up

Related Links

Partner Links