Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

The USS Vandenberg: The World’s Coolest Shipwreck

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It was one of the roughest trips out on a dive boat I’ve ever taken, but it was totally worth it. Every single nauseating second.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

While visiting Key West in November, SVV and I booked a two-tank dive with Lost Reef Adventures to check out the USS Vandenberg, the world’s second largest artificial reef (the first is in Pensacola) and the largest recreational wreck dive.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Leading up to dive day, it sounded like a good idea, but when I woke up at 6am on the final day of our vacation, I was having second thoughts. Instead of spending the better part of the day wiggling in and out of a too-small piece of Neoprene, I could work on my tan. Hmm, that option sounded tempting.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Luckily, I tucked that thought away in the back of my mind, and we went anyway because I’m anything but a last-minute canceler.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

This was another dive in which we were both required to have our advanced open water—a certification that only I have—or hire a guide, so we did just that (and were glad to have someone to show us the ropes). Enter: Captain Chris. Otherwise known as diving bad ass and navigational rock star. Deep dives are dangerous, so having someone with you or dive insurance like DAN is always wise before attempting sites at such depths like the Vandenberg.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

I’ve never felt so prepared for a dive as I did with Chris, Captain Adam and Patrick as our noble leaders; they told us everything we needed to know (and possibly more) on the 45-minute, six-mile trip out to the dive site. On our last dive in Key Largo, the team from the resort was only so-so, and knowing what you’re going to encounter as well as having a great group of people with whom to joke around with on the way there and back and in between—and who don’t make fun of you when you puke your brains out for a solid 10 minutes—are invaluable to the experience.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Right. About the puking. That was unexpected; I hadn’t gotten seasick in quite a few years. In fact, three years ago on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, I spent much of that hour and a half paying homage to the porcelain gods, then managed to sail around the world for four months without a single incident. This time was different; I knew immediately with the large swells and the nature of the boat that I wasn’t going to escape unscathed. I even took Bonine before heading out, but that stuff rarely does anything for me. While I was feeling nauseous much of the ride, I made it there and below the surface without an incident. It wasn’t until the hour-long surface interval when my breakfast decided to surface, too.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Honestly, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to hack it. I was afraid of vomiting underwater in my regulator and almost didn’t get in. Then I realized the half an hour for each dive would be better spent under the water than braving the swells above. So dive I did.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

And after a few minutes and sinking 90 feet or so, I was feeling fine (well, better than I had been before at least). It’s funny how being submersed in an alternate universe will do that to you. When we arrived, our trio of dive leaders checked the conditions and said we were in a rare position at the Vandenberg: There was no current and visibility exceeded 60 feet, an unheard of combination at this site. So though luck above the surface hadn’t been on my side, below it definitely was.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Much of the Vandenberg dive is between 50 and 120 feet, though the keel rests at a bottom depth of 140. The ship was purposely sunk—a common occurrence in an effort to create artificial reefs and also preserve history—in 2009 after decades worth of planning and preparation. During her glory days atop the sea, the Vandenberg used to track missile and also space launches off Cape Canaveral. Here’s a really cool video of the ship sinking in real time. And while the ship is now awash in colorful corals, sinister moray eels, and schooling fish, large and small, it’s really the details and intricacies of the ex-military vessel that makes this such a cool, can’t-miss site.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

I couldn’t believe the sheer size of the ship until I was down there; it’s 523 feet long and 11 stories tall. Most divers do a double-dip at the Vandenberg since you only have a mere half an hour of bottom time and you need a lot more than that to cover the length of this gargantuan beast.

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Vandenberg wreck dive, Key West, Florida

Captain Adam had told us the Vandenberg would become the litmus test for which we judged all future dives. I was skeptical. To be honest, I have dove plenty of wrecks before, and while it’s always fun channeling Ariel and flitting in and out of the ship’s many compartments, very rarely have I been completely blown away by a wreck dive. Well, I’m eating a piece of humble pie, because Captain Adam was right: The Vandenberg was an indescribable experience, and one I would repeat in a heartbeat—rough swells and all.

Have you ever been so sick you almost didn’t dive? Then bit the bullet, did it anyway and were blown away by the experience?

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COMMENTS
  • January 20, 2014

    Awesome report! I’m still a diving virgin, but stories (and photos!) like this are pushing me to explore the underwater world. Cheers!

    • January 20, 2014

      We need to get you diving! AND we need to do another Caribbean jaunt together one of these days 😉

  • January 20, 2014

    Ho crap, I would’ve been terrified—both for the vomiting in the tube and… for some reason, underwater wrecks/underwater scare me a bit.

    • January 20, 2014

      I don’t blame you—there’s something very eerie about them. Even looking for footage of the Vandenberg online AFTER I had already done the dive had me on edge. Then again, I’m a bit terrified of the ocean in general 😉

  • January 20, 2014

    Wow, this makes me a little sea sick just thinking about it! But it looks awesome! Still need my dive certificate and then I can pump myself up to do this.

  • January 21, 2014

    wow this was really interesting. My boyfriend builds artificial reefs and & actually right now we have a handful of kiwis staying with us that are working 12 hour NIGHT shifts digging out the river princess (a ship) here in Goa that is doing the exact opposite- causing beach erosion- so all I’ve been hearing about it shipwrecks and reefs for the last month! they only have like 3 meters of visibility at night ( I think- does that sound right?) apparently it’s horrible. They use all that electrical equipment down there cutting the ship apart piece by piece and stay down 3 hours. I’m sure you guys would all have tons to talk about! Some think that because of the ships’ history they wont get it out. it was a pirate ship and tons of people died on it.

    • January 21, 2014

      That is SO cool. I’ve never known anyone who does that! Will you get him to guest blog all about it on your site? I’d be so interested to hear all the steps involved (and at night…yikes! night diving terrifies me).

      • January 21, 2014

        I second that! I’d love to read about that process. And Kristin, yay for diving posts!

      • January 22, 2014

        Good Idea! I’ll ask the guys some interview questions! It’ll be hard though- you know how kiwis are, either working or drunk ! lol the wild ones

  • January 21, 2014

    This looks sooo cool! Love your photos too – it’s rare to see actually impressive photography underwater, ha.

    • January 21, 2014

      Thank you! You’re very kind. Underwater photography is tricky with all the sediment and difficulty focusing; we’re just lucky we had decent vis that day.

  • January 21, 2014

    This is awesome!! The biggest wreck we have here is 320 ft and seven stories, I would love to see something bigger like this. Surface intervals on the boat are the worst – that’s why people love diving with me here, all one tankers and back to the shop between dives as it’s only a 5-15 min ride to the sites! Good for you for working through it 🙂 (and dive instructor tip – you can totally puke in a reg. Not that I’ve done it incredibly hungover or anything. Just press the purge button!!)

  • January 21, 2014

    This post woke something up in me (again). It’s been almost a year since a dived, as I’ve focused my attention on other things lately. Damnit I miss it. That weightless feeling of beautiful nothingness. There’s something to wrecks , like the one above, so gigantic and sad, majestic, man made creatures on the bottom of the ocean, that causes one to think how small we are. Something only a diver in the deep blue can experience. Great post, and thanks for sharing.

  • January 22, 2014

    Wow! Talk about unforgettable holiday memories! I wish I can be as brave as you and do the same one day, it sounds and looks unbelievable :O

  • January 22, 2014

    You’re making me regret not diving the Vandenberg when I was in the Keys! But, the current and visibility were really bad when I was there and according to the dive shop I would have had no fun at all. I’ll go back when I get my advanced one day. Ugh there is nothing worse than being on the boat and not moving – you can’t escape the constant rocking. I’m so terrified of puking into my regulator!

  • January 22, 2014

    That sounds (and looks!) like so much fun! Is it something you’d consider hiring a guide for again even if you did both have the advanced certification?

  • January 23, 2014

    What a cool experience. I have such anxiety though — if I even thought for a moment I would get sick underwater, I would have bailed. Glad you were able to power through it and explore!

  • January 23, 2014

    Good job at fighting through that bit of resistance … it paid off with an excellent dive … wicked pictures!

  • January 23, 2014

    I admire you for your courage to face your fears, it’s incredible how many things we miss because of our thoughts or prejudices. Congrats!

  • January 23, 2014

    What a fantastic adventure! I wish I could go scuba diving, but i’m too claustrophobic! 🙂

  • January 24, 2014

    We’re a variety of volunteers and also starting off a brand new program within our area. Your site provided us valuable facts to your workplace in. You could have executed any strong task in addition to all of our full community will likely be happy to your account.

  • January 24, 2014
    Haidang

    KL- you are such a badass! great pics. i threw up in the great barrier- did NOT think i was since i am not the one to get sea sick. but this shows us that we are ..after all.. human beings.

  • January 24, 2014

    Wow!! Reminded me of Finding Nemo 🙂

  • January 24, 2014

    I get seasick, so I’m always concerned about that on dive trips. I’m lucky that I’ve never actually gotten sick — just felt completely terrible — so I’ve definitely made the decision that I would probably feel better underwater than sitting in the boat. Glad I’m not the only one!

  • January 25, 2014
    Sonia

    Love this! Wreck dives are by far my favorite. The creepier the better. The eeriness and quiet are comforting but the descent down to the wreck and the worst because it just appears out of the darkness. That’s the most unsettling.

  • January 26, 2014

    This is awesome! It looks like so much fun. I’m going snorkeling for the first time this March and I’m pumped. Definitely keeping this in mind for a future diving trip.

  • January 26, 2014

    wonderful pics i also love diving thanks for it.
    Puerto Rico Blogger

  • January 27, 2014

    any dead bodies?!

  • January 29, 2014

    WOW! I have never been on a dive but after reading your post, seeing the photos and watching the video, I really REALLY wanna go too! So cool! I wouldn’t even mind puking a few times over the side just for the chance to experience that. VERY cool.

  • January 30, 2014

    I get seasick, and and travel sick too. It’s weird because as a kid I’d sit in the backseat reading a book while we went on a two hour drive but it seems to have gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. In the Great Barrier Reef I was incredibly seasick, and then got so badly sunburned I had sunstroke but still dived anyway!

    Amazing photos, looks like an incredible experience!

  • January 30, 2014

    This was a great post! I loved all the pictures!

  • January 31, 2014

    Glad you had great conditions underwater on the Vandenberg! I actually had a pretty similar experience with the conditions. I got super seasick on the last stretch of the trip out and on the surface started throwing up, I ended up chickening out because I was so sick for the first dive. Luckily it calmed down a bit while everyone was under and on the surface interval, but I still was fighting it a bit when it was time to go under for the 2nd dive. I jumped in and immediately dropped down to the safety stop line at 20 feet, and the seasickness cleared right away and I was able to enjoy the dive! It’s amazing how as soon as you get out of the surface swells, how quickly you feel better! It really is a beautiful wreck and so huge!

  • February 1, 2014

    I’m so sad. We’re advanced certified but I’m about 90% positive I get migraines from barometric changes. I can dive but the moment I go under 50 feet or so, I crazy migraine hits me. SO BAD.

  • February 4, 2014

    It is true that wreck diving is one amazing experience. Never on earth do you get to “fly” over some monument, well underwater you can ! Float around a shipwreck or even just above a coral reef ! What a feeling !

  • February 5, 2014

    Wow, that really is a cool ship wreck and those are quite some amazing photos you took there, Kristin. I am glad that you gave up on your tempting tanning idea, made it into the tiny neoprene and even overcame your sickness to bring these images to us. The Vandenberg really seems to be quite a sight and for a ship that has been sunk so recently, it’s simply amazing to see how quickly nature reclaims its property. Too bad I am not a diver, but luckily I get to experience this part of the world through you… 🙂

  • February 7, 2014

    Amazing pictures! I haven’t been diving in quite some time but this makes me want to go again. Thanks for sharing!

  • February 8, 2014

    The morning two-tank Key West dive trips are great because when conditions permit they include a reef dive and a wreck dive rolled into one trip. The 500-foot long USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg served as a troop transport and missile-tracking vessel. When the ship was decommissioned, Joe Weatherby, one of the Key West dive captains, led a successful campaign to have the Vandenberg stripped and sunk as an artificial reef and dive site. In place since May 27, 2009, the Vandenberg is the largest wreck in the Keys, and has already become home to hundreds of species of fish, corals, and other marine life forms.

  • May 11, 2014

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